Yes, honey, I may have shrunk the kids, but those mad scientists at Mitsubishi have done something much more newsworthy: They have shrunk the Outlander.

For years, the Outlander has been a midsize crossover-and, in fact, still is. But now, consistent with Mitsubishi's plan to build variations of its existing models, it has been joined by an abbreviated Outlander called the Outlander Sport.

This new compact version of the Outlander, which began arriving in the showrooms last month uses the same structure employed in its big brother, as well as many of its mechanicals. But the resemblance ends there. The Outlander Sport is significantly smaller than the Outlander, and has a completely different body.

Although the Sport has the same 105-inch wheelbase as Big Brother, it is almost 15 inches shorter thanks to very little overhang in the front and even less in the back (there are about 18 inches between the rear tire and the back of the car). Indeed, you wind up with a vehicle length of 169 inches, 10 inches less than Honda's comparable compact crossover, the CR-V.

Although it looks a tad stubby thanks to its deflated derriere, the Outlander is a real cutey, and a rather aerodynamic one at that. I like the sculpting, and the front end's suggestion of an Audi A8 grille.

This new Outlander variant turns out to be a good value. The nicely equipped base ES model starts at $18,495 with a manual gearbox, and costs $1,000 more with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The top SE model I drove, which boasts a near-luxury litany and a standard CVT, opens at $21,695.

Unlike the ES, which is available only with front-drive, the SE also can be furnished with Mitsubishi's nifty all-wheel-drive system for an additional $1,300. (For drivers in the snow-vulnerable Philadelphia area, that might be $1,300 well spent.)

The Sport SE driving experience begins when you slip behind the leather-wrapped, telescopic steering wheel. You're presented with readily accessible controls and instruments (including readouts that tell you the outside temperature and whether you are driving economically), as well as comfortable, supportive seats and good visibility.

The interior design is clean and attractive. While there is some hard plastic on the dash, door panels and console, good quality fabrics predominate. This is also a pretty roomy compact crossover. While it doesn't have the optional third-row of seats found in its larger sibling, it does have good rear-seat legroom and a surprisingly generous rear storage area.

This vehicle reminds us that when the word sport is used in the same breath with crossover, we are talking about what the vehicle is used for - not how it performs. In other words, it refers to the pair of skis tied to the roof, not how it pulls out.

Despite the loss of 400 pounds when the Outlander was reborn as an Outlander Sport, our sporty shorty still weighs more than 3,000 pounds, a fair load for a two-liter, 148-horsepower four-banger.

But while it's no Camaro at the stop lights, it manages to do an adequate job on real-world chores like merging on I-95. It also gets pretty nice fuel economy with EPA mileage estimates of 25 city and 31 highway.

My problem with this engine is the kind of noise and buzziness it generates when you accelerate briskly. That simmers down once the car attains cruising speed, but the run-up cries out for more engine bay insulation.

The Sport also generates a bit more wind and road noise than average at highway speeds, but it's hardly excessive.

The suspension is one of life's trade-offs. Yes, it shows a little body roll during sprightly cornering, but it more than compensates with its comfortable ride.

Braking is a plus in the Sport, and so is the electric power steering system, which proves precise and affords decent road feel.

The Sport touches all the safety bases and enhances its value story with an exceptional warranty: five years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper, and 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain.

Good

2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE (front-drive)

Base price: $21,695.

As tested: $22,475 (including shipping).

Standard equipment: Air bags, including one for the driver's knees, stability control, anti-lock disc brakes, fuel-saving regenerative braking, 18-inch alloy wheels, climate control, heated power mirrors, side turn indicators, fog lights.

Options: None.

Fuel economy: 25 city and 31 highway.

Handling: Average.

Engine performance: Passable.

Ride quality: Exceptional.

Styling: Impish fun.

Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.

EndText

Contact Al Haas