On the weekend of the announcement of the imminent demise of the Pajero, it seemed a bit poignant to be out testing the Pajero Sport that will inherit the title of King of the Mitsubishi SUV Range.

It’s not quite a full-size four-wheel drive in today’s terms, but it is bigger than the original Pajero it has now supplanted, and way bigger than the mid-sizers that now almost dominate NZs ‘passenger car’ fleet, including its Outlander stable-mate.

With the Pajero having been dropped from the Japanese domestic market, the news of the closure of its Pajero manufacturing plant shouldn’t have really come as a surprise.

The Sport may share a name with the big truck, but that’s about all the two have in common. The smaller Sport, like many of its market competitors, is based on a ute frame, being built over Mitsi’s well-sorted Triton, and shares most of the utes ‘Transformer’ styling.

It’s a bit tougher, squatter, and squarer looking than the Triton, and has a frontal presence that really grabs attention in a way the previous model didn’t quite. The stack of lights right down each side of the signature ‘Dynamic Shield’ grille makes a bigger difference than you would think.

The Sport has been nipped and tucked a bit to address some of the perceived flaws in the previous model, the new front accompanied by a go-over of the rear end, especially those controversial taillights. The front-end tweaking hasn’t altered the approach angle, and ramp over and departure remain the same. Ok, the departure is 0.2 degrees better!

This may not mean much to the majority of the population, but for those of us interested in its off-roading ability, it’s yet another plus.

Inside, well it’s a VRX Mitsubishi, so it’s really well done. Black, leather, chrome, and brushed alloy. Nice!

The big multi-media screen in the centre console competes for dominance with the centre console that houses the Trans Shifter, 4WD Controls, cup holders etc. The screen has all the usual media, and phone connectivity, and works precisely as it should, maybe the sound system could be up for a bit of an upgrade, but it’s way more than just OK.

The ‘story and a half’ console certainly makes you feel very cocooned in your front seat compartment, but never cramped, with lots of legroom down in the front well. A neat touch is the ‘basement’ level tray under the main surface of the console. It’s not that convenient to access but provides a fair bit of extra storage for “out of sight” security.

Front and rear cameras and proximity sensors have been supplemented by ‘surround view’ cameras that let you know what you are going to hit, and what you are going to hit it with well in advance. Superb in town, and navigating tight bush tracks. The warning sensors can be silenced when you’re in the tight stuff, where they would drive everyone on board crazy, very quickly!

Much has been made of the Aisin 8-speed auto in the new Sport, and we could see why.

It’s not quite what you would expect. Rather than close up the ratios, the new trans starts with a much lower first and second, and a higher top to increase initial launch and acceleration, and keep it going, with reduced top-end engine revs.

Sunday afternoon driving, it’s very silky, but gets a bit severe with the go pedal, and the first couple of shifts become short and sharp, just to let you know its slightly displeased with the treatment.

Mitsi touts the Sport as being ‘all things to all people’, and it damn near makes it. It’s a big ask, so let’s have a look at how it handles what we did ask of it. Especially in the rough stuff.

The 2.4 Turbo Diesel, at 135Kw and 437Nm, isn’t exactly a fire-breather, but even pushing the 2080kg Sport, it gets you up and going quite satisfactorily. The Torque Band and the Transmission ratios seem to have a nice conservation going on.

Front end suspension uses independent wishbones and coils, rear has a 3 link setup, also with coils. Front and rear both have sway/stabiliser bars that can’t be disconnected.

Around town, it is absolutely an SUV, though not obviously a ute based one. It’s big and doesn’t fit car parks very well, but the ‘turn on a dime’ steering helps a lot. It gets a bit upset by bad city streets, transmitting harsh bits through to the cabin. Mind you the luxuriousness of the interior environment does a lot to mitigate that. It’s never overwhelming.

Our test drive took us from the Tauranga Expressway, down SH2, and along the coast to Matata, through the sand dunes on the fishermans track to Thornton Beach. Then we headed onto the back roads through the Rotoma Ranges on Manawahe Road, to the challenging 4WD only track down to the beach at Otumarokura Bay on Lake Rotoma.

So how did it go?

I have to admit, we didn’t really like it much at speed. It’s not that it wallows, or wanders, or anything like that, It’s more that it floats. It feels like the rebound damping on the shock absorbers is a bit light, so the ride is nicely controlled when the vehicle hits a bump in the road, but it is then allowed to ride up over it a bit too easily.

At 110km on the expressway, it is noticeably outside its comfort zone. Not dangerous, not unpleasant, just ‘there’.

This impression disappears as soon as the road gets a bit rougher, a bit slower, more rural. The Pajero Sport definitely has a ‘sweet spot’. Or maybe a few actually!

Before we get to back road performance, let’s talk about the sand. Western BOP beaches are silver sand, coarse silver sand, soft coarse silver sand! You don’t cruise down them like on 90-mile beach, or Himitangi, you plough through them, they are hard work!

