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CAPE TOWN – If you're in the market for a bakkie-based SUV, then you currently have three main choices: the Toyota Fortuner (Hilux-derived), Ford Everest (Ranger-derived) and now also the new Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (Triton-derived). Last mentioned may just have a trick up its sleeve to win the predictable arguments around the braai. It all has to do with the number eight…

The concept

South African families love bakkie-based SUVs. They offer vast interior space (with a seven-seat layout), rugged off-road potential and all the mod-cons expected of a luxury vehicle. The macho appeal and street cred certainly don't hurt either. The fact that this type of vehicle is less suited to the school run than a typical crossover is of little concern to buyers seeking one vehicle to "do it all".

Styling

Where the Triton bakkie’s styling is still divisive, the Pajero Sport front design has no such concerns – it appears modern, upmarket and purposeful. The rear styling is slightly less cohesive, but subjectively, it is still a good looking vehicle. The fact that the silhouette reminds one of the Fortuner may not be a bad thing, either.

Interior

Inside, the facia is very much Triton-inspired and a big improvement over the previous iteration. The centre console is slightly raised and houses the transmission shift lever and rotary dial to select between the two- and various four-wheel-drive modes (2H, 4H, 4HLc and 4LLc). The leather seats are comfortable and there is plenty of legroom in the second row. The third row is best suited to children, but it folds neatly away in the boot when not in use.

Proper all-terrain powertrain

Under the bonnet is the new 2,4-litre turbodiesel delivering 133 kW and 430 N.m; an engine that also impressed us in the Triton bakkie. In this case, though, it is fitted to an Aisin-sourced, eight-speed automatic transmission. Interestingly, it not the same unit found in the Volkswagen Amarok (that model uses a ZF-sourced gearbox), but is actually shared with the German firm’s outgoing Touareg. This is telling, but more about the transmission later.

The centre differential of the selectable four-wheel-drive system is now a Torsen unit and the low-range transfer ratio is increased compared to that of the previous Pajero Sport. A rear differential lock is standard and magnetically rather than vacuum-activated. The powertrain therefore promises proper off-road potential.

How does it go?

Our brief on-road experience en route to the Atlantis Dunes outside Cape Town showed that the ride is comfortable on both tar and gravel, although the bakkie roots are still obvious. The engine – combined with the slick-shifting, eight-speed transmission – is a revelation, however, and provides smooth but confident progress with the right gear selected for virtually every situation. Still, we will reserve judgment on the Pajero Sport's on-road behaviour until we conduct a full road test.

And off-road?

Tyre pressures were lowered to 0,8 bar and four-wheel-drive in high-range with centre differential lock (4HLc) was selected. The new drive mode switch allows the selection of various surface programmes with accompanying changes in the electronic stability control, engine and transmission mappings. With the Sand mode selected, it was possible to complete all obstacles with ease and I was surprised that the programme allowed enough wheel slip and power not to get the vehicle stuck. It is therefore not necessary to deactivate all electronic systems as is usually the case in sand.

The hill-descent control was equally impressive as the speed can be adjusted on the fly by either braking or accelerating before releasing the pedals. This is more intuitive than adjusting the speed via other means (for example, using the cruise control buttons).

The wide range of the eight-speed gearbox meant that high-range was perfectly fine for the sand with first gear quite low. It is good to know that low-range results in one of the lowest first gear ratios that should make rock-crawling a cinch (something untested on this occasion).

Conclusion

Mitsubishi might just have a winner on its hands as the new Pajero Sport offers distinctive styling, vast interior space with a neatly packaged, seven-seat arrangement and one of the most impressive powertrains in the segment. The fact that it is available at a competitive price (under R600 000) and with a five-year/90 000 km service plan should make the Mitsubishi salesperson's job that much easier...

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