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The new 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander is neither the most visually distinctive nor the best-performing mid-size crossover, but it's a perfect example of where the Japanese carmaker is headed: into the heart of the market with comfortable and efficient vehicles. No more bold personality or high-performance image. This utility vehicle is meant to appeal directly to families in one of the fastest-growing vehicle segments, and it's competitive in a way that Mitsubishi simply hasn't been to date.

Just put the new model next to its 2013 predecessor, and the message is clear. The outgoing Outlander sported a blunt, shark-nosed front end, a wedgy silhouette, and interior fittings with a distinct performance tinge--channeling some of its Evo sport sedan character into what would likely be used as a suburban hauler.

Now, Mitsubishi shows off simplicity and practicality in its new and more restrained look. Without the bulbous front-end styling and unfocused exterior look, we’d call it elegant (it is, in profile), but it’s not a sporty look, with its smooth sheetmetal and single beltline crease. Inside, ‘simple’ is also the way to describe the look of the rather low-set instrument panel. There aren’t a lot of buttons, and the layout and trims are modest but tasteful.

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Now Mitsubishi may aspire to reach more value-minded families with the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander, but it'll need to be those who aren't all that interested in fashion-forward design. Driving enjoyment, too, is no longer as much of a priority. The former Outlander was also, we dare say, a better drive. Although heavy, especially in top GT form, this former version was tuned (deceptively) for the back roads.

The 2014 Outlander may be more nimble, thanks to an aggressive weight-loss plan in the structure that includes more high-tensile steel; and it might be a bit faster, by the numbers. But with a softer suspension and other changes aimed at refinement, it's not more fun to drive. If you know the likes of the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4, the driving experience for the Outlander is fully competitive, if not a bit more refined. A base 2.4-liter four-cylinder now includes variable valve lift as well as timing, making 166 hp and feeling quite perky and at ease with the continuously variable automatic transmission. GT models pack a 224-hp V-6 that’s disappointing in that it’s considerably thirstier, asks for premium fuel, and doesn’t develop all that much torque until you rev it. The paddle-shifters and six-speed automatic spice up the driving experience a bit, though.

On the plus side, Mitsubishi has put a lot of effort into aerodynamics this time; there’s a seven-percent reduction in the coefficient of drag (now a low 0.33) and things like roof grooves and a top rear spoiler help smooth airflow at highway speeds. In its Eco Mode, the Outlander reverts to sending all power to the front wheels unless needed for traction. The payoff: Both ES and SE models with the CVT and front-wheel drive earn a rating of 25 mpg city, 31 highway—numbers that according to Mitsubishi are best-in-class among seven-passenger vehicles.

Mitsubishi has also gone to a new electric power steering system, redesigned the rear-suspension geometry, and gone to somewhat softer springs—plus loads more noise insulation—so the cabin feels tight and quiet, though there’s a bit more roll and body motion than we remember from the previous version. Again it’s about par for the class, unless you’re looking at the sportier entries like the Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5. One thing the Outlander does have is enough toughness for minor off-roading or deep snow; the AWD system that’s offered on mid-grade ES and sporty GT models includes a front e-diff and a ocking center diff but no low range

Inside, the Outlander is well above par in almost every respect, compared to other roomy compact crossovers. As one of the lowest-priced vehicles offering three rows of seating, the Outlander can fit up to seven and includes a good driving position (with tilt/telescopic steering) and good headroom and legroom for adults in the second row. It’s also one of the most compact three-row vehicles, though, so think of that third row only as a backup plan for carpool duty. That said, the seats fold flat, the cargo floor is rather low, and the second row slides fore and aft to fine-tune legroom. However, at a time when almost every model tries to emulate luxury models, the Outlander cabin isn’t going above and beyond in design or materials, but it does feel warm and accommodating.

Firsts for Mitsubishi in the Outlander include Adaptive Cruise Control (with three distance settings), Lane Departure Warning, and a Forward Collision Mitigation that will, at lower speeds, first signal that an obstacle or other vehicle is ahead and then brake the vehicle fully to a stop. Otherwise the Outlander is shaping up to be one of the top-rated vehicles in its class for safety, having achieved both a five-star federal rating (with all-wheel drive) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ status—including a top 'good' result in the new small overlap frontal test.

Mitsubishi was selling the Outlander on more aggressive styling and driving attributes, but it’s clearly repositioned the new 2014 model, in its new form, toward value—and offering one of the strongest sets of standard equipment for the money, among compact-to-mid-size crossovers. And if it’s three-row models you’re considering, the new model is the features-for-money champ. The 2014 Outlander is offered in ES, SE, and GT models, and we tend to think that the best value in the lineup is found in the middle SE models. Base ES models don’t include Bluetooth or alloy wheels, but if you can look past that they include automatic climate control, keyless entry, and a six-speaker, 140-watt audio system, among other things. ES models add push-button start, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, and a touch-screen system with the FUSE HandsFreeLink system and a rearview camera—and an interface that’s superior to what’s offered in most other rivals. With the V-6 GT you can get leather, a sunroof, and the power tailgate.