By on April 23, 2012

Both Derek and Steven have recently had a go at their worst new small cars (and if you haven’t already, Jack’s take on the Eclipse is as entertaining as that car is not).

I’ve had a few abysmal drives in the past few years, notably a Smart Fortwo and an auto-equipped Scion tC, but one car stood head and shoulders below the rest. I drove it immediately after spending a week with an Evolution GSR, and my first thought was, “Well, that’s the end of Mitsubishi then.”

First, a disclaimer. Normally one lists freebies like comped gas or insurance or an all-expenses-paid trip to Hedonism, but here I’ve got to confess a conflict of interest that’s not bribery based. You see, also in my driveway is my personal car: an older Subaru WRX, and that means – at least in the minds of some – that I am an incurable fanboy and incapable of cutting the Diamond Star any slack.

Everybody knows that Subaru fans and Mitsubishi enthusiasts get along like Montagues and Capulets. No wait, that’s too literary: more like Hatfields and McCoys. Since the days of dial-up, internet forums have exploded with squabbles over which is best, EVO vs. STI, all in rambling, ranting, badly-spelt incoherencies typed out by owners of (if we’re lucky) normally-aspirated Imprezas and Lancers.

So despite my protestation that I haven’t got a McCrae t-shirt or any triple-5 tattoos, some people are going to shrug off any dissection of the Lancer as purely vindictive. That’s too bad, as I really wanted to like the Sportback.

After all, it is a very-good-looking car, or at least it was when it first came out. The wheels on this model are far too small, like alloy sofa-casters (US Models have similar-sized wheel-covers). Apart from that, the aggressive, sharply-styled body is great from all three angles. Hmm? Oh.

There’s a fourth angle.

From the back, the Sportback’s be-winged liftback/hatchback arrangement is perhaps not so good. At best, it’s a bit Cosworth Sierra, at worst, X4RTi. Still, it’s only jarring for a bit and I do have a soft-spot for liftbacks. Plus, it’s not like you’ll be showing off the ass-end to too many folks.

While the sharp-looking exterior has aged moderately well, the same cannot be said for the interior. It’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell rendered in chocolate-box-tray plastic: very busy, lots of orange. On one hand, everything is easy to use. On the other, I had nicer build-quality on my 1980s Go-Bot Command Centre playset.

Plasticky cabins are completely forgivable in more hi-po Lancers, but not here. Desperately seeking superlatives, I can report that the Mitsu’s seats are comfy, and you do get a lot of bells and whistles. However, there’s a sense that the clappers will fall out of the bells in pretty short order, and that the whistles will one day soon utter a bleating squawk and fall silent forever. Good thing then that you have 5-year complete warranty to cover you in such an eventuality.

Here’s something weird. After having the trunk-mounted subwoofer repeatedly kick me in the tympanic membrane as though a tiny but hyperactive donkey was lodged in my ear canal, I flipped through the stereo controls to find that not only were the usual “bass” and “treble” levels present, but also something called, “punch”. I turned that off and went for a drive.

Beneath that shark-like snout lies the Lancer’s base engine, a 2.0L MIVEC mill pumping out 148 horsepower and 145 lb/ft of torque. Sorry, I’ve just re-read that sentence, and it’s absolute nonsense. Allow me to correct myself.

Beneath that shark-like snout cower one hundred and forty eight of the most elderly, lazy, disease-ridden, knock-kneed, wheezy, fly-bitten, malnourished and stunted nags I’ve ever experienced since the last time I bought a glue stick. This engine was not designed to produce power, only noise.

Walk on the accelerator (ha!) in anything other than first gear and you activate a switch that turns up the volume on a K-Tel Pure Gold Collection of unpleasantly over-taxed engine muzak. It is a wearing, droning, stab-yourself-in-the-ear-with-a-chopstick cacophony.

With the 2.0L, the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback is not slow. Glaciers are slow. Continental drift is slow. Erosion is slow. The Sportback moves as if in cryogenic stasis: it’s about as speedy as Walt Disney’s frozen corpse.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The numbers would seem to indicate that the Lancer should be fairly zippy. I mean, it’s got more pep than a Honda Civic and a curb weight to match, so why does this thing feel less sprightly than a lowly 100hp Mazda2? Hey Goober! Where’s the beef? Good question.

Anyway, I’m going to stop attempting acceleration now because something has come loose in the engine compartment and is buzzing alarmingly. Also, there’s a corner coming up and I need to slow down unless I want to die in the world’s most cheaply upholstered coffin.

