By on November 3, 2021

In our last edition of Buy/Drive/Burn, we considered the Mazda Protegé, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Subaru Impreza sedans from 1998. Most of you preferred the Protegé as your Buy of the three. Today we fast forward to the same offerings in 2008, and see if things shake out differently.

Note: We’ve chosen mid-range trims for the Mazda and Mitsubishi as the base Impreza is notably more expensive than the other two in basic form. 

Mazda 3

Mazda ditched the Protegé name after 2003, probably in an attempt to escape its well-known rust issues across the nation. For 2008 the 3 is in the final year of its first-generation, as a new model promises to continue the 3’s sales success in 2009. On offer in sedan or hatchback body styles, the 3 is available in eight different trims and shares its platform with the Ford Focus and Volvo S40. Today’s trim is the middle-range i Touring Value (weird name) sedan, which uses the smaller of the four-cylinder engines available. With 2.0 liters of displacement, the 3 produces 148 horsepower sent through the front wheels via the five-speed manual. Its ask is $16,595.

Mitsubishi Lancer

Mitsubishi also abandoned its smallest brand, Mirage, in the North American market after 2001. Its replacement in 2002 was the very slightly larger Lancer. Lancer is in its ninth global generation this year and is all-new for 2008. Based on the Chrysler-Mitsubishi GS platform, the new Lancer is available initially only as a sedan. Trims are three in number: DE, ES, or GTS. The ES is today’s choice at $16,090, and offers a 2.0-liter inline-four good for 152 horses. The power is allocated to the front wheels via the five-speed manual transmission.

Subaru Impreza

Impreza is also new for 2008, as Subaru debuts its third-generation model around the globe. Like the Mazda, Impreza is available in sedan and hatchback formats; the Impreza wagon becomes a thing of the past. Four trims on Impreza range from the very basic 2.5i through the expensive and racy WRX STi. The base 2.5i trim asks $16,995 as it comes standard with Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system. The boxer-four engine produces 170 horsepower, sent through all four corners via the five-speed manual.

Which of these three compact sedans is worth a Buy with your Great Recession 2008 dollars?

[Images: Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru]

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53 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Alternative Japanese Compacts From 2008...”


  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Mazda is the only choice although i always thought that iteration of the Lancer was a decent looking little box.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Easiest one on file.

    Grab that Mazda while you can. Unless you live in Alaska, then Subaru will be better, while the engine is not leaking. But in Alaska, you might just ride the bear.. what? – Putin did https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/61qzcEfU3aL._AC_SX466_.jpg

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    Easy one for me.

    Buy the Impreza. Either this or the Lancer had to burn.

    Drive the 3. Even with the smaller of the two engine choices, the chassis and suspension make this a much more fun and tossable car than the other two.

    Burn the Lancer because this isn’t the GTS trim with a halfway decent looking exterior to compensate for it’s abhorrent interior.

  • avatar
    Zotz

    Buy: Mazda 3
    Drive: Subaru Impreza
    Burn: Mitsubishi Lancer

    Full disclosure: I owned a 2007 Mazda 3s GT with the 2.3 and five-speed manual until 2019. Loved it.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Buy: Mazda.
    Drive: Subaru.
    Burn: Mitsubishi.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I’ve very nearly bought all three of these brand-new at one time or another, ended up with a 10-year old Lexus. All nice cars in many ways, but – the Mazda will rust before your eyes, the Subie will likely need head gaskets and the Mitsu, if it has the DCG trans will need a replacement. Burn ’em all and get a 5-year old Camry or Accord.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Buy the Lancer. That’s an easy one because I Like them and I almost actually did buy one.

    Drive the Subaru. In case it snows I guess.

    Burn the Mazda. I don’t really like Mazdas.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know, I think that upcoming rear drive inline-six, 6 sedan could be a winner.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Well, I bought a fancy (new!) Kia because it was RWD and powerful enough. I goof on Mazda, Subaru, and VW a lot but if one of them offers something of interest to me I’d be willing to go for it. Honda is the only brand that I have a bit of a personal hang up about.

      • 0 avatar
        Ol Shel

        It will probably be great. It’s already doomed by: electrification, SUV mania, and by not being a Toyota or Honda. They’ll sell dozens here in the US.

