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January 8, 2003

Review: 2003 Mitsubishi Pajero Field Master

James Bond is one cool guy; there’s no doubting that.  Everything from driving (and subsequently wrecking) his Aston Martin V12 Vanquish to having any girl he wants, he’s surely any man’s fantasy life personified.  However, there’s a greater chance of seeeing pigs fly than for us slipping into a Brioni suit armed with an Omega Speedmaster with standard laser gun.  So what’s the next best thing to Bond?  McGyver.

McGyver’s weapon of choice is something more accessible to ordinary us: a Swiss Army Knife.  People who grew up on this cheesy nineties action series would remember Richard Dean Anderson getting out of just about any imaginable situation with just the use of a 2-inch knife or perhaps the miniaturized Philips screwdriver.

Of course, McGyver's use of his pocket knife is just about as realistic as James Bond switching a Lotus Esprit into submarine mode—the action’s been hyped for the show.  A Swiss Army Knife contains everything that a boy scout needs: knife, hacksaw, ruler, screwdriver, file, and scissors—however, don’t expect it do to perform any duty as well as specialized, single-purpose tools.  Still, you have this feeling of security, just knowing the ability is there somewhere.

 Much like a Swiss Army Knife, the Mitsubishi Pajero Field Master does everything quite adequately, but fails to excel in any particular department.  Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, the Pajero is stuck in a time warp where cars have to be something for just about everybody, rather than catering to a particular customer.  Despite its age, the current model struts along quite well, entering the twilight years of its life, as a new one will beckon next year.

At the heart of this beast is a turbocharged 2.8-liter SOHC engine that burns diesel fuel.  Still employing the use of a Rotary Type Injection System, the Pajero’s powerplant is falling behind the more modern Direct Injection System used by its rivals.  Nonetheless, mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission, it still has the capability to haul two tons of metal with relative ease.  Though the 125 bhp output doesn’t seem adequate, the crème-de-la-crème is definitely the 298 Nm of torque available at a low 2000 rpm.

The engine isn’t the smoothest or most refined choice out there, but it’s still surprisingly quiet for a diesel.  Overtaking is a breeze and compared to the previous version’s 2.5-liter powerplant, this one doesn’t seem to run out of breath even if it’s carry a full load of passengers and luggage climbing up the steep route to Baguio City.

Wrapped around the heavy-duty engine is a body that’s long been a landmark on Philippine roads.  That all-too-familiar shape has been given a mild facelift.  The standard body cladding, spare tire cover, rear tow hook, functional front hood scoop, chromed rear lamp protector and 16-inch tires give it a sort of Land Rover Defender appeal.  More resilient than Kim Jong Il, the Pajero’s boxy profile, flared and squared arches, and tall stance all give it a rugged and durable feel—a trait surprisingly lacking in its suburban-mommy-transport competition.

Inside is where the Pajero feels every bit as old as Fidel Castro.  With a driving position that’s very upright, it’s more of a truck rather than a car.  This gives more driving confidence thanks to great front visibility, but it sacrifices the comfort level especially for long trips outside town.  It doesn’t help that some of the major controls such as the gear lever and handbrake need a bit of stretching to reach.

The front seats are wide and firm, but the second row’s too upright and the back support is in the wrong places.  There’s an arm rest for everyone too, and the ones in the second row house the cup holders too.  Like most vehicles in this class, the stated capacity is 10 persons, but the Pajero isn’t exactly the tool to transport the entire clan.  The side-facing third row isn’t just crammed and upright; there’s no headroom to talk about there.  The leather’s an absolute necessity for vehicles of this stature; however, the Pajero’s doesn’t feel like a million bucks.

Like a typical Swiss Knife, there’s a plethora of switches, levers and buttons to keep any gadget freak happy.  Though an ‘ejector seat’ button isn’t to be found anywhere, it’s loaded with everything you’ll need for that occasional off-road excursion.  There’s not much technical wizardry inside the Field Master, either…just good, old fashioned ruggedness.

Our Field Master test unit was one of the last fitted with four-wheel drive.  Unlike the newer 4wd systems fitted onto the Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz ML-class, the system isn’t engaged by any button on the dash; you still shift a lever next to the transmission gate.  The offroading capabilities are worthy of a mountain goat.   There's a low-range for the four wheel drive, as a well as low mode with locked center differential.  The mud-plugging abilities are limited only by the highway-type Bridgestones.  All of the switch gear engages with the solidly tactile ‘click’ reminiscent of earlier Mitsubishi products.

The body-on-frame construction of the Pajero gives it robust off-road capability as well as ruggedness and durability; however, it is because of this very same set-up that the ride and handling suffers.  Like any other truck-based SUV, the Field Master suffers heavily from excessive body roll even on the gentlest of corners.   The analog tilt meter high on the center dash can tell you just how heavy you're leaning.

To help the handling, this 4x4 is fitted with an electronically adjustable shock absorber system.  This is the special hidden tool of the Pajero which allows the driver to take his pick: Soft, Medium, or Hard.  Under the Soft setting, the Pajero delivers a wafting ride that’s befitting of a luxury limousine.  The downside is heavy body roll while cornering.  Switch it to Hard and the Pajero’s body roll is somewhat neutralized, giving it more confidence in the bends.  But then it goes nervously over the smallest bumps, humps and road imperfections.  Best to leave it in Medium then.

The large window panes, upright driving position and tall ride height give the Pajero unparalleled exterior visibility that conquers even the outgoing Ford Expedition.  The short snout, clearly visible front corners and longer wheelbase make the Mitsubishi relatively painless, especially when doing those underground parking lot maneuvers.

Unfortunately, the fit and finish takes points away from the Pajero’s score as the dash, the door panels and even the center console are lined with toy-soldier plastics.  Not to mention, it’s trimmed with this horrid faux wood that’s shouting out plastic rather than class—the Koreans actually do better these days.

In terms of size, there are three major Japanese competitors for the Pajero Field Master: the Isuzu Trooper, Nissan Patrol and the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado.  With the Prado having a price tag of 2,350,000 pesos it’s automatically eliminated.  Compared to the other two, the Pajero does have value for money on its side.

Starting at 1,445,000 pesos, this SUV is fitted with every conceivable accessory known to man: dual zone aircon, 6-disc CD changer with 6-speaker system, expandable sun visors, electrically adjustable driver’s seat and the obligatory leather seats, wood trim and keyless entry with alarm and immobilizer.  Compared to its perennial Japanese diesel rivals, the Nissan Patrol and the Isuzu Trooper, this one’s a steal.

Unfortunately, the advantage ends there.  Though the Pajero was once the default choice of the aristocratic and the rich, with the choices available out there, it’s suddenly obvious that the Mitsubishi lacks any sort of definitive character to make it the number one pick for a full-sized SUV.

Like a Swiss Army Knife, the Pajero can do just about everything: haul stuff, tow cargo, ferry people and could even be used for that daily Makati commute.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any of those with exceptional results.  There's no question that the Pajero is the jack-of-all-trades, but the Nissan Patrol looks like it can't be stopped even by the likes of Saddam Hussein, while the Trooper carries a torquey 3.0-liter engine and a lovely kit.  Then there’s the American Ford Expedition, which has a thirsty gasoline V8 engine, but also extensive equipment and the most comfortable interior.

In the end, there’s nothing genuinely wrong with the Mitsubishi Pajero Field Master.  Despite its prehistoric age and relatively unrefined engine, it’s one tough, rugged and durable machine.  However, much like having a screw driver in your drawer and a multi-purpose knife in your pocket, if you need to tighten anything, it's always more logical to reach for the real screw driver instead.

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