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When we learned that the Dart will be dropped, we started looking at candidates... and alternatives.
by David Zatz
Mitsubishi and Chrysler were joined at the hip through the 1970s and 1980s; Chrysler imported and sold Mitsubishis, and Mitsubishi bought Chrysler Australia. They split when Chrysler was ascending in the 1990s, only to end up together again when Daimler acquired all of Chrysler and some of Mitsubishi.
The last Sebring and Avenger, along with the Jeep Patriot and Compass and Dodge Caliber, were all based on altered Mitsubishi platforms. The two companies still share a basic four-cylinder engine design, with different heads, fuel delivery, and power output. The Mitsubishi Lancer is, therefore, familiar-feeling, seeming like an extension of the path not taken at Dodge; the engine like the 2.4 in the Compass or Patriot.
The Mitsubishi Lancer also carries forward some things that many cars have lost: responsiveness, a simpler interior, and comfortable seats, along with last-generation road and wind noise. Some may find that the responsiveness and seat comfort, coupled with a well-designed suspension, makes up for the “less refined” aspects of the Lancer.
An almost unique feature in this price class is all wheel drive, especially at a reasonable price. Our $22,830 test car was an all wheel drive model, but you can spend $2,000 less and get the ES with all wheel drive, too. The AWD family comes with the 168 horsepower 2.4 liter engine; with front wheel drive, on the base model, you can get a more economical but weaker 2.0 liter engine, too.
The 2.4 engine is an interesting piece, and not just because its basic design is shared with Chrysler and Hyundai. The 2.4 engine just keeps on going, without dropping after its peak torque, an artifact of the CVT and valve control system. It’s not the fastest car in its class, but it responds instantly, and you don’t have to worry about having acceleration suddenly slacken for a gear change or such. It feels much more powerful than its 168 horsepower rating, and indeed, more responsive and “bottomless” than the higher-rated Chrysler 2.4.
The CVT itself worked surprisingly well, and seems to be programmed to emulate a traditional automatic (a CVT is a continuously variable transmission, using belts instead of gears, for higher efficiency.) This is nothing like the CVT in the old Dodge Caliber or Jeep Compass; it’s unobtrusive, smooth, yet responsive. It lets the engine change its speed more than early CVTs did, sacrificing some economy in favor of natural reactions.
The system truly was fast, faster than most automatics in this class. Hit the pedal and the engine immediately responds, presumably due as much to the CVT as to anything else; they did not program it to be a wallflower, frustrating drivers with a delay between pedal and response. Yes, it was faster on the uptake than the Dart’s conventional automatic, no matter what the starting speed was; and no, it didn’t feel “funny.” 0-60 seemed slightly faster than the Mazda3, but on the highway, reactions were instant, for gratifying passes.
The CVT did limit engine speeds under full throttle; we never got it over 5,500 rpm despite a marked redline of over 6,000 rpm. It had a conventional shifter with drive and a single low-gear setting.
The handling was quite good; being low to the ground must help, as does the fact that the basic chassis is also used for the incredibly potent Mitsubishi Evo. The stability control had a light touch, and all wheel drive helped on both dry roads (with hard launches, some torque steer was evident in FWD mode) and wet roads.
The ride was firm but not stiff; you felt the jiggles and bumps, but the car didn’t seem to go out of its way to find new road imperfections, as some do, and many of the annoyances were filtered out decently enough. It’s not as “refined” as the Dart, which matches its sporty feel; and it didn’t lose control around turns on rough pavement. If you like being in touch with the road, you’ll like it; if you like driving a Lexus, you won’t.
The front seats were comfortable, with manual adjustments; the Lancer is a traditional, sporty low-slung sedan, so getting in and out takes some flexibility. Once in, the driver is well supported, and the annoyances of many modern cars (rock hard “cushions,” intrusive headrests) are absent. I preferred the seat comfort of the Lancer to that of the better-decorated Dart or of the Mazda3. However, I would have liked serious sun visors. I don’t care about mirrors and lights, I just want them to either slide or have slide-out inserts to block the sun.
Getting into the back wasn’t particularly different from the front, despite the sporty roofline, and the seats were surprisingly comfortable, despite their looks. The headroom could be an issue for some rear passengers.
The gauges are clear and readable despite the apparently unavoidable nutty gauge ranges. Do we really need to go to 8,000 rpm when the only engines redline below 7,000? Do we really need a 140 mph speedometer with a 168 horsepower four-cylinder? Still, it was no problem to figure out how fast I was going at a glance, thanks to large gauges and clear graphics (not high resolution graphics, but clear graphics, as in “easy to read”).
