Mitsubishi's Lancer Just Misses the Mark

It's sporty and inexpensive but it's up against stiffand bettercompetition from Honda, Mazda, and Toyota

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Price, sporty handling, innovative continuously variable transmission

The Bad: Disappointing fuel economy and interior, lack of optional equipment

The Bottom Line: A sporty new compact that doesn't quite top the competition

Up Front

Most people don't immediately think about Mitsubishi (MMTOF) when shopping for a new car. The company, after all, has a low profile and relatively low sales in the U.S. But if you're looking for a compact car and you want to add a little spice to your daily driving experience, it's worth taking a look at the 2008 Lancer, which Mitsubishi has redesigned in hopes that it will compete more effectively in the cutthroat compact car market, which is dominated by models such as the Honda (HMC) Civic and Toyota (TM) Corolla.

The previous version of the Lancer didn't make much of a splash. In fact, the last version of the car was the '06 model; Mitsubishi didn't even bother to produce an '07. The 2008 Lancer, which started hitting showrooms in March, is peppier and better looking than the bland model it's replacing. In general, it's leaning away from a conventional compact and toward the sporty end of the spectrum, with driving characteristics similar to a Scion tC, a Mazda3, or a Subaru Impreza.

How many people end up buying the new Lancer is open to question. For my money, it doesn't have the edge it needs to lure buyers away from better-established rivals such as the Civic Si, the Scion tC, and Mazda3, though it may lure some away from sportier versions of domestic models such as the Ford (F) Focus and General Motors' (GM) Chevy Cobalt.

The new Lancer is based on the same platform as Mitsubishi's new Outlander sport-utility vehicle, as well as partner DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber. The '08 Lancer is slightly shorter and nearly three inches wider than the previous model, and has far more distinctive exterior styling, with cat-eye front headlights, contoured flanks, and a poised, ready-to-pounce profile. The sporty GTS, in particular, is designed to look like a rally car, with extra cladding to bulk up the body along the sides, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a big spoiler on the trunk lid.

The Lancer comes in three trim levels, all powered by a 2.0 liter, all-aluminum, four-cylinder engine rated at 152 horsepower. The DE starts at just $14,615 but is very bare bones. Air conditioning and antilock brakes cost $1,100 extra, for instance (as part of a package that also includes power windows and locks).

The ES, which starts at $16,615, comes standard with those basics, as well as with power locks with remote keyless entry, steering-wheel mounted audio and cruise controls, fold-down rear seats, and 16-inch alloy wheels. A five-speed, manual transmission is standard on both the DE and ES, but you can get a continuously variable automatic transmission for an extra $900.

For drivers who like a vehicle with a little pep and pizzazz, however, the most interesting version of the '08 Lancer is the GTS, which starts at $18,115. In addition to the extras mentioned above it has bucket seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a sport-tuned suspension.

In the GTS, you can either go with the five-speed stick shift or (for an extra $1,000) a continuously variable transmission with a manual mode that allows the driver to do the shifting using steering-wheel-mounted paddles. That's unusual because the whole point of CVTs is that they don't shift; Mitsubishi engineers have programmed pauses into the Lancer's CVT to make it seem like shifts are occurring.

If you're really into speed wait until the first quarter of 2008, when the high-performance Lancer Evolution, which has standard all-wheel drive and a turbocharged engine, will be reintroduced to the U.S. market. The Evo, as rally fans and boy racers will fondly remember, was a turbocharged screamer capable of rocketing from zero to 60 mph in five seconds flat. (It also cost nearly twice as much.)

The '08 Lancer hasn't been crash-tested yet in the U.S. but it comes loaded with seven airbags, including front, side, and side-curtain bags (which run the length of the cabin), and a knee bag for the driver.

The Lancer doesn't have many options. A bargain at $1,500 is the "Sun and Fun" package, available on the ES and GTS. It includes a sunroof, six months of Sirius satellite radio, and a great-sounding 650-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system with a six-CD, in-dash changer and extra auxiliary jacks.

On the GTS, an extra $2,000 will also get you a navigation system with a 30-Gb hard disk that can store and play music—available as an accessory on the ES for $2,190.

The Lancer's Achilles heel, as far as I'm concerned, is its relatively poor fuel economy. The car's official mileage stats (21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway) look feeble for a compact car, but that's partly because they reflect tougher testing standards put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency for the 2008 model year. However in 235 miles of mixed driving I only got 23.3 mpg, and a couple of other reviewers have also pegged the car's mileage in the 22- to 24-mpg range.

By comparison, I got 29.8 mpg in a Hyundai Elantra with a stick shift, and more than 30 mpg in the Civic and Corolla. Even in the SE-R, a speedy version of the Nissan (NSANY) Sentra, I got 26.5 mpg over 327 miles of mixed driving. Granted, the Lancer is a lot of fun to drive, but I didn't push it as hard as I do most test cars. In a period of rising gasoline prices, you'd expect better fuel efficiency.

Mitsubishi has a lot riding on the Lancer, which is one of the keys to the turnaround the company is trying to forge in the U.S. market. It's too early to know how well the new model will sell, but early signs are positive; Lancer sales hit 3,019 in June, up 195% vs. the same month last year. That's not bad considering sales of some competing compact models were being pumped up with big rebates.

