Reviewing the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer It wasn't just Detroit's Big Three that got pummeled by the economic collapse. Mitsubishi, one of the smaller Japanese brands (in the U.S., at least) saw its sales free-fall at Chrysler-like rates - and is currently trying to claw its way back up the cliffside.
The automaker faces even tougher going than Chrysler, though, because it's not as established in the market - and because it's not getting massive federal aid.But it does have a competitive small car in its model lineup - the 2010 Lancer sedan/hatchback wagon. That's something Chrysler hasn't got at the moment - and it's also something Mitsubishi can use to draw buyers away from the name- brand Japanese (and Korean) automakers.
Even base versions of the Lancer are very sporty both looks-wise and handling-wise; it's an economy car that doesn't look it - or feel like it. Mid-trim GTS with larger 2.4 liter engine is a strong performer in a straight-line, too. EVO-esque turbocharged AWD Ralliart is a fierce performer.
WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD
Mainly, Mitsubishi's iffy situation in the U.S. market. There is a not-small chance the company could leave North America for greener pastures, such as the Japanese home market and maybe Europe. This possibility, in turn, hammers the resale value/depreciation rates of Mitsubishi's products. Some issues with quality/reliability. Subaru offers standard AWD (and higher horsepower) in the Impreza WRX for much less money. Drinks more gas than others in its class.
ENGINES & PERFORMANCE
The Lancer has three distinct personalities, depending on which drivetrain you select. Base DE and ES trims are equipped with an economy-minded 2.0 liter four that's rated at 152 hp. (California models get downrated slightly to 143 hp.) To go with it, you can pick either the standard five-speed manual transmission or the optional Continuously Variable automatic (CVT).
Zero to 60 times with the the 2.0 liter engine and five-speed stick are just under eight seconds; CVT versions get there in about 9 seconds flat. This is decent performance for an economy car; enough to feel comfortable as a commuter car, with sufficient power to merge/pull into traffic. Gas mileage is not so great, though.
The Lancer with the 2.0 liter engine and manual transmission is rated at 22 city and 30 highway. A Toyota Corolla gets 26 city, 35 highway; the Honda Civic ($15,655) gets 26 city, 34 highway. The Ford Focus delivers 35 MPGs on the highway. And the Kia Forte - which at $13,695 is also significantly less expensive to buy than the Lancer - manages 25 city and 34 highway. Sub-par fuel economy relative to others in its class (and in particular, the less expensive Kia) is a definite Lancer weak point.
If you'd like more straight-line pull, there's the Lancer GTS. It comes with a larger, more powerful 2.4 liter engine rated at 168 hp. It also comes with either the five speed manual or CVT automatic. This combo can make 60 mph in 7.5-7.6 seconds, which is quick enough to keep pace with a Mazda Miata roadster. Also thumbs-up: Gas mileage with the GTS and 2.4 liter engine is only slightly off what you'd get if you chose the base 2.0 liter engine - 21 city and 28 highway.
At the apex of the performance pyramid is the Lancer Ralliart - which comes standard with a 237 hp turbocharged version of the 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine teamed up with a sharp-shifting dual-clutch automatic (very much like what's available in the EVO supercar) and all-wheel-drive. With a zero to 60 time in the 5.7 second range, the Ralliart is nearly twice as quick as the base Lancer. Gas mileage for this version of the Lancer is 17 city, 25 highway.
While fuel efficiency may not be the Lancer's strongest card, it does offer more in the way of driving fun - even base DE and ES versions - than just about any other economy sedan with the exception of the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza, both of which cost more starting out. It has sharp, precise steering, doesn't flop around unhappily when you lean on it some and all around just seems more interested in the experience than most of its competition.
Just two disappointing things: The five-speed manual needs another gear. First, because competitors like the Kia Forte come with six-speeds. Second because engine RPM with the five-speed is around 3,000 RPM at 65-ish MPH, which results in excessive drivetrain noise and also hurts the car's fuel efficiency potential. A six-speed would drop cruise RPM in top gear by about 500 RPM and probably increase gas mileage by 2-3 MPGs - which would even things up between the Mitsu and its competition from Toyota, Honda and others.
