For 2008, the Lancer compact sedan gets a complete redesign. The move is a vital part of Mitsubishi's current lineup renaissance, one needed after years of products that, while good, never bested the competition. The Lancer is one of the most important models in the company's lineup, and after testing the top-of-the-line GTS, I can attest to the fact that it is a successful and stunning update.
Some people suggest that a car's performance is the most important part of any review, but that's not the case with the new Lancer. This is one sharp-looking sedan. Rarely do I test a sub-$20,000 car that gets stares, but the Lancer GTS, with its 18-inch alloy wheels and super-sized spoiler, had plenty of heads turning in its direction.
The most daring design element is the front end, with its frowning grille and sharp headlights tucked underneath an angled hood. There are so many stylish lines on the new Lancer I was surprised by something new each time I showed it to someone. During a video shoot, I noticed that there are actually two distinct lines running down the rear flank of the car, not just one.
Around back, the taillights slant inward, toward the license plate, but also protrude out from the car's body — not flush like most vehicles — just at the top of the taillight. The bottoms are flush with another style line sliding underneath. That's a lot of detail for a company's entry-level vehicle.
As stylish as the outside is, the inside carries over more of the company's trends from other vehicles, like the Outlander compact SUV. It's a stark existence; black is the only interior color choice. The good thing about black, though, is that it hides a lot of flaws.
Not that the interior is terribly flawed; there are some cheap elements, like the grab handles on the doors and the trip computer button beside the gauges, but it certainly holds its own against the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus in the compact class. Only the Honda Civic and perhaps the Mazda3 upstage it on the inside.
The Lancer's gauges are quite sporty, as are the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. These are the key areas that drivers are always connected to, and doing a good job with them is vital. Ergonomically, the Lancer does just fine, with short stubby stalks on either side of the wheel for the turn signals and windshield wipers, three easy-to-grasp knobs for the environmental controls and a straightforward stereo interface. There are plenty of areas around the center part of the dash to store cell phones, drinks and MP3 players, as well.
The front seats are comfortable and keep occupants firmly in place. They're covered in a microfiber material that should be easy to keep clean, though they could be static electricity magnets in the winter. While the front seats are adequate, the backseat really shines with its legroom. At 5 feet, 10 inches, I sat behind a driver's seat adjusted for my height and had several inches of knee and foot room.
I chauffeured my in-laws to the airport in the Lancer, and my wife and mother-in-law thought the backseat was plenty roomy, though my mother-in-law noted the seatback reclined a bit too much for her taste. Like most rear seats, they cannot be adjusted.
The seats also fold down with the press of a button near the headrests. The resulting cargo floor isn't level with the trunk floor, and I can't think of much I'd need to fit in such a space beyond a set of skis. Otherwise, for cargo hauling you're probably better off just leaving the seats up and placing cargo on the rear floor and seat cushions.
The 152-hp four-cylinder engine produces plenty of power to move the Lancer at highway speeds, even when fully loaded with four adults and luggage. My only reoccurring thought was that no matter how competent the Lancer was in the performance department, it just wasn't as sporty as it looked. I can hear the engineers blaming the designers right about now.
The Lancer comes in base DE, mid-level ES and top-level GTS trims. In the GTS, the suspension gets some sportier tuning, there's a stabilizer strut fitted in the engine bay, and the larger wheels and performance tires help with grip. The handling was exceptional, but the five-speed manual still shifted like this was an everyday commuter. It did its job extremely well, just not with any high-performance skill or short shift motions. The engine revved energetically in low gears, but because power comes at such an even pace, it lacks the thrill one experiences from either high-revving or low-grunting power plants.
Still, the Lancer outshines most of the competition in its class. The more-powerful Mazda3 S is the only model that has more performance for the price. Otherwise, you'd have to move up to more-expensive performance-oriented models like the Honda Civic Si to best it in terms of compact sedans.
Braking was another area that was particularly noteworthy. Some competitors, like the Civic, have grabby brakes that offer grip the instant you touch the brake pedal, resulting in unnecessary lurching from time to time. Others have a mushier feel, with braking only coming after the pedal has been significantly depressed. The Lancer has an interesting approach: There's a small threshold when you first tap the brake pedal, with no significant grip until that threshold is passed. Then braking comes on at an appropriate, linear pace. This may sound like a small thing, but in bumper-to-bumper traffic, it's a lifesaver for your passengers — and your neck.
While the ride was relatively smooth, there was a significant amount of road noise intruding on the cabin. It was so loud on certain surfaces that it actually impeded a conversation with a passenger. Solo drivers might find solace in the stereo.
Gas mileage is average, rated at 21/29 mpg city/highway with the five-speed manual and 22/29 city/highway for the continuously variable automatic transmission. These are 2008 estimates, which are lower than what we've been used to through the 2007 model year, thanks to new EPA testing guidelines. Under the old guidelines, both transmissions would be rated at 25/31 mpg city/highway. Again, those numbers are about average, but significantly less than segment frontrunners like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and just slightly worse than the Mazda3 S.
The Lancer got around 24 mpg in mixed highway and suburban driving and well under 20 mpg in city driving.
To come in at under $14,000, the base Lancer DE forgoes some important equipment like air conditioning and antilock brakes; both are part of a $1,100 option package. The DE does come with power windows, an auto-theft engine immobilizer and a knee airbag.
The ES is the next level, starting at $15,990 with a manual transmission and adding A/C, 16-inch alloy wheels, split-folding rear seats, remote entry and ABS.
At $17,490, the GTS is the top trim. It adds a sportier suspension setup and huge, 18-inch alloy wheels. The disc brakes are also larger on the GTS, and there's a body kit and rear spoiler to add to the sports car look.
My tester had the optional Sun & Sound package, which added a sunroof and a 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate six-CD sound system with a subwoofer for $1,500. It's not an insignificant price, but the stereo isn't one of those "I could build a better one myself for the money" affairs. I tested a number of CDs on it, and the bass from the sub perfectly matched whatever I was listening to. It never distorted the sound, even during bass-heavy hip-hop selections. Rock fans will be just as happy, as the mid-ranges hold their own with the bass. Clarity was also superb. It will bring the price right up to $20,000, but it's an option that's hard to pass up if you're already thinking about the GTS.
There's also a $2,000 Navigation & Technology package that includes a 30GB hard drive navigation system that can also play digital music. The price tag is an additional $2,000. Leather seating surfaces aren't offered on any trim level.
The Lancer comes with seven airbags, including seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags and a knee airbag for the driver — a relative rarity in this segment. ABS is optional on the DE base trim and standard on the ES and GTS.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet crash tested the new Lancer.
Lancer in the Market
In an ultra-competitive segment, the new Lancer has a few things going for it, not the least of which is its looks. Because many shoppers in the compact segment are younger, first-time buyers, Mitsubishi's stylish design could pay off with trendsetters in the under-30 set.
The fact that there is still a significant amount of value in the Lancer to go along with its sporty driving dynamic doesn't hurt, either. Its main fault is that it doesn't drive as aggressively as it looks, but nothing in this class does. After a week in the Lancer, I felt like I had been driving it for a year, and it had enough sporty attitude for most drivers out there. And I didn't mind all the attention I got in it, either.
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