        • 0 avatar

          It will definitely be a Rare Ride type product flop, but likely the last time the company ever offers a rear-drive sedan with a gasoline engine.

          • 0 avatar
            MRF 95 T-Bird

            From what I have read Mazda is marketing the new 6 with the in-line 6 and rwd as a Mercedes Benz C-Class competitor.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            Depending on the inventory and pricing craziness I’ll likely be replacing the Stinger sometime between late 2022 and mid 2023. The I6 Mazda and next Mustang are the two new introductions I have my eye on. *Maybe* the BMW i4 as well, but the government would have to offer 5-figures worth of honey for me to go EV this time.

  • avatar
    IanGTCS

    I owned the previous generation of both the Mazda and Subaru. Buy the Mazda, I really enjoyed mine. Drive the Subaru, especially in fresh snow in open parking lots. Burn the Mitsubishi by default, I’m sure I’ve driven one when I worked at a car auction but have zero memories of the car.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The Impreza had the most god awful cheap interior that anyone can imagine. The “carpet” was an eighth of an inch thick and did not fit, just nasty. The car’s interior was a downgrade on the previous one which was merely OK. The rear suspension was also a poorer design in my opinion, not amenable to the mere application of a thicker rear sway bar to get rid of grinding understeer. Don’t believe the head gasket was much of an issue by 2008, because it was the ’99 to 2006 models with the NA 2.5l that suffered most, but people’s memories are long and usually several years behind the reality. A cheap, not very appealing box at all. I got a 2008 Legacy GT instead of another Impreza — my ’99 had the 2.2l engine and was the most reliable car I ever owned.

    The Mazda was still a ruster — I’ve seen panels held together with the superb paint still shining. Drove nicely but it was the next year’s model that finally solved the rust problem, some say by going to double-sided galvanized sheet metal from one-sided. True? I don’t know, but they rusted.

    The Lancer sold reasonably well here, and actually was rugged enough to last — guy down the way in the subdivision had one for ever and a day, and they always looked good in the styling sense, even if the interior was no better than the Subaru. Many survived a long time considering they weren’t huge sellers to begin with; they had the bones of the Evo with a heavy structure.

    Drive the Mazda, buy the Lancer, burn that cheapo Subie.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    I am not brave enough to buy any of these three, then or now.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This one’s hard. Buy the Mitsu if you want cheap transportation consistent with the point of this class, the Mazda if you want a relatively fun car to keep stock, or the Subaru if you want to modify it.

    My personal choice would be:
    – Buy Mazda
    – Drive Subaru (on gravel)
    – Burn Mitsu, by default, not because I have anything personal against it

    • 0 avatar

      This is also my choice. I was never impressed with any Lancer interior ever, but having a 90s Subaru previously I could probably deal with the 00s interior on a drive occasionally basis.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        With the exception of the rusting problems, the 3 is still the one to buy. It might not be out of line to say that generation of 3 really started Mazda’s momentum upwards.

        I’d drive the Subaru as a winter car with some good tires on it. Kind of necessary in a very hilly part of town with poor snow removal. Having that kind of extra traction would help. But the other commenters here are right – the interior is really bottom basement.

        And burn the Lancer. Between this and the bloated mess the Galant became, it became obvious that Mitsubishi lost the plot on the American market. The Evo was a beast to drive, but having almost the same interior as the $16,000 special (albeit with better seats) did it no favors.

        Now if you threw together (in this era) a Speed3, WRX, and Evo, we might have a good Buy, Drive, Burn right there.

  • avatar

    It is easy:
    1. Buy Kia Telluride.
    2. Drive Kia Telluride.
    3. Crash and and burn all these non-Kia compacts.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Yes, I’m sure people looking at used $5k compacts are all ready and eager to go out and spend $50k on a giant CUV.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      now that you mention Kia, it would be fun to watch a B/D/B for alternative non-Japanese nor American brand compacts:

      Hyundai Elantra

      Kia Forte

      VW Jetta

      Perhaps 2011 MY since that was the year the Jetta took a dive on price (and build quality/features as well)

      • 0 avatar
        tankinbeans

        I bought a manual Forte LX in 2011 and my friend bought a manual Jetta 2.5SE.

