Crappy Compact Contender Number 3: The Mitsubishi Lancer

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer
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crappy compact contender number 3 the mitsubishi lancer

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

Brendan McAleer
Brendan McAleer

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  • 18726543 18726543 on Apr 23, 2012

    "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.

  • Kevin Kevin on Apr 23, 2012

    "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.

  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.