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2008 Mitsubishi Lancer test drive

Mitsubishi brings a gun to a gunfight

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES front-left view

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

Photo © Aaron Gold

What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

With fuel prices showing no signs of abating, automakers are lining up to introduce new compact sedans that -- they hope -- will give them an edge in the marketplace. Lastest in line is Mitsubishi with their all-new 2008 Lancer. The Mitsubishi Lancer comes to the table with a unique look, an innovative automatic transmission, a base price of $14,615 (two models reviewed, priced at $18,115 and $22,615), and EPA fuel economy estimates (using the new-for-2008 formula) of 21-22 MPG city and 29 MPG highway.

First Glance: You look mahvelous!

Larger exterior photos: ES front rear GTS front rear

Say "Mitsubishi Lancer" to a gearhead, and chances are he or she will instantly think of the Lancer Evolution, Mitsubishi's turbocharged all-wheel-drive speed demon designed expressly for the street-racer set. It's just as likely they won't even remember that there's a lesser Lancer, because the previous version of Mitsi's compact sedan was a pretty forgettable car, with dull styling and little to recommend it against superior vehicles like the Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

That's changed for 2008. Mitsubishi's new Lancer is a whole-hearted effort to win over new buyers -- something that becomes clear when you get your first look at the car. Though the overall shape (link goes to photo) is conservative, Mitsubishi has dressed it up with some rather nice details, including a forward-slanted grille that recalls Mitsubishi's handsome sedans from the mid-90s. The new Lancer doesn't have the melted-blob look of its predecessor, nor does it have the polarizing styling of more radical cars like the Civic and Sentra. The Lancer's styling brings to mind the old car-review cliché "handsome but tasteful". Aside from the silly-looking wing on the GTS model, I like it.

Mitsubishi offers the Lancer in three trim levels: Basic DE, mid-range ES, and sporty GTS. I tested a stick-shift ES and an automatic GTS. Like the Sentra, the Lancer's automatic is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a smart choice that improves gas mileage and acceleration compared to a conventional automatic.

In the Driver's Seat: Nicely trimmed but driving position's flawed

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES dashboard close-up

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES dashboard

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photos: ES GTS

Remember when "basic" cars really were basic? That's not the case any more; witness the $14,615 Lancer DE, which comes with power windows, CD/MP3 player, front-seat-mounted torso airbags, two-row side curtain airbags, and - unique among compacts - a driver's knee airbag. A/C, antilock brakes and power locks come bundled together for $1100, but only on automatic cars; they are standard on the $16,590 ES, along with alloy wheels and must-haves like map lights, fold-down rear seat and floor mats. And then there's the $18,115 GTS -- bigger wheels, better brakes, tighter suspension, extra body kit, and access to some cool options, including keyless ignition, navigation system and MP3 player with built-in hard drive for music storage.

The Lancer's interior mirrors its exterior: Conservative shapes with attractive details. Regular readers know that dark interiors are one of my pet peeves, so naturally I preferred the tan interior in the Lancer ES I drove, with its metal-look trim and a dash topped in black to reduce reflections in the windshield. The GTS model comes exclusively with a black interior trimmed with carbon fiber.

One thing I didn't like was the arms-out driving position. The steering wheel tilts up-and-down but does not telescope in-and-out, and I felt like I was either too close to the pedals or too far away from the steering wheel. For those with longer legs and shorter arms, driving the Lancer can be an uncomfortable proposition. Riding in the back isn't, however; the Lancer's back seat is comfy and easy to get in and out of.

On the Road: Thumbs up for GTS suspension, thumbs sideways for CVT

The Lancer ES (and by extension the DE, which shares the same suspension and tires) has a comfortable ride, but the steering lacks feedback and precision on center. Still, handling in panic maneuvers is very predictable and precise. Road and wind noise are well subdued, but engine noise comes through loud and clear.

The GTS is another story. Its bigger wheels and lower profile tires do wonders for steering response, and the tighter suspension stiffens the ride and makes the handling downright impressive. The GTS lacks the thrills of the Honda Civic Si, but it's up there with the Nissan Sentra SE-R.

I really liked my ES test car's 5-speed manual transmission; the shifter is light and enjoyable to use. That's good, because you'll need to use it a lot: Despite having variable valve timing, which should give it a more even power curve, the Lancer's engine doesn't really start to sparkle until well above 4,000 RPM, and I frequently had to downshift to gain speed on upgrades.

The CVT sorts a lot of this out, and the GTS model even has steering wheel shifter paddles that cause the transmission to do a near-perfect impression of a 6-speed manual. But what the Lancer's CVT lacks (and needs) is a "low" range, which would allow the transmission to do its continuously-variable thing while keeping the engine at higher revs. In "Drive", the transmission is never in a hurry to raise the revs, so for spirited driving you're forced to use the shifter paddles -- thereby losing one of the chief advantages of a CVT, its ability to keep the engine in its powerband regardless of road speed.

Journey's End: Lancer does everything I expect, but breaks little new ground

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS left-rear view

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS

Photo © Aaron Gold
Had this Lancer been introduced in 2006, it probably would have earned a four-star rating, with attributes like eye-catching styling, optional navigation system and music server, airbags galore (including one for the driver's knees, a feature found in only a handful of cars) and long warranty. But by making its debut in 2007, the Lancer has some very tough acts to follow: The Honda Civic, with its futuristic styling and "safety for all" philosophy; the Nissan Sentra with its cavernous interior and CVT; and the Hyundai Elantra, which hits all the high notes at a cheaper price. The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer does everything I expect from a compact sedan, but breaks little new ground.

Still, the Lancer's mix of features, space and road manners mean it can run with the pack, even if it's not the lead dog. The Lancer is unique among compacts in managing to look different without being offensive. And when it comes to driver involvement, the Lancer GTS rivals the Mazda 3 and gives the Volkswagen Rabbit a run for its money (the Rabbit goes faster but uses more fuel to do it).

For those seeking a family-friendly compact sedan, the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer is a strong contender that at the very least deserves a test drive. For performance enthusiasts, the DE, ES and GTS are only the beginning; sportier Lancers are just over the horizon, including the new version of the Lancer Evolution. If the Lancers I drove are any indication, some very good things are on the way -- very good things, indeed. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, and specs

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