        But for a persistent issue that I had getting into 4th gear, my Kia was relatively nice for what it was. The Jetta was easier to drive, but felt cheaper than the Kia with some higher level kit to cover up its porcine roots.

        I think if I had a do-over I’d probably ***donning flame suit*** opt for the automatic.

  • avatar
    downunder

    Drive – Lancer, great boy racer choice downunder,
    Drive – Subaru Imprezza WRX, Slightly older Boy/Man racer downunder.
    Buy Mazda – Staid = market resale value.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Mazda 3- I once rented one and was quite impressed with it. The Volvo S40 European Ford Escort platform is very solid.

    Drive: Subaru Impreza- The awd is the saving grace for an econobox.

    Burn: Mitsubishi Lancer- Unless it’s the GTS or Sportback it’s a low rent econocar.

  • avatar
    Dan

    Three way burn to me, the whole point of this class is to be cheap and between the falling knife depreciation of the off brands and the 22 MPG on 4.00 gas of the full time AWD Subaru none of these are.

    • 0 avatar
      2ACL

      Depreciation is all but immaterial if you drive them for/purchase them after 5 years, but you introduce worthwhile point about the Impreza’s fuel consumption. I remember researching this generation for my girlfriend and having my mind blown by its proximity to my TL SH-AWD (21 MPG combined to 22 for the Subaru). The Impreza fortunately only needs regular octane, but the idea of filling up almost as often in a smaller and MUCH slower car saw it eliminated from her consideration before we advanced into the test-drive phase.

  • avatar
    2ACL

    Buy the 3. I almost did a year ago when I came into an low-mileage example that was slightly farther up the hierarchy (’07 s Sport 5M) equipped with 16″ five-spoke alloys rather than the 17″ Y-spokes common to these cars. It had a FANTASTIC ride/handling balance I rediscovered upon stumbling into the ’18 Focus SE my girlfriend now drives.

    Drive the Lancer because I’m curious to see whether the foundation for the Evo X, Ralliart, and GTS can stand on its own. My girlfriend and I cut a test-driving a Sportback short; I heard and felt evidence of impending front-end work, she quickly determined that CVTs aren’t for her. I’d love to drive another Lancer at length, but of this trio, they seem to be the most apt to end up in the hands of careless owners who just drive them until their either develop a terminal problem or are crashed and written off.

    Burn the Impreza. AWD at this power level (IMO) achieves little beyond making it slower, thirstier, and more maintenance-intensive. I understand that the unflappability of these cars appeal to some, particularly in areas renown for inclement weather. But for my use case scenario, quality tires give me 80% of its capability for 5% of the cost.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      +1

    • 0 avatar
      spookiness

      Interesting. I had an 06 “touring” trim hatch 2.3/5spd and I swapped out the 17’s with 16’s from a sedan. Better ride/handling balance and I drive on a lot of rough city/inner-suburb streets. Wish I still had the car, but life changes and all…

      • 0 avatar
        2ACL

        @spookiness

        Glad to know I’m not the only one who suspects that the 16″ alloys are a better ride/handling match for 1G 3s. I believe the previous owner of the car I test drove (a 2.3L/5spd sedan) retrofitted smaller OEM wheels (not unheard of in DFW, particularly for those who spend time in intercity Dallas) to reduce the likelihood of a blowout from the atrocious road surfacing. If I had bought the car, the only thing I would’ve changed would’ve been the tires (those on the car at the time were midgrade touring tires). I think a high-performance all-season or summer tire would’ve unlocked additional potential while keeping the ride quality unbelievably pleasant.

        • 0 avatar
          spookiness

          I also had some 16″ steelies with winter Dunlops, don’t remember the model. The Dunlops rode nicer and quieter than the OEM all-seasons. Car was sweet. Miss it, but had to let it go at the time.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    As much as it pains me, given my current self-acknowledged affinity to Mazda, I would probably buy the Subaru. That is if we’re buying today.

    In my area, Minneapolis/St. Paul, I still see many of those Subarus trundling around. This isn’t the case with that generation Lancer or Mazda3. How much is due to first run popularity is something I can’t guage.

