Shapur Kotwal on how Mitsubishi plans to take on the competition with Pajero Sport

Mitsubishi hasn't done as well as it could have in India and so it's easy to forget how impressive the company is with SUVs. Sure, the Japanese company makes some very capable compacts, saloons, and sports cars, and some of them are exceptional too, but it's the SUVs that get special attention at Mitsubishi. They are thoroughly engineered, the company's knowledge base on off-roaders is second to none and Mitsubishi is hungry for success.

So hungry, in fact, that its designers have lifted the nose section of the Pajero Sport right off the Pajero Evo rally car. The grille and headlights are aligned in a single narrow band, the massive wheel arches on either side provide plenty of excitement and the gaping chasm below the bumper gives the SUV a tough, purposeful look. The cabin gets tighter and tapers towards the rear, the taillights are attractive and the Sport sits so high on its springs, it looks like it's been given an aftermarket suspension job. Overall proportions, however, aren't great, as the stubby nose and large cabin don't exactly gel.

The dash is beautifully designed, good use has been made of the numerous textures and colours, and the quality of some of the bits is surprisingly good as well. Both the driver and passenger get powered seats, thigh and back support are good up front and there's even plenty of legroom for tall passengers in the second row. Those sitting in this row can also adjust the angle of the backrest, their thighs are well-supported and visibility from the back is pretty good too. The Sport does feel a bit narrow, which means three cannot sit in comfort. And while access to the third row is relatively easy and the middle-row seats flip beautifully upon pulling a lever, the space in the rear is only really useable by children.

The Pajero Sport's 2.5-litre diesel may be smaller than its competitors, but what it loses in capacity it more than makes up for in specific output. Its 176bhp is very similar to the 168bhp put out by the Toyota Fortuner's larger 3.0-litre engine and acceleration and performance are pretty similar as well. The Mitsubishi's variable-geometry turbo has been tuned with performance in mind and after a small amount of vibration and some initial lag, power is delivered in a strong and steady stream all the way from 1800 to 4500rpm. The engine feels very smooth in the mid-range, there is considerable punch when you keep your foot pinned down, and after 100kph the Sport pulls away from its rivals with effortless ease. The engine is also particularly effective on the highway. As long as you are somewhere in the mid-range, there's always plenty of punch available for overtaking. And because the motor always seems to have more to give, performance really does feel quite effortless. This is clearly Mitsubishi's best diesel engine yet. What's also impressive is the integration of the gearbox, the short gearing masking a bit of the turbo lag.

With so much daylight between the wheels and the wheel arches, the Pajero rides well on its tall springs. You can drive the Sport through some of the largest craters around and the suspension will take it in its stride. Come to think of it, this would be an ideal car in which to tackle long stretches of broken tarmac, the rubber-footed suspension just soaking everything up. Stability at speed is surprisingly good too. It feels perfectly calm and composed, even at triple-digit speeds, small directional changes are executed with little vagueness or lag, and the well-weighted brakes allow you to bleed speed in a drama-free manner. Also impressive is the steering. It does feel a bit weighty at parking speeds, but as soon as you are up and running, the feel and feedback are exactly what you want. But while the Sport does have a reasonable amount of grip in corners and the feedback from the steering is good, it feels too top-heavy to corner with confidence. It's the tall, off-road suspension set-up that's to blame. So the best way to tackle corners is to slow right down, gently tip the car in, and allow it to follow a smooth line out.

Then, importantly, it's priced at Rs. 23.5 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), which is approximately Rs. 2.5 lakh more than the Toyota Fortuner, which means it is a contender, but a pricey one. Its handling may not be anywhere as sharp as we'd hoped and it can't be bought with an automatic yet, but looked at as an overall package, it's impressive enough to take on the best in its class. Mitsubishi and the once popular Pajero sure have come a long way.