Ah yes, the corners. The EVO is a tarmac scalpel. Ralliart versions of the Lancer carve things up like a kitchen blade. The GTS might be a bit of a butter knife, but at least it has a cutting edge. This thing is about as sharp as a piece of room-temperature mozzarella.

Show the ES a bend and it flops over on its side like a fat dog after a long walk on a hot day. The steering cruelly hints at a sporty nature found in higher-trim models but conspicuously absent here.

There’s enough body roll to put you in mind of a Napoleonic frigate. What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Perhaps next time don’t put him in charge of suspension design. So, don’t buy the basic Lancer if you’ve got an interest in driving dynamics. Or, I’m sorry to report, flawless reliability.

The Lancer swims in one of the most highly-competitive market segments around. It may look like a shark, but it turns out to be one of those passive nurse-sharks that wouldn’t bite you if you punched it right in the snout. Quite simply, if you’re dreaming of owning an EVO, but can’t quite make the leap financially or practically, there’s a limit below which you should not go. Stick to a Ralliart, or at the very least, a GTS with the larger engine and wheel package.

It’s a shame: the Lancer bears close resemblance to its halo-car big-bro, and you’d think an affordable version would be a hit with the youth audience. But in base trim, it’s simply all show and no go: a Dodge Caliber in a pretty frock. As I returned the Sportback, its centre-mounted screen flashed the friendly message, “See You”.

Yeah. Not bloody likely.

Mitsubishi provided the car tested and insurance

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18 Comments on “Crappy Compact Contender Number 3: The Mitsubishi Lancer...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

  • avatar
    stryker1

    “This engine was not designed to produce power, only noise.”

    Well, at least they found something to do with the waste-torque they were getting out of their noisemaker.
    Put a car around it.

  • avatar

    Haven’t driven the Ralliart. I enjoy the Evo more than the STI, though this could change with the next revision of the latter.

    But the real hidden gem of this line-up is the GTS (GT for 2012) with a manual transmission. Very good steering and handling, with a direct feel that’s increasingly hard to come by, and significantly better performance than the 2.0 rightfully slammed here. The interior does look and feel cheap, but at least it’s a simple design that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

    If you like a Mazda3 but its styling is a deal-killer, the GT is the car to check out. If you can find a dealer.

  • avatar
    Orangutan

    Mitsubishi revamped their trim levels this year, and unfortunately the manual transmission isn’t available on any trim with the Sportback. You can still pick up the sedan GT with a stick, though.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Guess my wife and I are bottom-feeders of the automotive world then…she drives a 2011 tC automatic and loves it (other than the fact that Toyota kinda cheaped out on the interior) and I have an (admittedly older) 2004 Lancer Sportback Ralliart (wish they had brought them over with the 5 speed and not the 4 spd auto). The ES sounds pretty abysmal. Not sure I’d want anything new from Mitsu (that I could affort, anyway). Sad to see them quickly fading away.

  • avatar
    Botswana

    As someone who owns a Lancer I absolutely love the car. I believe I have the base model engine. I went with the CVT because I was looking to not drive a manual in rush hour traffic. 17 years of that was enough for me and I was ready to not sprain an ankle on another clutch.

    The car has been an absolute joy, it has plenty of zip for a car of its size and handles great in traffic. Oh, it’s got a little torque steer but I’m rarely asking for that much power from a dead stop for it to come into play. I’m not trying to relive the Fast and the Furious, this is my daily driver. I like smaller cars because I prefer to have the agility but I need enough power that it can accelerate well. I also like having decent gas mileage, which is all the Lancer has is decent. You can get better mpg in its class without looking very hard.

    I’m not saying the car is perfect but I’m surprised how often I see people dogging it. Similar cars in its segment would be Civics, Corollas, or the Focus. I can’t speak to the Civics, but I’ve driven similar or higher trim levels in both the Corolla and Focus and hated them both. I thought the Lancer CVT was noisy and used to complain about it because it was the first CVT I had owned. Then I drove a Corolla and understood what loud really was and why CVT engines had such a horrible reputation. A 2011 Corolla at 40mph sounds like it should be in NASCAR and going about 100mph faster than it really is.

    I will say that the Lancer Sportback seems completely worthless. I’m not sure who this car was marketed to or who in the States even wants one. Mitsubishi is such a small brand in the States with some serious problem products (Gallant, Endeavor, Eclipse). Introducing a niche vehicle from a niche brand seems like a recipe for disaster. I also can’t really comment if the Sportback’s shape doesn’t somehow affect handling. I would expect it to be much the same as mine.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    “…tiny but hyperactive donkey was lodged in my ear canal…”

    I immediately thought of Donkey from Shrek and how he was usually this side of psychotic.

