When you hold the exclusive right to import, distribute and service a particular brand of motor vehicle in a particular country you don’t usually expect independent rivals to influence your model launch timing and pricing, writes just-auto.com deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

Unless you’re in New Zealand, which has gone from being one of the most protected – by import tariffs, customs duty, sales tax and local content requirements – to one of the most open car markets in the world in little more than 15 years.

Asked to explain why it had gone ahead and launched the new Airtrek ‘crossover’ range with Japanese-specification models, in the third quarter of last year well ahead of other export markets, which already get, or will soon, a slightly restyled ‘general export’ version called the Outlander, Mitsubishi New Zealand’s spokesman Phil Dinniss was succinct: “One of the effects of the open border importing is that the [private, independent] importers can land product here within a couple of weeks of it being launched domestically in Japan.

“They buy [the cars] through arrangements with dealers. If the New Zealand franchises do not match them for timing, particularly with performance product, then the importers start to dictate market pricing etc.

“As a result we strive to land product early, and then catch up with general export models if required.”

Some export markets get floor-mounted shifter, Japan and New Zealand get dash-mounted lever

In contrast to two decades ago, when import licences were required and local assembly was essential to get sufficient volume, (slightly) reduce punitive sales taxes and duties, and set realistic (though still high) prices, almost any New Zealander with the right contacts and enough financing can now set up as a vehicle importer in a country now claimed to have the world’s most open market and lowest new car prices.

And many have.

Most deal in used cars – the middleman for anyone, anywhere, importing such vehicles from Japan is often a Kiwi – but some never miss the chance to ship in a few desirable brand-new units if dealer contacts can supply and the dollars (factoring in shipping, etc.) add up to sufficient profit. Think cars like Mitsubishi’s own Lancer Evolution, Honda’s Civic Type R, Nissan’s past Skyline and current 350Zs – mostly performance stuff.

Hence the very early arrival in New Zealand of an officially-imported Airtrek line consisting of two-wheel drive two-litre and all-wheel drive two-litre Turbo. Both use the time-served 4G63 single overhead cam engine long a staple of Mitsubishi model lines. The first cars arrived Down Under around September last year to Japanese market specification, mere weeks after the home market launch and, more importantly, before any enterprising private individual could source and ship in any official importer-damaging volume.

Priced at $NZ32,990 (£12,000; $US19,500 approx.) and $42,990 respectively, the 2WD normally-aspirated Airtrek and AWD turbo share similar body styles although the turbo gets a bonnet air intake, sits slightly lower on stiffened suspension and has a few trim and equipment upgrades such as five-speed automatic (instead of four-speed) with steering wheel shift buttons and fully automatic air conditioning.

“We have been delighted with the response to the vehicle,” Mitsubishi Motors national sales manager Peter Wilkins said at the launch. “Customers have been enthusiastic about the features of the all wheel drive Airtrek at sneak previews we have held around the country. Dealers have been quick to order the new Airtrek and the first two shipments are already sold.”

Then, to give Kiwi Kustomers even more choice, MMNZ in February added the $37,990 Australian-specification general export version to its range with 2.4-litre, normally-aspirated, all wheel drive powertrain and styling similar to the model launched late last year in North America. This version, now reaching Europe and due on sale in the UK later this year, has a more aggressively-styled nose with prominent ‘schnozzle’ centre grille section, clear glass tail lamps and some minor dashboard changes.

Typical of Japanese makers, such market-specific variations seem to have been no trouble for Mitsubishi Japan’s export production people – the US version gets a floor-mounted automatic transmission lever while Kiwi and Australian models have dash-mounted controls.

“The 2.0 litre all wheel drive [Japanese spec. model] was considered under powered for this market but was not available until MMC had their general export version ready to go. We have since picked up the Australian spec. [2.4], although [Mitsubishi Australia] also have a higher spec which New Zealand is not taking that has roof rails, etc.” Dinniss noted.

