As the Pajero Exceed's suspension compressed to near its bump-stops while bounding through a steep creek bed in the Southern part of the Flinders Ranges, its utter composure and stability instilled terrific confidence - there was no need to be at the ready to catch any undesirable handling attitudes. The only thing on my mind was which CD to select in the in-dash stacker, whether or not to open the optional power sunroof or slightly recline the backrest of the leather seat...
In contrast to these 'hardships', though - 150 years ago - these same tracks were being travelled by farmers who had no choice but to do things the hard way.
The southern part of South Australia's Flinders Ranges - a popular get-away destination - is strewn with the ruins of stone buildings which are a humbling reminder of the hardships endured by the early white settlers. The extensive farming that was focussed in the area began in the mid 1850s, when the State Government surveyed the vast expanse of land and allotted it for the purpose of grain farming and sheep runs - it seemed like a great opportunity for many families to earn a good income, but little did anyone know of the extreme weather cycles of the area...
During a string of uncharacteristically wet years during the mid 1800s, the potential for profitable farming in the southern Flinders appeared very real; a rail system was built and the infrastructure to support farming was promptly laid out. Towns such as Quorn, Carrieton, Bruce and Hammond were established largely to form the commercial 'hubs' of the area.
Just a few years after this massive venture began, though, the unusually wet conditions came to an end and desperate struggles for survival began. With increasingly dry years to follow (including a major draught in the 1860s), crop yields were extremely poor and there was inadequate feed for livestock; as such, income froze and - despite having invested in buildings, fencing and having paid substantial fees - the majority of people who had settled to do farming were forced to move on. The property owners and their families had lost everything. All that remains of their fruitless efforts are crumbling buildings and the occasional dumped piece of machinery.
Today, the dirt tracks that connect these once thriving towns are nothing tourists in a conventional vehicle can't pass, but the Pajero Exceed does it with utter stability and comfort; sure, a conventional car will get by on these tracks (in most weather conditions), but we know which vehicle we'd rather be in... The Pajero's large diameter wheels, significant mass (2135kg as tested) and well-sorted suspension provide an excellent ride over rough corrugations. And although built 'only' with a monocoque body, chassis stiffness never feels to be an issue.
On the odd occasion, though, corrugations can cause a little understeer if you go into a corner too fast but the top-line Pajero Exceed's new ASC (Active Stability Control) system only takes a moment to regain composure. The standard ASC system steps in and varies brake force on diagonally opposite wheels to eliminate understeer or oversteer and - when appropriate - can also reduce engine output. Note that the ASC system is optimised for 2H, 4H and 4HLc drive settings and is inactive at speeds of less than 15 km/h. A console switch can also deactivate the system whenever required, but ASC automatically activates at speeds of more than 60 km/h or where lateral acceleration is greater than 0.4G.
Despite the newfound stability offered by ASC, you ideally want to be in 4H, 4HLc or 4HLLc whenever venturing off the bitumen. The only reason for running the car in 2WD is to maximise fuel economy and reduce wear in various parts of the driveline. At least you can now leave it in 2H and be assured of chassis stability in, say, emergency swerve situations.
When navigating our way through the unfamiliar terrain of the Ranges, the Pajero's LCD compass proves extremely valuable and its accompanying barometer is a constant source of interest as we climb to the tops of the many lookouts. Of course - with a substantial $65,990 price tag - the top-of-the line Pajero Exceed (with the turbo diesel/automatic driveline as tested) gives you a whole lot more than a fancy centre display... You also get easy-to-use climate control, a 6-stack in-dash CD player, large power mirrors, power windows, electric driver and front passenger seats, four airbags, remote central locking and immobiliser. The interior is tastefully trimmed in leather and wood (fake wood on the dashboard) and there's a very pleasant ambience with the large - optional - power glass sunroof slid back.
The Exceed model offers standard leather seating for up to seven people when the foldout rear bench is erected but, with only five people along for this particular trip, we found ample cargo space and occupant space. The only complaints came from the rear seat passengers - the rear bench is quite hard and is not really wide enough to accommodate three abreast for long distances. On the upside, though, there is a way for rear passengers to escape the hoards of flies in the region while still enjoying some in-cabin airflow - a separate rear fan with ducted outlets in the roof works very effectively.
