The Verdict: The 2016 Mitsubishi Lancer offers a comfortable ride and optional all-wheel drive, but its sedate driving experience and class-trailing technology drag it down.
Versus the competition: Compact cars were once a barebones offering that provided a way for people to buy a new car rather than a used one. Today, compact cars offer a wider variety of amenities — even a luxury experience — that can belie their small size. The Mitsubishi Lancer is a throwback to earlier compact cars; it lacks the variety and sophistication of features found in the rest of the class — notably in the multimedia department. Rather than being barebones alternatives to used cars, most of today’s compact cars offer a wide variety of amenities — sometimes even a luxury experience — that can belie their small size. Not so for the Lancer. It does, however, offer all-wheel drive — a rarity in this class — and has a comfortable ride.
The Lancer competes with cars such as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza. You can compare them here.
The Lancer is not an ugly car and never has been. It’s been an angular sedan since day one. The rest of the market, by comparison, moved to more of a jellybean shape — particularly the Focus — before returning to that more angular appearance (best observed in newer Imprezas). It’s interesting, in the face of all that change, that the Lancer has remained what it has always been — and that it still looks good.
The Lancer does, however, show its age in one area and once you see it, you can’t take your eyes off it: The optional backup camera is located in a housing that sticks out from the rear of the car. Every other car in the U.S. market these days does a better job of hiding it.
The Lancer SEL I drove should not be confused with the Lancer Evo (or Evolution) of years past, which was more of a sports car. Our Lancer offered a relaxed driving experience with a smooth ride that could feel a little floaty, less connected to the road than the Civic or Focus. The Impreza offers the least smooth ride of this competitive group, but it feels more connected to the road than the Lancer.
I spent some of my time in the Lancer driving off-pavement, across grass, and the Mitsubishi felt like it was made to do this. That’s partly because of its all-wheel drive, but I also felt like the Lancer had greater suspension travel that allowed the car to work its way over the bumps at slow speeds rather than drive across the top of them as all its competitors do.
Wherever it was driven, though, the Lancer wasn’t quick. My test car had a continuously variable automatic transmission and a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, which is the more powerful of two engine choices. The CVT provides good response. The worst CVTs have a weird, elastic response, but the Lancer’s mimics a traditional automatic transmission in that it “kicks down” as if downshifting when you go to make a pass. It’s not as good as the class-leading Civic’s CVT, but it’s at least as good as the CVT in the Impreza. (The Focus uses a dual-clutch automatic transmission.) Power, however, isn’t the Lancer’s strong suit; all the competitors in this class feel stronger.
Rarely seen in cars these days, the Lancer has a switch to toggle between two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and all-wheel-drive lock. The system works this way: In two-wheel drive, the Lancer drives the front wheels. In all-wheel drive, the torque split is as great as 50/50; while most of the power can go to the front wheels when needed, there will always be some power to the rear wheels and the car will never go into mostly rear-wheel drive. All-wheel-drive lock is something of a misnomer, as it changes the computer control of the system to become more aggressive in terms of how much power it sends to the rear wheels and how quickly it sends it there. It’s not bad — it works — but it’s different from most other systems.
As far as handling goes, the Lancer is numb, offering little feedback and giving you little in the way of suggestion to go faster. It is predictable, though. There was a time when the Lancer was at the top of its class, but the rest of the class — especially the Honda Civic — has since passed it. Off the highway and in the city, the Lancer is very maneuverable; its turning circle is much tighter than its competitors — anywhere from 2 to 3 feet smaller. That might not sound like much on a spec sheet, but in real life you’ll notice how easy it is to wind through a tight parking garage. I was pleasantly surprised and would rank the Lancer best among competitors in this regard.
What also helps is that visibility inside the Lancer is good. The car is a basic sedan, but that means you’re not faced — literally — with windshield pillars that tilt back toward you at a low angle. All in all, the Lancer is a pretty handy car to have in the city.
The Lancer does, however, use an older, hydraulic power steering setup. Such a system was an advantage for many years because of the feel for the road it could provide. But now that automakers have nailed down electric power assist, hydraulic is less of an advantage for road feel and it requires more energy to power even when driving straight, so it burns more gas.
Finally, the Lancer’s steering wheel doesn’t telescope, so it’s harder to get comfortable. More than one editor reported having to sit so close to the steering wheel in order to comfortably reach it that their knees hit a hard trim piece. A telescoping wheel is standard on the Focus, Civic and Impreza.
The Lancer is available with either a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter or 168-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, with either a five-speed manual or CVT and front- or all-wheel drive.