    “Beneath that shark-like snout cower one hundred and forty eight of the most elderly, lazy, disease-ridden, knock-kneed, wheezy, fly-bitten, malnourished and stunted nags I’ve ever experienced since the last time I bought a glue stick.” This…is a bit of a fragment.

    I had to stifle more than one laugh while reading this. Thank you for brightening an otherwise snoring Monday.

    Keep them coming. The humour always catches me off guard.

    • 0 avatar
      Banger

      “Beneath that shark-like snout cower one hundred and forty eight of the most elderly, lazy, disease-ridden, knock-kneed, wheezy, fly-bitten, malnourished and stunted nags I’ve ever experienced since the last time I bought a glue stick.”

      This…is without a doubt the funniest, most-descriptive, and most-biting review of any engine I’ve ever read in all my years of reading automotive reviews. I lol’d.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    GTS would be great, but again Mitsu falls short on the motor

    Ford got about just as much power from the new 2.0L, with significantly better gas mileage. And the 08 2.0L is just slow.

    Damn shame, but its a repeat of the 98-0? Galant… brilliant, beautiful exterior, loose association with a great performance model (VR4, EVO), low on refinement, performance and economy. You would have to really love the exterior of this car to buy it, there are no other reasons.

    • 0 avatar
      TonyJZX

      these things seem to be popular with the Community Services and other departments… white CVT visiting people who are down on their luck.

      no-one private actually buys one as you are better off with something Korean or even the Chevy Cruze or a Mazda 3… heck… anything is better and more contemporary than this…

  • avatar
    LeeK

    Oh, I think that Hatfield vs. McCoy feud is a manifestation of the fanboys on the internets. In the five years that I drove an Evo, I routinely got friendly waves and thumbs up from WRX and STi drivers. It’s all pretty silly, really. You have to be a serious enthusiast to put up with these automotive equivalents of chihuahuas.

    I agree with Brendan that the regular Lancer is a cheap and uninspired car. It’s almost like they tried hard to ensure mediocrity with the design and mechanicals.

    • 0 avatar
      Banger

      “It’s almost like they tried hard to ensure mediocrity with the design and mechanicals.”

      All the better to upsell you on a GTS or higher-spec Lancer when you get sick of it in a year or two and start looking to trade it in, no doubt.

      Too bad it’s bad enough you probably won’t reconsider Mitsubishi next time around, though.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the mitsu/scoobie animosity and I’ve owned an STi just over 7 years now (bought new). Then again, I don’t tune my car, I don’t hang out on the forums, I’m nearing 40 and am more interested in my sons college savings & staying positive on my mortgage than getting into pissing matches on the internet.

    In any case, my purchasing choice came down to the dealership experience:

    Mitsu daler – no test drive of ANY Evo. Not the RS, MR, or IX. “If you know about this car you don’t NEED to take a test drive”

    Subaru dealer – “Hey, try out this WRX. If you like it, the STi is the same”. Fair enough. I liked it. I’ll get back to you. Couldn’t come to an agreement on price.

    New dealer: “Come take the STi for a spin. If you like it we’ll do the price I quoted you online”. The guy didn’t even ride with me (first/only time I’ve ever had this happen on a test drive).

  • avatar
    B.C.

    McRae. C’mon, he’s the patron saint of hoonage — get his name right or your Subie fanboi credentials will be summarily revoked.

    I sat in a Mitsu Lancer Sportback at the LA Auto Show a while back and was amused by how unrelentingly hard and plasticky every surface was. Pics don’t do it justice. If you’ve been in a pre-facelift rental Dodge Avenger, you know what I mean.

    • 0 avatar
      TonyJZX

      The Avenger and Lancer are related. And these cars date back to pre-Carpocalypse ie. 2007 so they truly really are of another era.

      Mitsubishi needs to put this nag out to pasture but do they have a new model waiting? I say no.

  • avatar
    18726543

    “At best, it’s a bit Cosworth Sierra, at worst, X4RTi.”

    Hey, hey, thats XR4Ti! You really need to refer to it with its true name if you want more than the 6 or 8 people familiar with them to make the connection.

  • avatar
    Kevin

    “Beneath that shark-like snout cower one hundred and forty eight of the most elderly, lazy, disease-ridden, knock-kneed, wheezy, fly-bitten, malnourished and stunted nags I’ve ever experienced since the last time I bought a glue stick.”

    I don’t comment very often around here, but I have to say that is the funniest damned thing I have read in awhile. Well played sir, well played.


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