By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Mitsubishi started it.
Or at least, it was one of the first car companies to do it really well, across its model lineup.
What’s that? Building economy-minded, affordable cars that were also fun-to-drive cars. The Lancer, for example. It was one of the first cars of its type to be more than just another econobox. In fact, it became the platform for the turbocharged, AWD Lancer EVO — one of the highest-performance cars on the market.
But the current Lancer has been around a pretty long time. Though Mitsu has tried to keep it fresh by adding the almost-EVO Ralliart version in 2009 and then a Sportback wagon in 2010, the current sedan dates all the way back to 2008. It’s only four years in human terms, but in car terms, four years is a model cycle. And since ’08, the compact sedan market has been literally flooded with new metal — including the Mazda3, the Hyundai Elantra, its cousin the slick-looking Kia Optima, the Ford Focus, etc. The list goes on.
2012 is much more competitive than 2008.
What does the Lancer bring to the table?
WHAT IT IS
The Lancer is a compact-sized sedan/wagon that starts off as a basic FWD economy car with some sporty qualities that gets progressively sportier (and less economical) the higher you move up the trims.
Prices start in Corolla-Civic territory at $15,695 for the base DE sedan and top out at $27,995 for a Ralliart turbo with AWD.
The Sportback ES wagon starts at $18,395 and tops out at $21,345 for the GT.
There’s a new mid-range SE all-wheel-drive trim for the sedan (AWD used to be offered only with the more expensive Ralliart) and you’ll notice a few tweaks here and there, such as new interior trim bits. But mostly, the ’12 Lancer is a carryover and pretty much the same as last year’s Lancer.
Unfortunately, the high-performance Ralliart package is no longer offered with the Sportback wagon bodystyle. Also, if you want a manual transmission, you don’t want the Sportback. It’s sold only with a CVT automatic.
Wide range — from base 148 hp FWD model to 237 hp turbocharged AWD Ralliart.
Sharp reflexes; fun to drive fast.
AWD is available for about $20k — most competitors don’t offer AWD at all.
Looks nice on the outside.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base 148 hp version is hungrier for gas than the competition.
No more Ralliart wagon; no more manual transmission wagon, either.
Turbocharged Ralliart is as gas hungry as some V-8s (18 city, 25 highway).
Looks a little downmarket on the inside. Hard plastics abound.
UNDER THE HOOD
The base FWD sedan and Sportback wagon come with a 2.0 liter, 148 hp four paired with either a five speed manual (sedan) or CVT automatic (Sportback).
This’ll get you to 60 in about 8.8 seconds flat (with the manual; CVT-equipped versions need about 9 seconds) and give you an EPA rated 26 city, 34 highway.
Compared with the “blue chip” economy sedans in this general price range — the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic — these stats are pretty good. The Corolla — which starts out higher at $16,130 — only gives you a 132 hp 1.8 liter engine, a 10 second 0-60 slog and the exact same 26 MPG city, 34 highway. The recently redesigned (and disappointing) 2012 Honda Civic sedan also starts out a few hundred bucks higher ($15,805) but likewise comes up shorter with a standard 1.8 liter, 140 hp engine — and a 9.2 second 0-60 run. The ’12 Civic’s MPGs are just barely better than the Lancer’s too: 28 city, 36 highway. (In as-it-sits form; Honda sells an efficiency package that ups the Civic’s mileage, but it costs extra.)
On the other hand, newer, more aggressive competitors make both the Lancer and the Corolla/Civic seem a bit overpriced — and much too thirsty.
For example,there’s the slick-looking 2012 Hyundai Elantra. $15,341 to start — and 40 MPG highway, standard. There’s also the new Accent. It’s only a little bit smaller over all (and inside) and also rates 40 MPG — and starts out at just $12,545 — $3,100 less than the entry-level Lancer DE.
But, the Lancer still has a card or two to throw down.
First, it offers not one but two optional engines (at least in the sedan). You can upgrade to a larger 2.4 liter, 168 hp engine — available with either a five-speed manual or CVT automatic. You can also order driver selectable AWD with this engine. The extra power/performance (0-60 in about 7.6 seconds) puts the Lancer a cut above cars like the Corolla and Accent, which don’t offer underhood upgrades — or AWD. The only car in this price range that does offer something similar for similar money is the Suzuki Kizashi — a great car let down by lack of publicity and (in some areas) hard to find dealerships.
There’s more, too.
You can get an almost-EVO if you order the Ralliart sedan. It comes with a turbocharged version of the 2.0 liter engine (just like the EVO) only toned down a little bit to 237 hp (vs. 291 hp in the EVO) and a similar performance-tuned AWD system working through dual-clutch auto-manual transmission. This’ll get you to 60 in 5.7 seconds — much quicker than a Honda Civic Si or Mazda3 SkyActive.
