EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

It’s been a long time since we’ve driven such a capable car that left us so cold. But that was our gut reaction to the all-new 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer. And we’re not talking about the base model, but a Lightning Yellow O-Z Rally Edition.

Our Japanese-built test car was reasonably priced at $16,392 – not ag reat premium over the base Lancer ES, which starts at $13,897. Unfortunately, you can’t get such critical features as antilock brakes or side air bags on the ES or the O-Z (which takes its name not from L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel, but from the custom wheel company).

He: You know, there are so many entries in the small-car market these days, probably the last thing consumers need is another choice – especially one that doesn’t really raise the bar in any way.

She: Or raise their eyebrows. I was really anxious to hear our young friend Brandon’s reaction to the Lancer. He’s a high -school kid and a car nut who’s tricked out his Pontiac Sunfire with some hot wheels and tires, saying that even if it doesn’t go fast, it looks fast. I thought he’d be thrilled with the Lancer O-Z, which also looks like it should go fast. Brandon wrinkled his nose and said three sides of the Lancer looked good, but the front end didn’t cut it.

He: In other words, it’s the proverbial camel.

She: Huh?

He: You know, the old automotive joke about the camel being a horse that was designed by a committee.

She: Actually it feels like it was designed by a grandpa, not to mention somebody who forgot about safety and other considerations. The Lancer is the oddest car. It pretends to look slick, but you get in it, and you feel like you’re driving an old Chrysler K-car.

He: That could be pretty embarrassing, considering that Mitsubishi is doing a lot of engineering work on the next Chrysler Neon, which will share parts with – guess what? – the Lancer.

She: This is all very confusing.

He: Let me explain. First, let me say that the 2002 Lancer is much better in most ways than its predecessor, the Mirage. But while the Lancer is competent and inoffensive, it has almost no personality – not even with snazzy wheels and a shocking paint job. That’s what you were alluding to with that K-car remark.

She: Actually, I felt really comfortable in the Lancer. That’s why I think it’s such a grandpa car. But it’s not that good for grandpas – or kids either. A big problem I found was trying to read the red backlit gauges at night. Or the digital clock during the daytime. I know those are nitpicky things, but we’re talking quality of life. And there’s that safety issue, where you can’t get side bags or ABS on the Lancer O-Z or the base ES.

He: We’re also talking about playing in a market segment with some very tough competitors, including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Ford Focus. Speaking of grandpa cars, the Lancer doesn’t go fast either.

While it comes with a 120-horsepower 2.0-liter f our-cylinder engine that’s bigger and more powerful than many competitors’ base engines, you can’t get anything bigger or more robust. That’s not the case with many rivals, including the Civic and Focus.

She: The Lancer is not really a dog. We both gave it two stars, which is acceptable and middle-of-the-road. It is roomy, especially for those with long legs. The O-Z model has a nice ride – kind of sporty, but not too bouncy, with lots of suspension travel and front and rear stabilizer bars to keep it from leaning over in turns. And you’ve got to love all those standard features on the O-Z.

He: Even the base ES model comes nicely equipped, with standard air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors and a 100-watt AM-FM stereo with CD player, not to mention a tasteful little strip of woodgrain across the front of the instrument panel, to reinforce the company’s notion that this is no ordinary economy car.

She: I can’t really picture the person who wo ove this car. I have a clear image of the typical Saturn buyer and typical Focus buyer – even the typical Civic buyer. Who would the typical Lancer customer be?

He: Somebody who wants to remain anonymous. Who doesn’t want his or her car to reflect his or her personality. Sorry, I don’t know anyone who fits that description. And that shouldn’t take a wizard to figure out.

2002 Mitsubishi Lancer O-Z Rally

Anita’s rating: Acceptable

Paul’s rating: Acceptable

Likes: Better than its predecessor, the Mirage. Lots of standard equipment. Decent ride quality. Roomy cabin. More powerful base engine than many competitors. Great audio system.

Dislikes: Side air bags and ABS not available on standard Lancer, and $800 extra cost on LS. Mish-mashy styling lacks personality. Those red backlit gauges are fuzzy and hard to read at night. Can’t read digital clock during daytime. $360 for the optional spoiler?! (Anita). Competitors offer more powerful optional engines.

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact sedan.

Price: Base, $15,487; as tested, $16,392 (inc. $545 destination charge).

Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 120-hp; 130 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,074 (Ratesmay be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Japan.

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