EXPERT REVIEW

Cincinnati.com's view

If the Lancer bombs, it won’t be for lack of advertising support. The commercials seem omnipresent – you know, the ones with the twosomes and threesomes of frenetic 20-somethings who seem unusually high on life – on prime time TV. I guess they’re excited about being put in such close contact with members of the opposite sex, or maybe it’s the music, with its pulsing beat. It’s not the Lancer.

Mitsubishi has been selling – and rallying – a car named Lancer Evolution around the world for 30 years, and has finally sprung the praenomen on the States, though this is no fire-breathing all-wheel-driver. (Such a variant, to compete with the Subaru WRX, is promised for next year.)

Lancer enters toward the bottom of Mitsu’s lineup, essentially replacing the now-retired Mirage sedan. (The Mirage coupe will overstay its welcome a while longer, mostly in rental fleets as an incentive to renters to upgrade.)

It’s interesting that a car company would pitch a four-door to the young and restless; maybe kids are getting smarter these days and recognize that for all their old-folks image, sedans are a lot better at hauling people than their two-door cousins.

The Lancer is classified as a compact by the EPA, based on its overall volume of 105 cubic feet – nearly 94 c.f. of it available to the passengers, the rest in the trunk.

Prime competitors are the two small-car behemoths, Toyota, with its new Corolla, and Honda, with its esteemed Civic. One might also shop the slick Mazda Protege and the archaic Dodge Neon. Lancer lacks the refinement of the big two, but can be had at a price that might be feasible for someone without equity in a vehicle and for whom coming up with the “down” is a struggle. Owners on various Internet bulletin boards praise its sporty looks and seem to imagine it really IS sporty.

The base series Lancer is called the ES, and it starts at $14,442, including freight. That’s with the five-speed manual transmission, but it does include most of the mechanical features found on the pricier LS and “Z Rally” series. Viz., the same 2-liter engine, power steering and brakes, air conditioning, AM-FM-CD stereo, power windows and locks, air conditioning, rear defroster and of course front air bags. The only obvious skimping is the rubber – the ES has 185/65s on 14-inch steel wheels, while the others get 15-inchers on alloy wheels – not a big deal, really, at this price point.

A four-speed “adaptive” automatic transmission will run $800, but would be a heavy load for this car.

The engine, even on the OZ Rally edition I tested, is a mundane four-cylinder aluminum-over-cast-iron single-overhead-cammer. It produces 120 hp (@5,500 rpm) and 130 foot-pounds of torque (@4,250).

Its principal virtue is its contentment with small quantities of regular fuel. EPA estimates are 26 mpg city, 33 highway. In an equal mix of highway cruising and back-roads gear-stirring, I consumed the hydrocarbons at the penurious r ate of a gallon every 28.9 miles.

That laudable figure may in part be due to the car’s lack of appeal to my baser instincts. The OZ Rally (actually, it should be O.Z., for the renowned Italian company which supplied the fancy alloy wheels), despite having an assertive add-on spoiler, is the heaviest car in the line and thus probably the worst stopwatch-beater.

At 2,701 pounds with the five-speed, it’s no featherweight. Even with the manual trannie, it felt about 30 horses shy of fun. The automatic would try one’s patience, I suspect. I felt pretty stupid languidly merging onto freeways with that big spoiler promising what the car could not deliver. Save the spoiler money – it’s an option – for oil changes.

The clutch was fairly light and easily modulated. The transmission was so-so, somewhere between crisp and sloppy. It wouldn’t be too daunting for a neophyte at the stir-your-own game, especially given the modest power being applied to the front wheels.

Gear ratios are fairly well chosen to make the most of the rather peaky, sometimes noisy engine. Top is a 0.767:1 overdrive cog, working in conjunction with a final ratio of 4.041:1. On the freeway, I found it best to drop down to fourth for passing.

Larger than the norm, I nonetheless didn’t feel crammed in behind the wheel, although I never forgot that I was in a compact, either.

The rear seats fold down or provide, for journeys longer than club-to-club, cruel and unusual punishment for three people, or, better, two consenting adults.

The ride quality of the Lancer was fairly good. It skipped over little stuff, and dealt competently with larger highway insults.

The handling was predictable, though far from crisp, and the car faithfully adhered to the course dialed in on the freeway. There was a bit of suspension and air noise at 70 mph, but it wasn’t worse than moderately loud over concrete.

The interior, even in this tricked-out edition, seemed patently cheap.

The exterior, but for the Pontiac-like nose, was clean and inoffensive (we’re deleting the spoiler, remember!), and the paint job decent. The braking was mediocre. All Lancers have decent-sized ventilated discs in front, smallish drums rear. Antilock is available only as a package that includes side air bags, and only on the LS series. Odd.

Stopping distances seemed fairly lengthy, and the pedal felt as if it were embedded in mush.

The stereo was of middling quality. It has a claimed 100 watts of power – quite enough for deafening volumes – and four speakers on OZ Rally and ES editions, six on the LS. Tuner sensitivity was a little sub-par, and FM broke up nastily in fringe areas.

The government has not yet sacrificed a Lancer on the altar of safety, but the insurance folks have. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) smashes its victims into a yielding barrier at 40 mph, with impact offset from the center line, as usually is the case in the real world. The federal test is less demanding. When the dust cleared and the films were developed, IIHS gave the Lancer its top rating overall, “good,” and pronounced it a “best pick” in the small-car category, along with the Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic and VW New Beetle. The only category Lancer didn’t ace was “dummy kinematics.” The android’s head bounced off the exploded air bag and into the B pillar, but not very hard, they said.

Be careful when approaching immovable objects in the Lancer. IIHS’s sequence of four 5-mph barrier tests showed it suffered an average $776 damage, one of the worst performances in the class.

Base price on the manual-shifter OZ Rally edition is $15,487. The tester had the $360 rear spoiler glued on, for a final price, with freight, of $16,392. Payments at that price would run $332, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 installments. Edmunds.com’s national surveys suggest you might be able to get a dealer to shav e as much as $800 from the asking price.

“The Gannett News Service”

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