But it’ll also bleed you fast at the pump: 18 city, 25 highway.
For the record, a 2012 Mustang with a 305 hp 3.7 liter V-6 manages to beat that, easily: 19 city, 31 highway. A V-8 Mustang GT — with 412 hp — exactly matches the Mitsu’s performance at the pump: 18 city, 25 highway.
This puts the Mitsu in the Danger Zone — at least, with gas creeping up over $4 a gallon at the time of this review. When four-cylinder performance cars gave you better gas mileage than a V-6 or V-8 performance car, there was a strong incentive to buy the four-cylinder performance car. But now that you can get V-6 and V-8 performance cars (with a lot more performance) that do about as well or even better than a four-cylinder performance car… well… you can see where I am headed with this.
ON THE ROAD
The Lancer drives well; it’s as quick or quicker than others in its class — even the base DE with the 148 hp engine. As mentioned above, it has the beans to outrun the former Standard Bearers in the economy car class, Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic.
Versions with the step-up 2.4 engine (and Ralliart with turbo 2.0 engine) can do even better. There’s no faulting the Lancer’s straight-line abilities — or its corner carving capabilities, which are high (especially the Ralliart and AWD equipped versions).
The Lancer is still one of the best cars going in those categories. It’s not even close in terms of “fun to drive” relative to the current Corolla or Civic — either of which’ll put you to sleep faster than Mr. Spock’s neck pinch.
But it’s also a time machine that will take you back about five years — when economy cars still had tinny, light-flimsy feeling doors that didn’t close with a hermetic sealing whoosh like a Mercedes S-Class’s doors. When you could hear loose gravel being kicked up into the wheelwells by the tires.
It’s not that it’s crappy — it’s just not up to the very high standard of the latest stuff, especially stuff like the new Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra (and Accent), the Ford Fusion — to name the standouts.
AT THE CURB
On the outside, the Lancer looks nice — current. The ’08 redesign was sufficiently in tune with (and anticipatory of future) trends that it still looks fresh today, almost five years down the road. The availability of sedan and wagon bodystyles is a plus, too — especially relative to possible competitors like the Corolla, which only come in the sedan bodystyle.
Inside, however, the passage of time shows. The basic layout is fine; it’s just that there’s a lot of charcoal gray hard plastic all around you. If you compare the Lancer with the latest/newest stuff — models like the Elantra and Mazda3 especially (and don’t forget the AWD-available, six-speed Kizashi, either) you will immediately see what I’m talking about, Willis.
None of this is a functional issue. The Lancer’s controls are ergonomic; there’s a good-sizes storage cubby under your right arm in the center console, three large dials to control the AC add heat — even seat heaters (if you want ’em) as well as an available 40 GiG music storage hard drive, GPS and Mitsu’s Fuse voice control for the infotainment stuff. The hooded main gauge cluster looks sport bike spiffy — etc. It’s just that everything or nearly everything is finished in snapped together, dullish-looking hard plastics with no give at all when you touch them. This was typical back in ’08 in budget-priced stuff. It’s not anymore — and (as with the fuel economy issue) it’s a Lancer weak point.
Mitsu knows this, too. An optional Deluxe package replaces some of the harsh plastics with softer-touch stuff. But it’s extra cost and you have to start at the level of the $20,195 SE before you can even order it.
Mitsu should have just put the softer materials into every Lancer — including the $15k base DE.
The Lancer’s main plus is its notched-up aggressiveness relative to the usual econo-box. The car has a big following in tuner circles and there’sa lot of aftermarket stuff to wick it up, too.
The problem for Mitsu is that the typical econo-box is no longer the pill it was back in ’08. There are at least three or four models in this segment that offer as much or more, in terms of driving fun and good looks — in a newer/better-finished package that often gets a lot better gas mileage on top of that.
It doesn’t help Mitsu’s cause that the appealing (and newer design) Sportback wagon — which stacks up well against models like the Mazda3 wagon — isn’t offered in Ralliart form any longer — or even with a manual transmission. The lack of a third pedal option is hard to figure given the Lancer’s (and Mitsu’s) emphasis on sportiness.
Price is another issue.
Here Mitsu has the same problem that Toyota and Honda have — buyers can get some really appealing stuff for about the same coin or even less coin. Toyota and Honda can maybe get away with it — at least for now — because of their established status as class leaders and the buyer loyalty these brands enjoy. Mitsubishi, on the other hand, is a much smaller player that has also had some issues with durabiltiy/reliability that have resulted in much-worse-than-average depreciation rates.
One thing Mitsu might consider to make the Lancer more appealing would be to make AC standard in the base $15k DE sedan — which would undercut models like the Corolla, where AC costs extra.
And also, bring back the manual transmission option for the Sportback.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Lancer remains popular among the Fast and Furious Crowd — where the EVO lineage is still a draw.
But it’s past due for an update — and the sooner, the better.