In “The Blue-Eyed Salaryman,” American author Niall Murtagh charts his fourteen-year career inside Mitsubishi Japan. When Murtagh gets transferred to Osaka, he concludes that the Tokyo part of the company focuses on large visionary research projects, while Osaka demands practical applications. And there you have it: the dichotomy that accounts for Mitsubishi’s progress in the automotive arena. You have visionary products like the Evo with very little practical purpose, and dull products like the Outlander with very little vision. So where does the new Lancer fit?
Never mind the subtext, check out those lines! Designing a good-looking compact car ain’t easy nowadays. You’ve got to maximize interior space, accommodate an expanding complement of airbags and facilitate fuel efficiency (with aerodynamics that force sheetmetal shapes down the slippery slope towards suppository chic). Things can go horribly wrong; reference the Honda Civic sedan. Or the previous Lancer, which was as sexy as dental floss. This one the Mitsubishi design team nailed.
The Lancer’s proportions and details are spot on. The high beltline adds to the impression of size from the outside, yet allows occupants to feel surrounded and safe. The Lancer’s new front fascia copies Audi’s current pig snout and makes it work, flanking the orifice with a set of angry eyes headlights and bisecting the otherwise gaping maw with a suitably wide bumper. Mitsu ripped off the tail lamp design from the Alfa 156– a gorgeous machine that Americans never got the chance to ignore.
The new Lancer is not a stunning design per se– it’s more handsome than drop-dead gorgeous. But it is a stunning development for Mitsubishi. The Lancer is to Mitsubishi what the Altima was to Nissan five years ago: a radical reskin that instantly elevates a plain-Jane model from zero to hero. Unfortunately, the parallel continues inside.
Thanks to Mitsu’s PR paparazzi, the Lancer’s cabin looks decidedly avant-garde. The flacks focused on the steering wheel, perfect in both diameter and thickness (though littered with stereo buttons and Bluetooth phone controls). They highlighted the Lancer’s sport bike-inspired gauges. They flagged its slick stereo, neatly integrated into the dash with precise, Teutonic buttonology.
Off camera, the new Lancer’s interior does the time-warp again. It’s a generic Japanese mishmash fabricated with some of the worst automotive plastics inflicted on U.S. consumers since A Flock of Seagulls first crapped on Top 40 radio, with bulbous switches that feel like they were attached with thumb tacks. The seats are nicely supportive, but why Mitsu decided to support the mouse fur industry by covering the Lancer's chairs and roof with rodent pelts is both an aesthetic and ethical conundrum.
Driving the base model Lancer is an eye-opening experience, especially when you realize that (1) the Evo X will obviously be celestial and (2) THIS is what they started with?
The Lancer is just an awful little car to pilot, for sportster and commuter alike. In the pursuit of a compliant ride, Mitsu has fitted the base car with a suspension made out of Twinkies. Potholes send the car bucking in a fit of confusion. And then there’s body roll. Lots and lots of body roll. Quick turns? Out of the question. (Fast corners make you their bitch.) Within minutes of assuming command, my need for speed did recede. I gave up trying to do anything more than get from Point A to Point B in the space of a single day.
Yes, I know: the Lancer’s an economy car. But it could be the only car sold in America that can make an entry level Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Elantra seem like a sports sedan. And the Lancer only achieves 21/29 mpg. How frugal is that?
The Lancer’s all-new 2.0-liter engine is rated at 152 horses (at an unattainable 6000 rpm). I swear a quarter have bolted for greener pastures. A wide open throttle simply kicks the CVT's droning tone up a notch. This isn’t about being a boy-racer. It’s about needing a sign to apologize to drivers while attempting merges.
What really sucks the life out of the Lancer (and sucks in general): its continuously variable transmission. Unless you opt for the top-o-the-line GTS with fake shift points, the CVT is forever locked into penalty mode. It's no fun at all.
The new Lancer is a research project gone horribly wrong. On paper, it’s a superb vehicle: 150 horsepower, loads of safety features (seven airbags, including the now popular driver's knee airbag), gadget options galore and racy good looks. But it’s all show and no go.
With Mitsubishi’s American operations just climbing out of sea of red ink, it’s too bad the company forgot to benchmark the competitions' driving dynamics. The forthcoming take-no-prisoners Evo version will no doubt sort that out, but after sampling the base Lancer, I highly doubt Mitsubishi’s ability to rescue its American ambitions from the dustbin of history.