The Sportback is the new 5-door hatchback version of Mitsubishi's compact Lancer. Available in front-wheel-drive GTS and all-wheel-drive Ralliart models, the Sportback aims to offer the Lancer sedan's fun-to-drive factor in a more practical package. The GTS takes on popular hatchbacks like the Toyota Matrix, Hyundai Elantra Touring, and Mazda3, while the turbocharged Ralliart has the Subaru Impreza WRX in its sights. Does the Lancer Sportback have what it takes? Read on. $19,910 base, $28,310 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 17-21 MPG city, 25-27 MPG highway.
First Glance: It's two, two, two cars in one!
The two versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback -- GTS and Ralliart -- are aimed at two different audiences, and I expect this review to draw two different types of readers. So before we get started, I'm going to divide you into two groups. (They say you can't please everyone, but I'm gonna try.)
Let's start with the folks who are looking for a practical hatchback that will deliver compact-car fuel economy with the versatility of a small SUV. We'll call you... the Sportbackers. Form a group on my left.
While you separate into groups, let's have a quick orientation. You've no doubt noticed that compact hatchbacks are once again becoming popular here in the States. Ever since gas prices skyrocketed, people have been taking a second look at their SUVs and CUVs, and realizing that they can haul lots of stuff in a smaller car -- hence Mitsubishi's desire to get in on the action with the Lancer Sportback. Aside from the revised rump, the Sportback is almost identical to the Lancer sedan, both inside and out. The steeply-sloped back window follows the angle of the rear doors -- they're identical to those of the sedan -- giving the Lancer Sportback a racy, rakish look, which I'm sure the Ralliartistes are going to love...but the Sportbackers will have good reason to loathe.
In the Driver's Seat: Form 1, Function 0
The bad news for the Sportbackers is that the steeply-sloped rear window reduces the size of the cargo bay (link goes to photo) to a mere 13.8 cubic feet -- just 1.5 more than the sedan. For comparison, the Mazda3 holds 17 cubic feet, the Subaru Impreza stows 19, the Toyota Matrix (and its twin, the Pontiac Vibe) carries 19.8, and the Hyundai Elantra Touring stores 24.3. The Lancer Sportback's cargo bay is long, wide, and easy to load, just like its rivals, but there's not much height, so it's useless for the tall, bulky items Sportbackers are looking to haul. That said, there's an upside for the Ralliartistes: Thanks to its trim rear bodywork, the Sportback weighs only 110 lbs more than the sedan, so there's a minimal performance penalty to go with the minimal increase in trunk space.
The rest of the cabin is identical to the Lancer sedan: Same simple-to-use controls, same easy-to-read gauges, same dreary, cheap plastics, same dated and dull design. I like the functionality of the Lancer's dash, but the overall look makes me feel like I've time-warped back to 2003 -- as does the lack of a USB/iPod input jack, the overpriced ($1,999) dealer-installed navigation system, and the steering column that adjusts for height but not reach. I did find the height-adjustable driver's seat quite comfy, although the seat cloth is a pet-hair magnet. GTS models offer leather (part of a $1,500 Touring Package with automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers), but the only alternative in the Ralliart are deeply-contoured, cloth-covered Recaro sport seats.
On the Road: All smiles
As I mentioned earlier, the Lancer Sportback is available in two models. I drove the Ralliart, which is centered around a 2.0 liter 237 horsepower turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive. Basically, it's a dressed-down version of the Lancer Evolution, Mitsubishi's 291 hp all-singing, all-dancing monstercar. The Ralliart comes exclusively with a twin-clutch automatic transmission, a controversial but convenient choice that offers superior performance to a manual transmission. I've waxed poetic about the Ralliart in my 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart sedan test drive; the short version is that it's one of my favorite cars to take on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road -- it's fast, grippy, responsive, and huge fun, although not very fuel efficient. EPA estimates are just 17 MPG city/25 MPG highway, and it drops down into the mid-teens when driven hard.
Sportbackers will probably be more interested in the GTS model with its 168 horsepower 2.4 liter engine, choice of 5-speed manual or continuously-variable automatic transmissions, and front-wheel-drive. Actually, the GTS is hardly a thrill-free zone -- I test-drove the Lancer GTS sedan last year and fell in love with its eager engine and willing chassis, and I don't see why the GTS Sportback would be any different. That said, its EPA fuel economy estimates -- 21 MPG city/27 highway for the automatic, 20/27 for the manual -- are nothing to brag about. Too bad the 146 hp 2-liter engine found in the Lancer DE and ES sedans isn't offered in the Sportback -- it's significantly more fuel-efficient.
Journey's End: It's great... and it isn't
Should you buy the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback? That depends on which group you're in.
For the Ralliartistes, it's a winner. The all-wheel-drive Lancer Sportback Ralliart grips the road better than the Volkswagen GTI and doesn't suffer the torque-steer problems of the Mazdaspeed3, although it's significantly more expensive than either. The lack of a manual transmission may be a deal-breaker for some; just bear in mind the Lancer's twin-clutch automatic is no slushbox -- it delivers the same snappy performance as a manual with no interruption in power during gearshifts. The Ralliart's best rival is the Subaru Impreza WRX, which comes exclusively with a 5-speed stick and costs two grand less than the Lancer. The WRX feels quicker but it's not quite as crisp in the corners as the Lancer Ralliart.
For the Sportbackers, my advice would be to take a pass. The Lancer Sportback GTS is a nice enough car; it's good looking, fun to drive, and reasonably priced. But why buy a hatchback that doesn't carry a whole lot more cargo than a sedan? If you need utility, the Hyundai Elantra Touring is the way to go. With 24.3 cubic feet of cargo space and a new-for-2010 base model priced at 16 grand, it's a heck of a deal. I'd also consider the Mazda3, which has a much, much nicer interior, or the Subaru Impreza 2.5i, with its incredible all-wheel-drive grip. Both are in the GTS' price range.
So it's a thumbs-up for the Ralliart and a thumbs-down for the GTS. I guess they were right...you really can't please everyone. -- Aaron Gold