The digital heat and gas gauges were no problem, and the print was large enough for us to easily read the information in the trip computer. You can cycle through average gas mileage, the trip odometer, distance to empty, and similar tidbits, including the next maintenance (presumably an oil change); putting the time in goes beyond most competitors.
You could also change some settings, using a single button — selecting by a long press and switching by a short press. The alarm is presumably to encourage breaks every so often.
The controls are set up to Japanese standards, where up is off and down is on. Buttons for audio control, cruise, and voice control are on the front of the steering wheel, as you can see above. It’s fairly conventional; the cruise control stays on between starts, but the setting goes away (as you’d hope).
The air conditioner was a bit weak, requiring a high fan setting even on a mere 72° day (open windows would have worked, too, but at 65 mph, I prefer air conditioning). Climate controls are pretty much the same ones that Fiat and Chrysler use, with silver knobs surrounding pushbuttons that double as labels. Everything makes sense, though really I'd prefer for “auto” to be above “off,” especially when I just want to shut it all off. That takes too much finagling, but I would probably get used to it eventually. It’s easy to figure out the system, at least.
The stereo is a standard Mitsubishi model of the type even now used by Chrysler (but not for long), with two tiny knobs, a CD slot, and a Mitsubishi-specific touch screen which looks good but is uninspired in its software. We found that a high-capacity music USB drive caused no end of trouble as the system could not handle the number of files; a much lower capacity one, with 12 albums, worked well, though the system is still clumsy.
The Bluetooth phone system worked, but you had to choose the album on the phone (you could move through music, slowly, using the steering wheel buttons). The sound was excellent while the car was at rest or moving slowly on smooth blacktop, though some equalizer settings made some music sound odd.
The folder listing on the USB drive was usually grayed out while moving, but the voice control worked very well. The smaller screen was not a problem, but I missed being able to set system preferences, e.g. turning the headlights on with wipers or not, shutting off the DRLs, changing how the car locks and unlocks, etc.
What’s missing from the Lancer, that you would get in many other cars in this range? Oddly, the trunk space is a bit smaller, because of the sleek, low profile. The good news is you get much better rear views and an arguably better looking car; the bad news is you pay for it in less trunk depth (as in vertical space).
There’s no telescoping steering wheel, and seat adjustments are all manual. The engine is noisy, which seems to be endemic to the basic design, and the stereo’s great-when-parked sound degrades at highway speeds, as key frequencies are combatted by a great deal of road noise and a decent amount (over 65 mph) of wind noise.
Our test car came with absolutely no options, a decision we have to applaud; all too often we get a poor read on test cars because they come with upgraded stereos and other gizmos that most buyers don’t opt for, due to their high prices. So we had no navigation system, no enhanced stereo (and on the Lancer, the enhanced stereo seems like a pretty serious package), no sunroof — you get the idea. You can get a lot of sexy stuff on the Lancer, if you choose to add it on.
Despite its relatively low price of $22,830 (the base FWD model is $18,430), the Mitsubishi Lancer SEL comes well-equipped. It includes heated, power side-view mirrors with turn signals; rain-sensing wipers; a spare; heated front seats; perforated leather surfaces; filtered air; rear heat ducts; tilt wheel; floor mats; the 6.1 inch, 140 watt six-speaker satellite stereo; rear camera; side curtain airbags and front seat mounted airbags; and accommodations for a roof carrier, among other things.
Mitsubishi gives buyers a fine good warranty: 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain, seven years or 100,000 miles on corrosion (perforation), five years of roadside assistance, and five years or 60,000 miles of bumper to bumper. That's all hard to beat. The Lancer is 97% Japanese; US/Canadian parts are good for 1% of the car. The Lancer has a four star overall crash rating, due largely to rear passenger injury in the case of a side impact (three stars).
The 2016 Mitsubishi Lancer gained a new front fascia, updated CVT, and LED daytime running lights, and the base model gained four-wheel disc brakes, automatic climate control, voice control, a USB port, alloy wheels, fog lights, the trip computer, optional engine, and optional all wheel drive.
I liked my time in the Lancer; I found its basic nature refreshing and enjoyable, much like the Mazda3, but with much better passing ability. The Dart is more refined, the Mazda for more economical (or, if you use the 2.5 engine, faster), and both have better sound insulation; but throw in the all wheel drive, and the only serious sedan competitor is the Subaru Impreza, which starts at $19,090 ($20,090 with a CVT). The Lancer is fun and a good deal for AWD buyers, or people who miss the down to earth feel of their mid-to-late-90s cars.
* 2.4 Dart vs 2.4 Lancer vs 2.0 Mazda3. Mazda 2.5 yields 184 (185 lb-ft). Dart has two less powerful engines.
** With base engine and FWD, only available on the ES
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