Interior noise is quite acceptable overall, but the new-to-Pajero turbo diesel engine is much noisier than petrol engine'd variants. The usual diesel clang is quite loud from both outside and inside the cabin - particularly under high load. Cruising at speed, there is also a fair amount of low-frequency road noise, which necessitated adjusting the bass and treble settings on the so-so sound system.
Being a 'rubber neck' for a weekend obviously means a lot of sight seeing and jumping in and out of the vehicle. This wasn't a problem for people six feet and over, but shorter passengers found entry and exit a little more challenging and tiring; the Pajero is certainly much more difficult to get into than, say, a Forester or Outlander. The Exceed's running boards do help this situation, though.
On the bitumen, the Pajero - which stands on very car-like double wishbone front and a multi-link rear suspension - can be pushed through open corners at much higher speeds than those marked on advisory speed signs. Although relatively slow to react to steering inputs at the straight-ahead position, body roll is very linear and the outside tyres can be loaded quite evenly through corners. In tighter conditions, though, understeer is the natural handling characteristic but the aforesaid ASC keeps things from getting too ragged. Braking power, meanwhile - using ABS and EBD control - seemed perfectly adequate during our trip. The kangaroos that leapt out in front of us from the roadside shrubbery were quite safe.
The throttle response of the 3.2-litre, multi-valve, intercooled turbo DID (direct injection diesel) is quite good at all revs and the turbocharger can be felt - and heard - coming onto boost with an absolute minimum of lag. Certainly, the turbo diesel has very interesting driving characteristics; at urban speeds, the big Mitsubishi can feel quite spritely in point and squirt manoeuvres. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn the turbo diesel motor punches out a massive 373Nm of torque at just 2000 rpm.
On the open stretch of bitumen between Quorn and Hawker, though, we discover the turbo diesel engine doesn't have a whole lot of all-out power - just 121kW at 3800 rpm, in fact. Yep, that means even the smaller and lighter Mitsubishi Challenger has more power. As such, overtaking manoeuvres require a little more planning and concentration than necessary in the more powerful (140kW) petrol Pajeros.
With the Exceed available in manual or auto form, our test vehicle employed the extra cost 5-speed Sports Mode auto; absolutely no complaints about its conduct at any stage.
Aerodynamics, of course, play a major part in the Pajero's fairly weak open-road top-end performance - watching water droplets resting on the bonnet, it's obvious the Pajero has a large low-pressure area in the middle of the bonnet toward the windscreen. And, despite fitment of a spoiler on the Exceed, there's a very large wake area to drag along.
Fuel consumption is still very respectable for a vehicle of this sort, however. On our Flinders Ranges trip, we averaged around just over 10-litres of diesel per 100 kilometres. This mild rate of fuel consumption gives the Pajero - with its 90-litre tank - an effective open-road touring range well over 800 kilometres. We reckon you might be able to crack 1000 kilometres out of a tank if you cruise at more economical speeds than we did.
Standing with a diesel nozzle in the Pajero's tank at the Hawker Shell service station/general store, the owner of a previous generation Pajero couldn't help but walk over and take a closer look. A quick stroll around the updated '03 model-year vehicle brought the comment "looks like the previous model with a couple of extra bits, dunnit?" Well, yes...
Those extra bits that distinguish the top-line Exceed from lesser models are round fog lights, smoother side cladding, integrated wheel-arch flares and (illuminated) side steps, roof rails and rear deflector and exclusive 16 x 7 alloys with 265/70 Yokohama Geolanders. The '03 model update brings only a revised grille (with chrome inserts in the top-of-the-line Exceed), plus restyled bumpers and taillights. It's not a bad looking vehicle if you ask us.
With well over 1000 kilometres put behind across our weekend tour of the Flinders area, the Pajero acquitted itself extremely well in all situations - as mentioned, a little more overtaking power would be nice, but you soon adjust to the performance level on tap.
The trip home highlighted the biggest upgrade of the '03 model. Driving at 110 km/h through a downpour that had water streaming across the road and us struggling to see through the windscreen (despite the wipers being on their fastest setting) we never felt the need to pull over and switch from rear-drive only to constant all-wheel-drive; there was already plenty of stability and safety.
Certainly, the Mitsubishi Pajero's combination of good off-road abilities and car-like on-road behaviour has always been popular - with the availability of active stability control on the top-line model, though, it is even more the case.