Orlando Sentinel's view

Mitsubishi continues to battle back the only way a car company can: Build good vehicles. The 2008 Lancer is another pleasant surprise, but it was not entirely unexpected — Mitsubishi’s excellent Outlander sport ute shares a basic chassis with the Lancer, so after driving a few Outlanders, I expected a competent Lancer.

And competent is what I got. This new Lancer is a half-inch shorter than the model it replaces, though the 2008 is nearly 3 inches wider. The overall impression is that this is a bigger car, with more elbow room, a decent rear seat and a generous trunk. All Lancers receive the same engine — a 2.0-liter, 152-horsepower four-cylinder — and it’s as good as anything the competition has.

The Lancer is offered in three models: the base DE, the midlevel ES and the sporty GTS. Most of my time in the Lancer was in a GTS, which has a slightly stiffer suspension, 18-inch tires and wheels, larger brakes and a few other boy-racer features, including a huge rear spoiler that made the GTS look considerably faster than it is. The idea, I suspect, is to remind younger buyers of the legitimately fast all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution, which is due before the year is out.

Transmission choice is a five-speed automatic or a CVT, which stands for continuously variable transmission. A CVT works like an automatic but has an infinite range of gears, instead of the usual four, five or six speeds. The CVT never shifts perceptibly — the sensation is like that of a boat, where you just crack open the throttle, and it goes.

To make the GTS seem sportier, though, Mitsubishi picked six random gear settings on the CVT and lets the driver “shift” by flipping huge paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, so it feels sort of like a six-speed manual but with no clutch. It’s a novelty, but one that might appeal to some buyers.

On the road, the Lancer GTS handled like a typical sport-tuned front-wheel-drive car, which is to say with some mild and predictable understeer when rammed into a tight corner. The ride is very good on smooth pavement but a little jarring on rougher roads.

Inside, the Lancer is no luxury car, but this one was well-equipped with comfortable, supportive bucket seats and several major options. A “Sun and Sound” package ($1,500) added a 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate upgrade to the stereo, plus Sirius satellite radio and a power sunroof. A “Navi and Tech” package ($2,000) added a satellite-linked navigation system and a 30-gigabyte hard drive that handled navigation and downloaded music. That package also includes the FAST key (Freehand Advanced Security Transmitter), a cloying name for an ignition that doesn’t need a key inserted, requiring only that the key is somewhere inside the car. Total price for this car, with shipping: $22,615.

I also drove a lesser-equipped Lancer ES with the regular five-speed manual transmission and no big spoiler on the back that, truth be told, I preferred instead of the GTS, and I would probably save more than $3,000.

Pick your Lancer — bottom, middle or top of the line — and you’ll likely be impressed by what Mitsubishi has delivered. Desperation often makes for some good products.

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