The Lancer is also helping Mitsubishi gain new, youthful customers. According to the Power Information Network, 74% of Lancer buyers are people who don't already own a Mitsubishi. The average Lancer buyer (and Mazda3 buyer) is only 38, according to PIN; the average Scion tC buyer is 37.

Strong sales of the Lancer, Galant, and Outlander propelled Mitsubishi to a 21% overall increase in U.S. sales in the first half of this year, to 70,357 units.

Behind the Wheel

The driving experience is the Lancer's main selling point, especially if you pay extra for the GTS. Mitsubishi has stiffened up the frame compared to the previous model, and the Lancer feels tight. There were no rattles or squeaks in my test GTS, even during hard driving over bumpy back roads. Steering is precise for such an inexpensive car, and I felt very confident pushing the Lancer hard into curves.

Despite its relatively small engine, the Lancer is also very quick. The times I got in accelerating from zero to 60 in a test car with a stick shift varied considerably, with the fastest time being 8 seconds and the slowest around 9.5 seconds. However, I had a blast no matter how fast or slow my time. This is one front-wheel-drive compact in which you end up regularly squealing the tires and peeling rubber if you aren't careful. Sometimes, when I popped the clutch during 0 to 60 runs, the Lancer just sat there with the tires spinning and squealing until they finally grabbed. The car felt like a little dragster.

At 180 inches the new Lancer is slightly longer than the Honda Civic, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, and Ford Focus. But the Lancer has the tightest turning radius than any of its main rivals—just under 33 feet—making it easy to maneuver in parking lots.

The Lancer's interior is much improved compared with the previous model, but it still isn't great. On the plus side, the controls are well-placed and easy to use, and there's a reasonable amount of head and leg space in both the front and back seats. The rear seats also fold down (though not flat) and the opening between the trunk and passenger compartment is unusually wide, so you can haul bulky cargo when the need arises. I hauled a handcart and three big boxes of books in the Lancer with room to spare.

There are also a number of nice features you wouldn't expect to find on such an inexpensive car. An example is the keyless starting system—as long as you have the key fob, you can start the Lancer by simply turning a knob on the steering column, and the doors unlock and open without a key. Another nice touch is an unobtrusive little black button on the car's rear end that opens the trunk.

However I have numerous quibbles with the Lancer's design. For instance, the cabin is surprisingly loud on the highway and going over bumpy back roads. The center arm lift isn't adjustable and is positioned a little low for my 5-foot, 10-inch frame, so I suspect it's way too low for taller drivers. The trunk liner in my test car was loose and moved out of position when I loaded boxes into the trunk. And why is there no mute button included with the steering wheel-mounted audio controls? It's a small thing, but a mute button is very handy when you're making phone calls, ordering food at a drive-through, etc.

One of the things about the Lancer that annoyed me most is how flimsy the doors felt. They don't close with a reassuring thud. And if you just pull or push the doors shut, they aren't solid and heavy enough to close on their own. I repeatedly had the experience of getting into the Lancer only to discover that one or more of the doors wasn't closed properly.

It also seems to me that there should be more options offered on the new Lancer. Why can't you get one with leather seats, for instance? The black cloth seats in my test GTS looked nice, but they really showed dust and lint, and there was way too much shiny, black, vinyl-like material on the doors and dash.

It also would be nice to have the option of getting backup alarm, heated outside mirrors, and power adjustable front seats. Given how competitive the compact car segment is, the Lancer needs something more to set it apart from the crowd.

Buy It Or Bag It?

I have mixed feelings about the new Lancer. I really like the way it drives and the way it looks from the outside. The price is right, too, and the car comes with an excellent five-year/60,000-mile warranty that includes five years of free roadside assistance.

But there are comparably priced, rival models with fewer downsides. The Mazda3 comes to mind. The '07 Mazda3's recent average selling price of $18,801 is almost exactly the same as the '08 Lancer's $18,777 average price, according to PIN. Yet the Mazda handles as well as the Mitsubishi and is available with a slightly bigger, 2.3-liter engine. Plus, in online discussion groups, Mazda3 owners report getting mileage in the 30-mpg range.

The '08 Scion tC, a sporty little car made by Toyota that comes with tons of standard equipment, is also selling for almost the same average price as the Lancer. I don't know how it does in real-life driving but it's rated to get 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway under the new government rating system, same as the Lancer.

If you have extra cash to spend, the Honda Civic also surpasses the Lancer, in my opinion. The trouble there is that you probably have to move up to the Civic Si, which costs several thousand dollars more, to match the Lancer's sportiness. The Civic Si should get better mileage than the Lancer, but it uses premium gasoline while the Lancer uses regular.

Among domestic nameplates, the Ford Focus ZX4 ST sedan starts at around $18,000, about the same as the Lancer GTS. I'd prefer the Lancer GTS if the price were the same, but the Focus has been heavily discounted by dealers all year long, so it's probably considerably cheaper.

The bottom line is that I'd be tempted to buy a Lancer, despite its weaknesses, just for the way it looks and drives. But I'd do some heavy-duty comparison shopping before laying down any cash.

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