The track along the beach from Matata to Thornton is all of these. Mostly it’s just two soft sandy wheel ruts through low scrub and bushes. With softer sections! At times these tracks have been cut up by horse hooves, just adding to the fun. It feels a bit like the Canning Stock Route – in miniature. The Pajero just are it up!!

Unlike most traditional part-time 4WD systems, the Pajero Sports’ Super Select 4WD II has four modes – 2H. 4H, 4HLc, and 4LLc. Both 2H and 4H can be used on high traction roads, with 4H using a hydraulic centre diff to provide 33/66 torque split front to rear, till slip is detected, at which time the axle with most traction gets allocated most of the power.

As with a normal true 4wd set-up, 4HLc and 4LLc mechanically lock the centre diff for an optimal 50/50 front-rear torque split for off-roading.

That part is not new, or exclusive, but Super Select 4WD II is actually a lot more than just that. The highlight is Mitsubishi’s Off-road Mode, with the driver able to select between a series of settings designed to cope best with the terrain. This feature is also found in the Triton.

Depending on the mode selected, the distribution of torque and sensitivity of the traction control is adjusted for optimal traction. On some surfaces like mud, it’s better to relax the traction control to allow for more slip. On rocks, however, it’s better to tighten the traction control.

All this is activated by a switch next to the 4wd Selector, with selections displayed on the Dash. It’s tidy, it’s easy, and it works.

Select 4HLc! High 4, Centre Diff Lock, Sand Mode – click, click, click, and the Sport made no game of the challenge. A bit of speed to smooth out the corrugations, and it was effortless – I reckon it would have towed the caravan through there – maybe that’s as close as we’ll get to another Aussie trip for awhile.

Emerging back onto the highway at Thornton Beach, we struck off inland through Edgecumbe and Awakaponga onto Manawahe Road. Its tight, hilly, rough tar seal. We had already decided the Pajero was ‘actually pretty good’ by the time we started this bit, and from there it just grew on us.

Along with most of the upper-end 4WDs, the Sport has one big failing! It’s too damn good for its own good! With its ride, stability, and quietness, you regularly find yourself going much faster than you realise, and the next 35km corner comes as a bit of a shock!

The Sports copes well, often better than its passengers, but you do have to be aware of it. Once you come to grips with it, it’s great!

From the intersection with Matahi Road, Manawahe Road becomes gravel. Narrow, winding, and incredibly scenic, Colin McRae famously rated it as the best rally road in the world. I’m not sure anyone argued with him.

High 4, sand, no centre Diff lock – click, click, click – and progress continues as before. The Pajero Sport is a superb way to enjoy this wild country we have surrounding us in the BOP. Just past the entrance to the seriously cut up (think Winch Truck ) Porters Road, a short sharp track drops down to the beach on the back of Lake Rotoma.

This is proper 4WD stuff. We have had to winch people out of there at times.

4LLc! Low 4WD, Centre Lock, Sand – click, click, click – let’s do this!

OK, that was easy, let’s do it again! Apart from one severe ‘step up’ the Sport treated it like a walk in the park. We had been pretty impressed so far, now we were hooked! We always expected the Pajero to climb out. We didn’t expect it to do it so easily.

One Australian road test saw a fully laden Sport easily climb the Simpson Deserts fearsome ‘Big Red’ sand dune, much to the dismay of the assembled ‘tuff truck’ spectators.

The step-up required a slight realignment and a bit of momentum and up it came. Apparently, we should have tried the ‘Rock setting’, but it was just easy anyway! Road tyres, road pressure, electronic traction aids in full cry, and up we cruised.

Most reviews I have read dismiss the Pajero’s superb off-road ability as irrelevant. “It will only be used as a pick-up vehicle for the city school run” is the usual judgement.

I beg to differ. As its prowess becomes more widely known, and its already competitive price drops, as used ones enter the market, I reckon we are going to see them appear on safaris, station tours, and shiny club trips. Its not just for its off-road ability either.

When we drove the Eclipse we commented on the fact it didn’t throw water all over the windscreen. Even at speed. The Pajero Sport is the same, the screen stays clean! It’s not a coincidence, its a design feature built into the new front panels. It works, and it’s brilliant.

Standard equipment includes a 150W, 240V inverter built into the centre console, and there is an awesome ‘Bits Tray’ under the floor covering right at the back in the luggage area.

You definitely get the impression that there has been a deal of thought gone into making the Pajero Sport ready.

And for that reason, I’d love to see it arrive here with a proper rear diff lock option. Like they get in Aussie. Where Mitsi admit they want the Pajero Sport to go off-road!

I’d love to have a go in one fitted with a diff lock and wearing a set of muddies!

Bye Pajero, its been nice knowing you. ‘Well hello’ Pajero Sport!

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