EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

In the pantheon of great small cars, the name Mitsubishi doesn’t stand out in America the way that Honda, Toyota or Nissan do. But that should change with the introduction of the Lancer, the compact Mirage’s replacement.

The Lancer name may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but it’s a different story overseas. A derivative of this compact sedan has been winning the rally circuit since its first win in 1973. This little car has won four world rally titles and scored dozens of first place wins as well.

Little of this magic has translated into U.S. sales, mostly because of Mitsubishi calling the car Mirage, and watching the car’s sales disappear to Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

As much as the name change should help, so too should the new car itself, which is a big improvement over the humdrum little Mirage.

The exterior of the Lancer is clean and crisp. The front features Mitsubishi’s trademark split grille and bulges forward with an aggressive, yet tasteful strength. The large passenger compartment dovetails nicely into the crisp, razor-edged trunk. The result is clean and conservative with some character. The sophisticated look has the familial look of its larger siblings, the Galant and Diamante sedans.

When you climb inside, the refined style continues. The dash sweeps across the cabin in a gentle curve. The gauge cluster is simple, yet easy to read. The center of the dash bulges forward, housing a standard four-speaker 100-watt AM/FM/CD player. Three simple rotary dials control the automatic climate control. The heat came up quickly, warming the cabin with a quiet efficiency.

The front seats are fairly comfortable, with good side bolstering. The rear seat has a seat bottom cushion that’s a little low and short, but space is decent considering the overall size of the car. Trunk space appears larger than it’s 11.3-cubic foot measurement would suggest. It has a low lift-in height, making it easy to access. Still, the trunk lid’s gooseneck hinges rob some space.

The Lancer comes in three trim levels, base ES, upscale LS and sporty O-Z Rally Edition. Mitsubishi supplied an LS for testing. Aside from the stereo, the ES ( base price $13,897) offers a nice helping of standard equipment, including air-conditioning, power windows with auto down, power door locks, eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, tilt wheel, rear defroster, clock and intermittent wipers.

Jump to the LS (base price $15,897) and you also get cruise control, keyless entry, split-folding rear seats with headrests, floor mats, an upgraded stereo and variable intermittent wipers. The ES offers a preferred equipment package that adds the fold-down rear seats, rear center armrest with cupholders and floor mats. The same package on the LS adds anti-lock brakes and dual front side airbags. It’s worth the money to pop for the LS, if only to get the equipment package with those two important safety features.

The O-Z Rally Edition (base price $15,487) is the wild child, with alloy wheels, bumper extensions, side air dams, metal finish interior trim, white-faced gauges and trim embellishments. But there’s no extra power, so this is more for show than go.

Not that going is so shabby. There’s only one powerplant available, a 120-horsepower single-overhead-cam four-cylinder, hitched to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Typical of engines of this sort, power comes on strong only above 20 mph, but it’s quite willing to rev and feels stronger than its rating.

There is some typical four-cylinder engine noise, but it’s just enough to keep one involved, not enough to be distracting. Road, wind and tire noise have been banished. Add in the tastefully sculpted dash and the Lancer feels fairly refined and sophisticated for an entry-level car.

Handling is pretty typical of small cars. It’s light on its feet, with quick steering. It’s tossable, unti the tires give up and the car begins to understeer through corners.

Overall, the Lancer clearly pierces its competition, with a refined ride, good acceleration, a tastefully executed exterior and good level of standard equipment.

It seems that Mitsubishi’s days of lackluster small car sales may be a fading Mirage.

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