    Buy: Subaru
    Drive: Mazda, if one can be found
    Burn: Mitsubishi, I don’t think I have yet even riden in a Mitsubishi

  • avatar
    myllis

    That’s also the diffrence. Putin likes ride the bear, but Trump likes to shoot the bear.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    Burn them all and buy/drive a Golf of the same vintage.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    The Impreza felt like a tin can, the road noise was insane. Almost zero noise deadening. Something like $10 worth of foam in the doors would have made a huge difference.

    Also, what is with Subaru seats of that era? I wasn’t the only one that could never seem to get a comfortable position.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Drive: The Mazda. Because it has the better driving dynamics. However the rust monster had not been cured, yet.
    Buy: The Mitsu: A low rent appliance, with an exceptional warranty and relative reliability. But massive depreciation so you will have to ‘drive it into the ground’.
    Burn: The Subaru. All of the inherent bad of Subaru, with most of the good, but in a very low rent package. Not as much fun to drive as the Mazda, and will cost more in maintenance than the Mitsu. However for some reason the Subie would probably have the best resale.

    • 0 avatar

      People love buying used Subarus. They are very eager.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Found that out when I bought my kid her car last month. Prices for used Subarus are absolutely BONKERS. Fascinatingly enough, the prices got even more bonkers the closer the Subaru was to Boulder. It was as if the Subarus were the little fighter ships in “Independence Day” – the Mothership was Boulder, and the closer they were, the more stuff switched itself on.

        Everything in my price range had 150,000+ miles, and one smelled like the owner had spilled two gallons of bong water inside. I think I could have traded him a few hundred bucks worth of weed and called it even.

        • 0 avatar

          My Outback had 178k when I sold it, and that didn’t seem to bother prospective buyers.

          One did note the color combo (green over light tan) was not as desirable as the black/black he was seeking. Not sure what he wanted me to do about the “unfortunate” nonblack color.

          • 0 avatar
            theflyersfan

            Green over light tan needs to make a comeback. It looked very good back with the 1990’s-era Grand Cherokees and Explorers. Just a nice color combination and it’s nicer than the coal dungeon of car interiors today.

            2009 Sport Compacts – make it so.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            My price range was five or six grand – I’m not investing a ton of money in a kid’s first car. For that money, anything Japanese – particularly Subarus – was rough, to put it politely. I’m sure the advice from the B&B would be “you gotta have a J-vin on a cheap car,” but I’m sorry – a Corolla with 180,000 miles is probably going to have more than its’ share of stuff go wrong, Corolla or not.

            I think American cars are a better bet in this market. I had a deal going on a really nice ’08 Focus, but it got sold out from under me. Eventually came down to an ’09 Cobalt coupe with 90,000 miles, crank windows and a stick, and a creampuff ’07 Saturn with the 2.4, 72,000 miles and side curtain airbags. Both were surprisingly good to drive, and were +/- six grand. I opted for the Saturn, and to be honest, I feel lucky to have found it.

            The market these days is just demented.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Classic Top Gear did a couple of different episodes on used vehicles where their collective summary was that the previous owners/drivers of the vehicle were more important than the brand/make and mileage when purchasing a used vehicle.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    This is a tough one because overall I think these three were very closely matched.

    Buy: Lancer. It looks the best, has the most features and it’s surprisingly reliable for what it is (arguably the least reliable Japanese brand).

    Drive: Subaru. It must be fun on an unpaved road + it’s got some power. But I don’t want anything to do with the EJ25 engine in the long term.

    Burn: Mazda. The only reason this is a burn and not the Subaru is because this 3 was behind the other two in safety equipment. Side/Curtain airbags and ABS were an option while it was standard equipment on the other two. Had this been the 2.5 the outcome would’ve been entirely different

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    Hey Corey, another idea for a B/D/B:
    “Near Premium Midsize Cars from [insert year]”.

    Volvo S60 (2.5T had 208hp)
    Audi A4 (3.0/3.2 200+hp version)
    Acura TSX (TSX had 200hp)

    All were relatively close in price, too.

    You could also throw in the Subaru Legacy GT as a wild card….

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