If only it had come out sooner.
Mitsubishi has sold the current generation of the Lancer compact economy car since the 2008 model year, and even by those standards it was considered rather crude for its noisy engine, bumpy ride and spartan interior décor. Despite decent interior space and good steering and handling, there wasn’t too much to love about the Lancer; it placed last in this reviewer’s 2009 compact sedan comparison.
For the 2012 model year, a new version of the Lancer brings a rare feature to the economy car class: all-wheel-drive. Many shoppers in wintry climes default to Subaru, whose identity is tied to that system; Suzuki’s SX4 hatchback and Kizashi sedan also offer AWD.
If mainstream Lancers had offered all-wheel-drive before now (pricey performance models already included it), it might well have found itself a comfortable niche. The SX4 isn’t as powerful as the Lancer, the Kizashi is more expensive, and the previous-generation Subaru Impreza was dull to drive.
Unfortunately, Mitsubishi launched the Lancer “All Wheel Control” at the same time Subaru rolled out a thoroughly redesigned Impreza. The new 2012 Impreza is smoother, quieter and far more fuel-efficient than the Lancer, is available with a wider variety of options and bodystyles (though Mitsubishi sells a five-door Lancer, it’s front-wheel-drive only), has a nicer interior, and otherwise matches or beats the Mitsubishi pretty much across the board.
In a weeklong test of the Lancer SE sedan, with a back-to-back test drive of a new Impreza hatchback (read review), two Mitsubishi advantages emerged: Imprezas, at least for now, can be difficult to find in stock at dealers, and the Lancer has a slight edge for driving enjoyment. It isn’t even any less money than a comparably-equipped Impreza, and the Subaru has a lower base price.
If you need an AWD small car and your Subaru dealer doesn’t have an Impreza to sell you, that car’s advantages of course become academic. But otherwise, the Lancer’s sharper steering and handling only count for so much against its thoroughly downscale feel and big-car fuel consumption. While an agile, affordable all-wheel-drive sedan sounds compelling, the overall package of this one, alas, is not.
Looks sharp, feels basic
Thanks mostly to its clean but bold front end styling, the Lancer comes off as crisply styled and aggressive, without making the same sacrifices to interior space and rear visibility as many competitors do.
But aside from the interior space, there isn’t much good news from inside the Lancer. Cabin trim looks and feels basic, and there are uneven panel fits in plain view along the top of the dash. The doors close with a tinny sound, and carpeting is loose in the trunk. The seats are hard and flat, and the fabric trim is far from plush.
See more photos of the 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE sedan
Because Mitsubishi only sells one all-wheel-drive version of the non-turbocharged Lancer – the well-equipped SE with standard alloy wheels and an automatic transmission – prices are fairly high. The tested car, with no extra options, wore a sticker price of $21,000. The Lancer feels to cheap to command even a price of thousands less.
On the plus side, the Lancer tends to be user-friendly. There’s room for adults in the front and rear, a decent view out in all directions, and straightforward controls. The plain-looking gauges also glow crisply at night.
A few ergonomic issues persist, though. The stereo waits several seconds to turn on after you push the power button. This reviewer also found the center console bin too low and too far back to double – as designed – as a comfortable armrest. The shallow trunk has less room than in most small sedans. (As noted, some Lancer models are offered as a practical five-door hatchback, but not this tested SE.)
Sharp handling, noisy ride
The Lancer’s chief strength is responsive steering that rivals the Mazda3 for best-in-class sharpness among economy sedans. Mitsubishi used this car as the starting point in developing the track-star Ralliart and Evo sports sedans, and even the base Lancers offer some of that driving enjoyment. It’s more agile and fun to drive on a windy road than the Subaru Impreza.
That is, at least, if your driving pleasure isn’t diminished by a loudly droning engine note from the Lancer’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission. The engine, standard on the AWD SE and on the front-wheel-drive Lancer GTS, delivers decent but hardly thrilling performance. Its 168-horsepower rating is better than the economy car norm, but at 3,120 pounds the Lancer is also heavier than most other compact sedans, offsetting that advantage.
Like the Suzuki Kizashi but unlike the Impreza, the Lancer can be set to drive either in front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive mode, with the latter continuously monitoring for any wheel slippage and transferring power to whatever wheels have the most traction. It can also be locked into turning all four wheels, which Mitsubishi recommends only for messy conditions. Unlike the Lancer Ralliart and Evo, the SE’s all-wheel-drive is designed for safety in slippery conditions rather than for improved performance.
The all-wheel-drive Lancer’s fuel economy is also among the lowest of any current economy car at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. This reviewer observed 26.2 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving, driven primarily in front-wheel-drive mode.
Coulda been a contender
So few small sedans offer all-wheel-drive that it doesn’t take much to offer a unique advantage over the others. Had the Lancer offered “All Wheel Control” a few years ago, it would have been easy to excuse a downscale feel, and gas mileage would have been right in line with the competition.
But today, the impressive new Subaru Impreza makes it hard to recommend the agile but tinny, noisy, and fuel-inefficient Lancer. It’s worth a test drive, especially if you favor sporty handling, but even if Mitsubishi is offering a Lancer with the options you want, don’t expect to be wowed.
More photos of the 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE
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Review: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Review: 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE
Vehicle tested: 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $15,695
Version tested: SE
Version base price (MSRP): $20,195
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $20,990
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $19,746
Test vehicle provided by: Mitsubishi Motors North America
Length: 180.0 inches
Width: 69.4 inches
Height: 58.3 inches
Wheelbase: 109.4 inches
Weight: 3,120 pounds
Trunk volume: 12.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 32.8 feet
Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 168 horsepower
Transmission: continuously variable automatic
EPA city mileage: 22 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 29 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 25 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 26.2 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Mitsubishi website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data fromTruecar.com and dealer quotes.