New car sales are in the tank - mainly because thirty-thousand-dollar MSRPs are simply no longer compatible with people's deflated buying power. This is killing the big name car companies - including even Toyota, whose sales have dropped by 30-40 percent over the past few months.

But smaller companies that previously - during the boom - had a hard time getting noticed may see their fortunes begin to rise as buyers focus more on value for the dollar.

Mitsubishi, for example - and the Outlander.

WHAT IT IS

The Outlander is a 5-7 passenger medium-small wagon (what everyone calls a "crossover") available with both four and six-cylinder engines and FWD or AWD. Prices begin at $20,380 for the front-wheel-drive ES with four-cylinder engine and run to $25,780 at the pinnacle for a loaded XLS with V-6 and AWD. In between are sport-themed SE trims with either engine and FWD or AWD.

The Outlander is a value priced alternative to competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V - both of which can tickle $30k on the high end and which start out about $1,500 to $2,000 more on the lower end.

WHAT'S NEW

A third row seating option has been added, bumping the Oultander's people-carrying capacity to seven. An updated 40GB music hard drive is newly available, too

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

An economy-minded 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine is standard in the Oultander. It is rated at 168 hp and delivers 20 MPG city, 25 MPG highway. The optional 3 liter V-6 is rated at 220 hp and returns 17 MPG city, 24 MPG highway. Both engines come only with automatic transmissions - but the four-cylinder is teamed with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) while the V-6 comes with a conventional six-speed automatic.

You can get FWD or AWD with either engine.

The Outlander's AWD system is different than what you find in competitors - almost all of which are not driver-adjustable and remain in all-wheel-drive all the time - whether it's needed or not. The Outlander's system, in contrast, is like what you'd find in a truck or SUV with a part-time 4WD system in that you can turn a knob to go from FWD to AWD, as the need arises.

In FWD (which Mitsu labels "2WD") all the engine's power goes to the front wheels only. Choose AWD (which Mitsu labels "4WD") and about 15 percent of the engine's power is always routed to the back wheels, with more fed in as needed if traction is lost up front. A third setting - 4WD Lock - the system will increase the amount of power kicked back to the rear wheels up to 60 percent.

So, why the quote marks around "2WD" and ""4WD"? Because these designations have historically been used to describe heavy-duty, truck-based 4WD systems whose defining feature is a two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range gearing (as well as the ability to send 50 percent of the engine's power to both front and rear wheels continuously).

The Outlander's system does drive all four wheels, so it is technically "four wheel drive." However, there is no truck-style transfer case or 4WD Low range gearing. And while up to 60 percent of the Outlander's power can be sent to the back wheels, it only does that intermittently, when the system senses virtually no traction at the front wheels. Truck-type 4WD systems typically maintain a 50-50 power split when the 4WD is engaged. And unlike the FWD-based Outlander, when a 4WD truck or SUV is in 2WD, all the engine's power goes to the rear wheels rather than the front wheels.

On the other hand, an AWD system such as the Outlander's is much more useful for on-street driving than truck-type 4WD systems - which, for openers, should not be used in 4WD on dry, paved roads. Truck-type 4WD systems are built mostly for off-road use - in mud, sand and when driving in heavy snow. If you don't often drive under such conditions, 4WD is mostly a waste of money.

In contrast, AWD systems are designed specifically for use on dry, paved roads - and provide a handling advantage during high-speed cornering.

Maximum tow rating with the V-6 is 3,500 lbs.

With the V-6, an Outlander can reach 60 mph in about 8 seconds flat; four-cylinder versions are about a second slower.

RIDE & HANDLING/DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Outlander's stats stack up very favorably against competitors like the Honda CR-V, which does doesn't offer a V-6 at all and whose horsepower (2.4 liters, 166 hp) towing (1,500 lbs.) numbers are weaker than the Outlander's. The CR-V's MSRP ($21,245 to start) is higher, and its gas mileage is only slighter better - 20 city, 27 highway. It's also one of the slowest cars in the segment, with a 0-60 time of 10-plus seconds for the AWD version.