The turbocharged, AWD Ralliart delivers near-EVO acceleration and handling for a lot less money - both up front and in the form of likely insurance premiums (especially if you are a single male under age 30). The dual-clutch automatic transmission is virtually the same as the transmission available in the EVO. Though it is an automatic transmission, it bangs off ultra-quick gear changes very much like a manual operated by an expert driver - with perfect consistency. The Ralliart's AWD set-up is also virtually the same as the EVO's, too.
The big things that's missing is the extra 54 horsepower that comes with the $33,590 (to start) EVO. But with $6,400 left over in your pocket (the difference between the cost of the EVO and the Ralliart) plus the money you'll save in insurance costs, you could probably modify the Ralliart with a few aftermarket parts to equal if not surpass the EVO's power output/acceleration - and still have spent less overall than you would have on a factory-stock EVO.
Even better, your insurance company will be none the wiser. (This is also an argument in favor of the Ralliart vs. the Subaru WRX. While the Soobie's stronger in stock trim - 265 hp - and costs less up-front - $24,995 for the sedan, $25,495 for the wagon - it is also well-known to insurance companies and will almost certainly cost more to cover than a Lancer Rallliart, if you're in the "high risk" group of drivers. Get some quotes before you buy. You might end up paying less overall for the GTS vs. the WRX, even after you hot-rod the GTS to EVO levels of power.)
STYLING & UTILITY
The Lancer is a sharp looking car - much more so than the doughty-looking economy cars it competes with, some of which have a pitiful "kick me" ambiance about them. Even the base DE looks like it's ready to rally, with its forward canted nose and oversized radiator inlet. The availability of a wagon body adds versatility not offered in sedan or coupe only competitors, such as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra.
The Mazda3 and Soobie Impreza are among the few competitors also available as wagons - but the Lancer Sportback costs less ($19,190 vs. $19,540) has much more cargo room (53 cubic feet, total, vs. 17 for the Mazda) and has a stronger standard engine, too (the sedan's optional 2.4 liter, 168 hp engine is standard equipment in the Sportback). The Subaru wagon undercuts the Lancer Sportback on price ($17,995) but it has less cargo space - 44 cubic feet.
The Ralliart's available turbocharged engine, dual-clutch transmission and AWD (both sedan and wagon versions) are also features not generally available in competitor models. Subaru's WRX does offer AWD and a turbo engine, but not the dual-clutch automatic - which helps justify the Lancer Ralliart's higher MSRP.
The mid-line GTS can be ordered with Recaro sport buckets and comes standard with pretty aggressive 18-inch wheels and performance tires. Other un-econcar optional equipment includes a 30 Gigabyte digital music storage system and premium Rockford Fosgate audio rig, bundled with GPS. Of its main competition, only the Kia Forte has more front seat headroom - and only by about half an inch (39.6 inches for the Mitsubishi vs. 40 inches even for the Kia). On other measures, such as back seat head and legroom, the Lancer likewise offers about as much (and sometimes more) space than its rivals.
QUALITY & SAFETY
Here's where things get a little dicey. Mitsubishi has had some problems in recent years with quality control. Generally not major stuff, but stuff nonetheless. The other thing is the health of the company itself, which (like Chrysler's) isn't great. Mitsubishi wont go out of business (as Chrysler still might) but it may leave the U.S. market if it can't rebuild its presence here. If that happens, the consequence for owners of Mitsubishi cars will be the loss of dealer support for service work - and of course higher depreciation rates.
This scenario isn't likely, but it is possible given how badly Mitsubishi's been hurt by the economic downturn - and given the likelihood that things aren't going to improve much for the industry, generally, for quite some time to come.
That's not Mitsubishi's fault. It's just tough luck and the way things are right now. Safety-wise, ABS and stability control are now standard on all trims - along with front seat side-impact air bags, curtain air bags and - an unusual feature in this class - a driver's side knee air bag.