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My first drive in an entry-level Mitsubishi a few years back was not unlike my first visit to Payless Shoes. Bargains don’t always mean value.

Like the Payless product aisle, my cute three-cylinder Mirage tester was nice to look at. But when I tried it on it was too small and made with cheap materials.

So when Mitsubishi’s entry-level subcompact Outlander Sport SUV landed in my driveway this winter, I didn’t get my hopes up. To begin with, the Outlander Sport is no Mirage cutie. Dressed in white with a full-face black grille, the Mitsubishi looked like the love child of a Chevy Silverado and “Star Wars” stormtrooper. Yikes.

Aft of the bow, however, the ute could be anything. It has generic shoulders, rocker panels and rear tailgate. The dash is made of hard plastic, the infotainment system and switch gear are right out of Shop Class 101, and the rear seats fold not-quite flat.

In other words, it’s your basic transportation right down to its $29,310 price. That’s $2,500 south of the comparable Nissan Rogue Sport I recently tried on.

But then the wee Mitsubishi began to grow on me. To wit: It fit.

Unlike trying to squeeze my size 15 clown feet into the sorry-that’s-the-biggest-we-have size 12s at Payless, I slipped easily into the Outlander Sport for a night out with Mrs. Payne.

Though classified as a subcompact SUV like the Ford Ecosport, Chevy Trax and Honda HR-V, the Outlander is in many ways a size bigger because it is built on the same foundation as the compact Mitsubishi Outlander. Like the Rogue and Rogue Sport siblings, this benefits the subcompact entry, as my Outlander Sport has some of the best shoulder room in-class at 56 inches front and 55 rear — and provides reasonable center console storage.

The off-the-shelf switch gear may be bland but it fronts lots of useful features like heated seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity (a must for the entry-level millennial target buyer who doesn’t want to mess with inferior car navigation systems), and a big 4WD button in the console’s center the size of Cindy Crawford’s cheek mole — and just as attractive to us motorheads.

4WD, of course, is short for four-wheel drive, which — in the case of the Outlander Sport — hints at the car’s performance characteristics. Cheer up, Mitsu fans, while the brand is going all-SUV under its new partnership with Renault, the Sport is evidence that some pollen from the legendary bad-boy Lancer Evo pocket rocket is still in the air back at Tokyo HQ.

Poking the black button triggers “4WD LOCK,” meaning that more engine torque is electronically distributed to the rear wheels. And this little Mitsubishi has torque.

Unlike the entry-level Mirage, whose three-cylinder zero-60 acceleration is measured with an hourglass, the Sport packs heat with a 2.4-liter four-banger that generates 167 pound-feet of torque, 168 horsepower, putting it head and shoulders above the class. With 20 percent more power than the Rogue Sport, this ute has pep.

So that big, black, Evo-like mascara grille has some meaning after all.

The Evo DNA includes a Sport-Plus detent in the shifter that gooses revs by a whopping 1,500 rpms (most auto sport modes are content with 1,000 rpms) so that you can stay in the torque band as you misbehave through, say, Oakland County lake country. Which, in my case, was often.

The Mitsubishi’s chassis is taut — shades of the smaller-wheelbase (99 inches vs. 105) Ford Ecosport I recently flogged — and its steering nicely weighted for spirited driving. Though mated to a CVT transmission, the four-cylinder engine never drones, but responded happily to my Size 15 throttle inputs.

Belying its cheap materials, the interior is quiet. Noise from the four-banger is not intrusive even under the cane.

The 4WD button is also useful in off-road conditions, and I grunted around some snowy back roads as well. The Outlander Sport’s tight 21/2-turn lock-to-lock steering makes maneuverability easy (though my stormtrooper white and black ensemble got plenty compromised by mud splatter).

The Outlander’s basic interior means there are no clever, secret rear-storage subfloors like some of its more expensive competition. But basic does mean a spare tire under there, which was reassuring as I trolled Michigan winter roads with potholes that would swallow a Mirage subcompact whole.

My maxed tester included accessories like a full-cabin sunroof and adaptive high-beams — luxury laces that seemed out of place on this bargain shoe. You don’t need them. So figure a bargain price closer to $27,000. Throw in Mitsubishi’s generous, 5-year, 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty (rivaled only by Hyundai and VW these days) and the Sport proves value for its price.

Still, that’s $12,000 north of the sister Mirage entry-level sedan. That’s evidence the entry-level ute is quite different from the entry-level sedan — and proof of Mitsubishi’s plan to resurrect itself by aiming at the meat of the American market.

As much as motorheads miss the Evo goose-bump machine, manufacturers have to make it on volume-sellers. Even Ford is ditching performance icons like the Focus ST and RS in order to shore up its bottom line. Still, character matters. And just as Ford plans to extend the ST badge into its crossover offerings, the Outlander Sport’s athletic touches are essential to its standing out from the crowd — especially because the Sport’s base model features a wheezy 148-horsepower engine that reminds you the Outlander, introduced in 2011, is getting old.

That old age shows up in other areas like class-trailing 25 mpg fuel economy and an ancient shifter that banged through its uneven shift gate.

Those drawbacks will need to be addressed, as there is plenty of competition in the growing subcompact aisle, including even cheaper bargains like the Honda HR-V and Kia Soul.

Fortunately for Mitsubishi, neither has the 4WD, zippy personality of the Sport.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front- and four-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price

$21,390 base ($29,310 4WD , 2.4-liter 4-cylinder as tested)

Power plant

2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 2.4-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power

148 horsepower, 145 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 168 horsepower, 167 pound-feet of torque (2.4-liter)

Transmission

5-speed manual; continuously variable transmission (CVT, with 2.4-liter only)

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 123 mph (electronically limited)

Weight

3,285 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 23 city/29 highway/25 combined (2.4-liter 4WD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Bargain package; pep, apps and 4WD fun-factor

Lows: Forgettable styling; switchgear out of Shop Class 101

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

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