Toyota's RAV4 outguns the Outlander with its standard 179 hp 2.5 liter four and optional 269 hp 3.5 liter V-6, the latter of which can reach 60 in 7.2 seconds. But it's also more expensive to start - $21,500 - and while you can get a V-6 RAV4 for just slightly less than an Endeavor V-6 ($23,525 vs. $24,380), the Mitsubishi's prices top out at $25,780 fully loaded, while the RAV's climb up to $27,810.

Surprisingly, too, the Mitsu has the more up-to-date transmissions than either the CR-V or the RAV4. The four-cylinder RAV4 comes with a dated 4-speed automatic (virtually all new cars now have at least five-speed automatics or CVTs, like the Outlander) while the top-of-the-line V-6 RAV4 has only a five-speed automatic vs. the Mitsu's six-speed automatic.

Also, neither the Toyota nor the Honda offer the driver-controlled AWD system the Outlander does.

Though the V-6 version of the Outlander is quicker, the four-cylinder version with the CVT and optional paddle shifters is a snappy performer that's fun to play with while being reasonably economical. Mitsubishi's experience with the ultra-performance EVO appears to have filtered down to models like the Outlander, which may not be as ferocious but nonetheless have spirit.

STYLING & UTILITY

The Outlander's flashier-looking than the borderline bland CR-V and RAV4 - with its hunky fender bulges, integrated chrome-trimmed lower rocker panels and multiple LED clear-lensed rear brake lights. The interior's swoopier, too - with the centerpiece being an elliptically shaped, twin-pod gauge cluster that looks like it could have been borrowed from a sport bike.

While the Outlander, RAV and CR-V all have about the same cargo-carrying capacity - 36.2 cubes behind the second row; 73 cubes with the second row folded flat vs. 36.4/73 cubes for the Toyota and 35.7/73 for the Honda - the Outlander has significantly more ground clearance (8.5 inches) than either the CR-V (7.3 inches) or the RAV4 (7.5 inches).

The addition of available third-row seating gives the Outlander a leg up on the CR-V (which doesn't offer a third row) and equalizes things on this score with the RAV4 (which does). The third row is cramped and pretty much viable only for kids. But it is there - and it does give you the ability to carry up to seven people in a pinch. No can do in the CR-V.

The Outlander also offers useful and unique features like a fold-out lower rear section of the two-piece liftgate. This opens up the cargo area and makes it a lot easier to get big/bulky/heavy items in there - since you don't have to lift them up and over as much as you do in competitor's models.

Other cool stuff you'll find includes an optionally available 650 watt Rockford Fosgate audio rig with 40 GB music storage hard drive and two enormous subwoofers built into the sidewalls of the cargo area. The LCD interface for this and the bundled GPS system is a bit button-laden (if you're over 35) but if you're under 35, the array of controls and menu items will probably seem as comfortably familiar to you as Van Halen's "1984" is to me.

QUALITY & SAFETY

Mitsubishi's main weakness relative to its main competitors is a (historically) spottier record on the quality control front. Most of this appears to have been cleaned up recently, but the perception still affects things like resale values - and the truth about build quality is you won't really know for sure until the things have been in circulation for six or seven years, at least. That's the timeframe when things like early transmission failures, AC systems crapping out and so on begin to crop up. Will the Outlander prove to be as trouble-free as equivalent products from Honda and Toyota and others?

Only time will tell for certain.

On the upside, Mitsubishi offers a vastly better basic and powertrain coverage than any of its rivals - five years and 60,000 miles "bumper to bumper" plus a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty for the drivetrain - vs. a meager three-year/36,000 basic warranty for the CR-V (five years, 60,000 miles on the drivetrain).

Same minimalist coverage on the RAV4, too.

So, even if something does break on the Outlander, you probably won't have to pay for it - at least, not before you've paid the thing off. With the Toyota and the Honda, you're on your own much sooner.

As far as safety stuff, all Outlanders get ABS and stability control, side-impact and curtain air bags, plus anti-whiplash head rests for the driver and front passenger seats. A rear back-up camera is bundled with the optional navigation system.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Given the average American has suffered a 20-40 percent net loss in the equity value of his home (and 401k), a $21-25k new car makes a lot more sense to many would-be buyers than a $30k car. Mitsubishi has a good-looking, well-equipped vehicle in the Outlander that's a better buy than most - with a much better warranty than anyone.

Whoever's still in the market for a new vehicle is bound to find that combination very appealing.