If it aint broke...

- Andy Leuterio -
Remember the L300? It was a dependable, no-frills van with space for a large family, dual sliding doors, and enough versatility to be anything from a family vehicle to a school bus to an FX shuttle. And it was an evergreen vehicle in the Mitsubishi lineup, being available in the late 80’s all the way to what? 1998? 1999? Until the current crop of Hyundai Starexes, Toyota Hi-Aces, and Nissan Urvans began spreading in the mid-90’s, passenger van choices were limited to either a Toyota LiteAce or the L300 and its slightly more modern version, the L300 Exceed. How times have changed. In the past, we’d have been happy just to have airconditioning and power steering. Now we want the whole gamut: dual airbags, automatic transmissions, power everything...

Now it’s 2003, the L300 is no more, and the market is much more sophisticated. Besides the traditional formats from Toyota and Nissan which place the engine right under the driver and front passenger, newer competition has arrived in the form of the Chevrolet Venture, the Nissan Serena Q-RV, and those AUVs with their hundred and one variants. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous Hyundai Starex. These days, Mitsubishi has but two options to entice people-carrier buyers to visit their showrooms: the good old Adventure, and the larger, pricier, but more prestigious Space Gear.

The Space Gear first became available in the closing years of the last century. It was one of the few choices where you had a real engine bay out in front, loads of passenger space, and a suspension that wouldn’t make you feel sorry you couldn’t afford a cushier, much more expensive minivan like the Chrysler Town & Country.

Like any major update, today’s Space Gear is an improvement over the old one. It’s much better looking, it’s better appointed, and it’s got more moxie in its stubby nose. Even when the Space Gear was a totally new offering back then, it was never a drop-dead-gorgeous people carrier. Nobody really expects a van to set new standards in style, but the stubby Mitsubishi with its droll face and slab sides exuded a conservative personality just short of completely boring.

Which is why it’s amazing what a little creativity and inspiration can do to a heretofore-staid image because the new look, with its 2-tone paint, Evo-esque front fascia and swoopy 5-spoke wheels managed to elicit positive comments from friends. Some of them — the non-car guys and therefore, most likely to buy a van — even thought the Space Gear was an all-new vehicle and not just a freshened up model imported from Taiwan.

Indeed, I also think the Space Gear is a much better van to look at these days. Were it not for those cheesy "jewel-style" taillights, which make it look like a rice boy’s van, I’d even say it has a clear edge in style over the Nissan Serena QR-V, which somehow looks like a gigantic bread loaf fresh out of plastic surgery.

The Serena is, in fact, a prime competitor for the Space Gear. It has a 2.0-liter gasoline engine with 145 PS, dual sliding doors, a VCD entertainment system, and a middle row bench that slides and folds to accommodate varying passenger and cargo demands. On the other hand, the Space Gear now has a 132 PS 2.4-liter gasoline engine (past models made do with a diesel), it also has dual sliding doors, a VCD system, and space for ten people as well. While the middle row doesn’t slide forward or backward, the third, front-facing row does provide a real seating option as itís not a cheap pair of jump seats.

Like almost all locally available Mitsubishis, the Space Gear is a responsive machine. The only transmission available is a 4-speed automatic controlled via a column-mounted stalk with a confusing "Euro-style" gate, but it is well matched to the engine’s capabilities. The powertrain is quick to downshift on demand; push past the midpoint of the gas pedal’s travel and it will downshift to the lowest possible gear. It is also unafraid to race up the tachometer, upshifting just 500 rpm shy of the 6500 rpm redline.

Sprightly acceleration is the reward for aggressive prodding of the throttle, but the relatively short gearing means that cruising at 130kph makes for a slightly buzzy ride. That, of course, is a velocity some 20 to 30 kph more than your average diesel-powered van could comfortably cruise at.

The steering, brakes, and all-independent suspension are also well sorted out. People wishing for an anaesthetized ride will find the Space Gear too harsh on rutted pavement (minimal insulation also translates to quite a lot of road noise), but the payoff is a vehicle with quick turn-in response and an agile feel in the curves. The front double wishbones and rear 5-link coil springs deliver a ride that’s not exactly leaf-suspension harsh, but not exactly American-style cushy either. You get the sensation of driving a smaller, more responsive vehicle, not something with a long wheelbase, a high center of gravity, and a roof that will scrape some carpark building’s ceilings.

Interior design is functional, with some token pizzazz thrown in. Like the Strada, the Space Gear’s dashboard is a somber affair of gray and black plastic. The meter cluster — with its black and white dials, red needles and red hash marks — give it some sportiness, but on the whole, it’s not a cockpit to fall in love with. However, the driving position is quite good. You get near chair-height seating without cramped legroom because the engine bay is a long way ahead of you, and all-around visibility is aided by a large greenhouse and those large glass quarter-panels at the A-pillars. Manong will enjoy driving your brood to and from school in this van.

Some bragging rights are also in order in the entertainment department, in which past Space Gears were sorely deficient. The 4-speaker VCD/CD system sports a huge 10.4-inch LCD screen; the biggest OEM display so far. Other standard features include keyless entry with alarm; fog lamps; power windows, locks, and mirrors; rear wiper and washer; rear 12V socket; and a glass-imprinted antenna.

Safety-minded buyers will wonder though why it doesn’t have dual airbags or ABS; features that the Serena and even the Starex have. Mitsubishi is holding the line on price, though. At P1,090,000, it’s priced right in the middle of the passenger van market. It’s not exactly bristling with features, but it does offer a look that’s easier on the eyes and a driving experience more responsive than most. If it aint broke, don’t fix it, right? This Space Gear retains the merits of the old one, while adding a touch more dynamism and value to keep up with the numerous competition.

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