Mileage figures range from a high of 27/35/30 mpg city/highway/combined, for front-wheel-drive models with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder and automatic transmission, to a low of 22/31/25 mpg for 2.4-liter, front-wheel-drive models with the manual transmission. We tested an all-wheel-drive version with the 2.4-liter engine. It returns 23/31/26 mpg combined and comes only with the automatic transmission. While inflated fuel economy estimates have been reported for Mitsubishi models in Japan, no discrepancies have been found in the U.S. to date.
The Focus, Civic and Impreza also offer many different versions — including high-performance ST and RS versions of the Focus and a WRX version of the Impreza.
Excluding competitors’ high-performance versions, the combined mileage figure of 26 mpg for the Lancer SEL we tested falls behind the 30-35 mpg combined estimates for the Focus lineup, as well as the 31-35 mpg combined range of the Civic. The Impreza — the only car to offer standard all-wheel drive — also bests the Lancer, with 28-31 mpg combined. The higher figure reflects the automatic transmission.
The Lancer shows its age with the presence of round knobs to adjust the climate controls and radio (unlike the Civic’s confounding lack of audio tuning knobs of any sort). As my dad, who’s ridden in a few of my test cars, put it: “I think I could drive this car.” And I have to say, the more I fiddle with “high-tech” climate controls on other cars, the more I appreciate the Lancer’s straightforward design.
The interior felt a bit pinched from side to side and that’s not something I notice in other compact cars. I, too, had to sit closer to the dashboard than I normally would because of the lack of a telescoping steering wheel, but a small center storage bin and console meant I didn’t feel claustrophobic. That was especially true because visibility is so good.
Yet when I got in the Lancer’s backseat with the front seat set for how I was driving, legroom was tight and my knees were raised more than I like. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall, so taller people will want to spend some time in the Lancer — front and back — if they’re thinking of buying one. Headroom back there was OK.
Still, the center storage bin is small, as is the center console, so I didn’t feel claustrophobic; doubly so since the visibility is so good.
The quality of the interior is only so-so. Nothing looks really cheap, but nothing looks especially rich, either. The controls do feel a bit cheap, though; when you press a button, instead of the button surface going straight down, there’s a slight wiggle. That just doesn’t feel good.
For 2016, the Lancer adds a USB port. If you use your phone as a music storage device, though, it’s just plain easier to select a song through the phone than it will be through the multimedia interface. The best example of this is that if you want to scroll through your artists or albums to find a particular one, you have to start at the top and scroll through each artist page by page until you find it. There’s no swipe functionality to skip to a particular artist as there is on a phone … or in most other multimedia systems.
In this class, Ford Sync 3 is the clear winner as the best, most responsive system. The Subaru and Mitsubishi systems are pretty close in that they are reasonably easy to use and falter only when you use a phone as a musical storage device. Honda’s system is a clear loser, both in the compact class and among multimedia systems in general.
Also, the Lancer’s satellite radio cut out more than in any other car I’ve recently tested. Yes, many systems are blacked out when you drive around tall buildings — as we often do around our Chicago headquarters — but the Lancer was most affected by this.
The Lancer’s trunk is a good size and carried everything I needed for a long weekend. There’s a 60/40-split backseat, though there’s no way to release the backrests from the trunk. You have to fold them by hitting a button that’s inboard of the rear head restraints, but most other cars in the class also require this much stretching.
Inside, there are a few useful cubbies, including a covered one just forward of the gear selector that was my favorite. All in all, the Lancer is OK in terms of in-cabin storage. It doesn’t hold any real surprises.
The Mitsubishi Lancer is rated acceptable — the second-highest ranking available — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s small overlap front crash test. It received the highest rating — good — in IIHS’ other crash tests, but front crash prevention features are not available. The Focus scores the same in those same tests and doesn’t offer front crash prevention, either.
Both the Impreza and Civic received the Institute’s highest safety rating and do offer front crash prevention systems. You can browse the Lancer’s full list of features here.
The Lancer stands out as one of only two cars in the compact class to offer all-wheel drive. And after listening to some of my colleagues and myself rail for some time now against many of the newest touch-screen interfaces, I was surprised that, when confronted with the Lancer’s simple rotary climate controls, the universal response was, “It’s old.”
Perhaps there’s no satisfying a car reviewer, but I do think the aging design of the Lancer does it no favors. It’s not significantly cheaper than its competitors, but its lack of modern amenities suggests that maybe it should be. Other cars simply offer more features or — as in the case of the multimedia system — better execution of the same features.
In the end, the Lancer limits itself to drivers who want or need all-wheel drive but don’t like the all-wheel-drive Impreza, who desire a sedate driving experience with a comfortable ride, and who are willing to give up the driving dynamics and high-tech features of the Civic, Impreza and Focus.