With the likes of the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4 occupying the competitive compact SUV segment, you’d have thought it’d be rather difficult to stand out in such esteemed company. However, Ford has found a way to do just that by updating the Escape and making it better aesthetically and packing it with some seriously good kit.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had a new model from Mitsubishi that has even tried to resemble sportiness. Into its centenary year, and having become part of what is now the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, the Japanese car maker has launched the Eclipse Cross.

The new model adds to Mitsubishi’s current SUV line-up, slotting in between the Outlander and smaller ASX. It is the sharpest looking car to come from Mitsubishi in years, and is one of the first to be overseen by designer Tsunehiro Kunimoto.

If you think the Eclipse Cross looks familiar, then you’d be right. We first saw it as the 2015 XR PHEV II Concept at the Geneva Motor Show. Thankfully, the production model manages to retain most of the key design features. These include a sloping roofline and that deep cut rising upwards from the front door into the tailgate. Around the rear of the car, things get a little more polarising, with the back window bisected by a high-mounted light bar, somewhat reminiscent of Honda Civic hatchbacks from a few generations back.

From the sloping roofline and the unique rear and chiselled profile, the Eclipse Cross has a thoroughly modern design

What is likely to upset potential buyers more is the relative lack of boot space for an SUV of this size. To make the most of the passenger cabin space, the rear seats are on runners that can slide fore and aft by up to 20 centimetres. With the seats pushed all the way back, the boot offers just 341 litres, while the maximum available in five-seat mode is 448 litres.

The front of the cabin is better, as a new design approach brings more contemporary styling and a clear emphasis on the use of higher quality materials. Brands like Audi won’t be losing any sleep, but it is a welcome step up for Mitsubishi. All of the switchgear has a robust feel to it, often typical of Japanese cars, while the seven-inch touchscreen unit sits on top of the centre console. The menus can be controlled via a touchpad next to the gear selector and there’s smartphone mirroring for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and it helps to lift the dashboard design.

The cabin also gets a contemporary styling treatment

In a move that won’t go down well with some buyers, but is likely to become more commonplace in the coming years, Mitsubishi isn’t offering a built-in satellite navigation option. Instead, it’s leaving it to users to rely on mapping apps on their smartphone. That’s not the only thing that Mitsubishi has omitted. Although the Eclipse Cross shares much of its underpinnings with the Outlander, and despite being capable of accommodating a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) system, it won’t be getting one.

The brand says that it will provide an electrified solution in the near future, but it is unlikely to be a PHEV. So, for now, there’s just the one engine — a 163hp 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit — that’s available with a six-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels or an all-wheel-drive CVT auto model as tested here. The result is a reasonably refined car. The engine produces enough power for its size, with 250Nm of torque available from 1,800rpm.

The 1.5-litre four-pot produces enough power for its size, but is somewhat dampened by the CVT

At urban speeds, and with a lighter throttle input, the CVT doesn’t spool the engine up that much. Instead, it works with the torque on offer where possible. It’s easy to make progress at lower speeds without the revs screaming past 3,000rpm — some slight driving style changes are all that are required.

When you do press on, the CVT model is, on paper, faster at accelerating than the manual. It sees 100kph met in 9.8 seconds from rest, a full half second quicker than shifting gears yourself. The Aisin-sourced CVT also allows for manual shifting, using some nicely crafted paddles behind the wheel. Eight electronically-simulated shifts don’t quite feel like the real thing, and at times it just won’t allow you to downshift, but at least there’s some choice there.

Generally, the ride comfort and quality is good, with only sharp bumps tending to shudder through the cabin.

On the move, the engine noise isn’t intrusive; if anything, it’s the wind noise around the large door mirrors that you notice as it picks up at higher motorway speeds. Generally, the ride comfort and quality is good, with only sharp bumps tending to shudder through the cabin.

Over more flowing sections of road, the Mitsubishi serves up a compliant ride. There’s enough body roll without it feeling too soft, although it doesn’t exactly encourage you to drive it to its limits. In this all-wheel-drive version, traction rarely seems to be an issue. Mitsubishi’s vast experience of 4WD is a benefit and will be to its new alliance. When pushed harder, power is seamlessly sent to the wheels with more grip. The steering is direct and has a positive feel to it that makes up for other aspects of the car.

Although the Eclipse Cross isn’t going to take class honours in the SUV segment, it’s one of the best cars that Mitsubishi has turned out in years. Its spacious cabin and robust feel, mixed with an improved aesthetic and build quality, all stand in its favour.