Let’s not beat around the bush: time has not been kind to the Mitsubishi Triton. While the original was well-received for its unconventional looks and car-like road manners, the second-gen was deemed off the pace in light of newer, more advanced rivals like the Ford Ranger and Nissan NP300 Navara – especially due to its unrefined carryover engine and short safety equipment count.

In the interim, of course, the competition has only gotten fiercer. The all-new Toyota Hilux was introduced last year, and both the Isuzu D-Max and Chevrolet Colorado have been given makeovers to keep them fresh on the market. Mind you, that hasn’t stopped the Triton from selling well over here, but there has always been a sneaking suspicion that its appeal wouldn’t last for much longer.

Mitsubishi knows this, and has given its bestseller a number of updates over the years, including the introduction of limited Phantom and Knight Edition models. More recently, the Triton finally received the new, cleaner and more frugal MIVEC engine – already offered in other markets – last year, plus a more rugged-looking Adventure X range-topper.

But it was only this year that Mitsubishi, at long last, looked serious to bring the Triton up to pace with the rest of the segment, adding a slew of safety features that were lacking before. But is all that enough for the latest iteration to go toe-to-toe with its rivals? We drive it on and off the road in Kota Kinabalu to find out.

You’d be hard pressed to tell the 2017 model year Triton from previous models from the outside, as the exterior design is virtually unchanged. There are a couple of telltale visual cues, however – the VGT models now get a dark chrome finish on the front grille (the range-topping Adventure X retains its signature matte black grille) as well as redesigned side steps that are said to improve entry and egress.

Few changes are apparent inside as well, with the biggest difference being the new, more premium-looking four-spoke steering wheel from the latest Pajero Sport. The Adventure and Adventure X variants also get an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, bringing the Triton up to date with the rest of the segment.

Otherwise, the interior is the same as before, which is to say that it feels sturdily built but ultimately utilitarian in nature, lacking the flourish of some of the best out there. You do get plenty of head- and legroom, however, and the rear bench backrest is set at a more comfortable angle than others in the segment, making the Triton the most car-like at the back.

By far the most important upgrades for 2017 come in the form of safety kit. Previously, the Triton lagged behind the rest of the pick-up market – although ABS was standard across the range, there was no stability control system offered at all, let alone an airbag count higher than a measly two.

Now, all VGT variants receive Active Stability and Traction Control (ASTC), with the Adventure and Adventure X models getting seven airbags as well, including one for the driver’s knees. It’s enough to give the Triton a five-star ASEAN NCAP safety rating on the two range-topping trims.

The MIVEC engine on the VGT models may be old news, but it still warrants mention here. The 2.4 litre four-cylinder diesel, featuring common-rail direct injection and variable geometry turbocharging as before, is smaller than the previous 2.5 litre unit, but gains variable valve timing and a segment-first aluminium block.

As such, outputs have been bumped 3 PS and 30 Nm to 181 PS at 3,500 rpm and 430 Nm of torque at 2,500 rpm; conversely, fuel consumption is claimed to have been reduced by 15%. We’ve previously conducted a fuel economy test illustrating just how much of a difference there is between the old and new engines.

The base VGT variant comes with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic, with the self-shifter coming as standard on the Adventure and Adventure X. All VGT models come with four-wheel drive with an Easy Select knob for switching between 2WD and high- and low-range 4WD modes.

On the road, the new engine impresses with strong mid-range pull under acceleration. Bear with the slight low-end turbo lag and the Triton rewards by surging effortlessly towards the upper ranges before tailing off. And while you won’t mistake the engine as anything other than a pick-up oil-burner – it’s still a little bit too gruff for that – engine noise and vibration are both far lower than on the old 2.5 litre mill.

Letting the side down slightly is the automatic transmission, which is hesitant to throttle inputs, blunting performance slightly. The upside is that the paddle shifters on the Adventure and Adventure X variants are lovely to look and touch – long, slender items that feel cold to the touch, they’re made from magnesium and affixed to the steering column Ferrari-style, rather than on the wheel itself.

But you can’t help but feel that they are thoroughly frivolous for such a workhorse, especially as they do little to perk up the gearbox’s responses. The manual, on the other hand, is a typical truck affair, with long throws and vague action, but featuring well-spaced ratios that take advantage of the engine’s surfeit of torque.

Other than all the oily bits, the Triton is the same beast as before, so it still leans towards off-road prowess rather than on-road driving manners. The ride is soft and slightly bouncy over highway undulations, and it doesn’t help that both road and wind noise are more readily heard in the Triton than in the best of the class, particularly the Ranger.

It’s the same story with the handling, where the Triton exhibits plenty of feel through the hydraulic power steering, but little in the way of precision. There’s a lot of roll too, but this being designed primarily as a workhorse, it’s more of a character trait rather than a flaw.

Where the Triton holds its own is when you take it off the beaten track. Here, the slow steering is a boon rather than a bother, making it less of a handful over rough terrain, and together with the feelsome rack allowing you to place the vehicle exactly where you want it.

The soft suspension also minimises the sort of side-to-side rocking motion that occurs when crossing large rocks or ruts. Manoeuvrability is a strong suit, too, with the Triton’s 5.9 metre turning radius being the smallest in the class, and the steering light enough for city driving and parking.

All things considered, the latest Mitsubishi Triton is good enough to once again become a solid contender. Sure, it’s not the most refined, comfortable or nimble truck around, but it makes up for it by being a very capable machine when the going gets tough. Added to that, it no longer has a tractor motor for an engine, and the new safety features propel it from the back of the class to becoming one of its star pupils.

The 2017 Mitsubishi Triton range starts at RM77,390 for the base Quest 4×2 manual and RM93,920 for the 4×4 manual. The VGT 4×4 models retail at RM107,600 for the manual and RM114,400 for the automatic, while the VGT Adventure 4×4 auto costs RM123,130; the range-topping VGT Adventure X 4×4 auto maxes out at RM130,900. All prices are on-the-road without insurance, inclusive of a five-year/200,000 km warranty (three-year/100,000 km warranty for non-VGT models).