Spot the difference: Japanese domestic and NZ market Airtrek nose (above) differs from ‘export’ Outlander model (below) – NZ gets both badged as Airtrek

To avoid confusion, MMNZ is sticking with the Airtrek name for the Aussie-spec. 2.4, rather than calling it an Outlander like Australia, the US and the UK and Europe. Not that such variation from the overseas norm is anything new for the company. Started as Todd Brothers, early last century deep in New Zealand’s South Island, MMNZ’s forebear Todd Motors imported and assembled Hillmans, Humbers and Chryslers for the thick end of 50 years and showed considerable ingenuity compared with more staid local rivals such as GM and Ford whose local products mirrored those sold in their home country.

For example, creating the NZ-unique 1960s Humber 80 by re-badging the Hillman Minx enabled Todd’s to obtain more import licence – “it’s a different car, you know, Minister”. Or so legend has it. Then there was a generation of Hillman Hunter models, quite different in detail from their UK cousins, built by mixing and matching various engine, grille, exterior light and dashboard options available from the British Rootes plant (that now makes Peugeot 206s) with locally designed and made interior trim.

Not to mention Todd’s persuading Chrysler Australia to build unique two-barrel carburettor six-cylinder engines just for little old New Zealand (where the total new car market has never run much more than 100,000 units a year and is mostly around 60,000 nowadays along with about 120,000 used imports) and mix and match old and new model Valiant nose cones to create a unique Kiwi top-line variant.

Like Chrysler Australia, Todd Motors was eventually taken over by Mitsubishi Japan but was still able to negotiate for special models either as full imports or as assembly kits (CKD build stopped in the mid-1990s). So it’s little surprise this relatively tiny importer has secured the widest Airtrek/Outlander range of any distributor outside Japan. In a single stroke, that answers one criticism of the Outlander levelled by US and Australian reviewers: the 2.4-litre, AWD non-turbo versions their markets receive don’t have enough power.

While we cannot comment about the base two-litre 2WD model sold in New Zealand, there is no shortage of grunt in the Turbo. After 14 hours in aircraft, we headed out of the country’s largest Mitsubishi dealership into Auckland’s heavy traffic and planted a sleepy right foot, expecting modest performance in line with what the likes of Edmunds.com had reported. Instead we were pushed back in our seats as the Airtrek surged away, with little sign of the turbo lag sometimes evident in earlier ‘blown’ Mitsubishis.

Hmmm, time, perhaps, for a check of the specification figures. Japanese-spec two litre 2WD: 93kW of power and 173Nm of torque at 4,500rpm so that decision about the 4WD version sounds about right; Aussie-spec 2.4 AWD: 100kW and 202Nm at a more sensible 2,500rpm; Japanese-spec turbo: 177kW and – you’re kidding – 343Nm of torque at 2,500rpm. That just might explain why the thing pulls away from traffic lights like a Lancer Evolution and just keeps on going when pointed at an open road (bearing in mind the country strictly applies a 100km/h or 62mph speed limit on its well surfaced and often arrow-straight and deserted roads).

The extra power is also extremely useful for overtaking on New Zealand’s mostly two-lane highway system (motorways are rare) and, we suspect, for shifting the caravans, boats and trailers half the country seems to haul around at weekends. In all other respects, the Airtrek is a fine machine, albeit one that sets no new standards, apart perhaps from the Turbo’s performance, but it rides comfortably and handles sharply enough to persuade some people not to buy a minivan or SUV when one of these would do just fine.

At first sight of this crossover, we said “station wagon”, much like another reviewer recently said of another family-related new crossover, Chrysler’s Pacifica, and a body style Mitsubishi has often engineered well. The Airtrek offers a superb amount of passenger space and outstanding rear legroom, as well as ample load space for a family (why no standard load cover in New Zealand?) while the high-riding body gives useful off- or, more likely, rough-road ground clearance as well as usefully raising the hip points for easy entrance and exit. The interior is not particularly distinguished by design, materials or trim quality but is serviceable and functional enough and nothing failed to work properly. We also liked the flecked blue dashboard inserts matching the upholstery in the turbo model; these don’t make it into the export 2.4 models.