Treading water in a rising tide.
In the car business, just as in life, respect is given when it’s earned. Consider the current Honda Civic: Ostensibly designed as an appliance to provide inexpensive and efficient transportation, it also delivers an engaging driving experience and holistic design that together transcend its humble mission statement. We respect that. The 2017 Mitsubishi Lancer compact sedan, however, is a more conflicted proposition.
Updated for the 2016 model year with a revised front fascia, LED running lights, and an uptick in standard infotainment and connectivity options, the 2017 Lancer comes in four levels of trim, starting with the price-leading 2.0 ES (front-drive only with a standard five-speed manual; a CVT automatic adds $1000) and moving through the 2.4 ES AWC and the 2.4 SE AWC to the top-tier 2.4 SEL AWC. Powertrain specifics are pretty much called out in Mitsubishi’s naming scheme, but we’ll decipher anyway: All three of the latter trims employ a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT coupled with Mitsu’s AWC (All Wheel Control) four-wheel-drive system. For this test, Mitsubishi provided us with a top-tier Lancer 2.4 SEL AWC.
One benefit of starting with such a vehicle is that it doesn’t require much time messing with the order sheet. With a base MSRP of $22,930, our test car included automatic headlamps, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped shifter knob and steering wheel, leather seating surfaces, automatic climate control, a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, and a proximity key. The sole option was the $1500 Sun Sound package, which adds a power glass sunroof and swaps out the stock six-speaker stereo for a 710-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate premium audio system. Despite the glaring omission of a navigation system (that’ll set you back an additional $1800), the tested Lancer SEL packed a respectable amount of content for its $24,430 price.
Plastic Not So Fantastic
It’s when you climb behind the wheel of the Lancer that demerits begin to accrue. The steering column tilts but does not telescope. The touchscreen icons and a smattering of physical controls are so tiny that using them requires diverting too much attention from the road. Also, the short bottom cushions and generic sculpting of the seats make them pale in comparison to the comfortable thrones in the Honda Civic or a Mazda 3. The tiny trunklid opens to reveal a small space of only 12 cubic feet (more precisely, 11.8, or 12.3 if you forgo the premium audio and its trunk-mounted subwoofer), which is less than the 15 cubes found in the Civic sedan or the 13 in the Toyota Corolla. The quality of the interior materials is also woefully below that of its competitors, as if Mitsubishi is sourcing its plastics from a couple of decades ago.
The 2.4-liter inline-four and CVT transmission that motivated our test car’s 3237 pounds certainly had a tall task. Producing 168 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 167 lb-ft of torque at a reasonably lofty 4100 rpm, it feels coarse and dated in comparison to, say, the 170-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter four Volkswagen uses in its Golf and Jetta to put either 184 or 199 lb-ft of torque on the table at as little as 1500 rpm. Even the Chevrolet Cruze has gone the turbo route, its 153-hp 1.4-liter turbo four supplying 177 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. Mitsubishi’s drivetrain more closely resembles that of the joyless Corolla, which tops the segment sales charts despite its weak, naturally aspirated, 1.8-liter engine with only 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft. Unfortunately for the Lancer, this CVT hasn’t adopted the latest stepped functions that make similar transmissions in the Civic and Corolla less objectionable than in earlier iterations. Instead, it prompts the Lancer’s engine to swing for its 6500-rpm redline, where it drones on in an adenoidal tone.
At the track, this Lancer SEL got itself to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 16.2 at 88 mph. Those numbers trail the Honda Civic by 1.1 and 0.9 seconds. A VW Jetta with the 1.8 turbo also outperforms the Lancer, needing only 7.3 seconds to reach 60 mph and 15.5 to cover the quarter-mile. A Toyota Corolla we tested turned in times of 9.5 seconds and 17.4, so the Lancer isn’t the laggard of this group. On the other hand, we observed 30 mpg in the Corolla, but only 25 in the Lancer.
One explanation for that discrepancy is the Lancer’s ace in the hole: its all-wheel-drive system. In addition to the obvious foul-weather benefits, we had high hopes that the system would aid our Lancer in delivering some of the sporty driving dynamics and elevated grip levels that made Mitsu’s AWD Lancer Evolution models of yore such a hoot to drive. Leaving it in the automatic setting (drivers can toggle between two-wheel drive, four-wheel-drive automatic, and four-wheel-drive lock settings), elicited no driveline binding or complaints from the 215/45-18 Dunlop SP Sport 5000m high-performance all-season tires, but we can’t really say it introduced eye-opening levels of agility, either. We can see where the lock setting, along with a set of proper winter tires, would make this compact nearly unstoppable for those who want to get to the slopes while the snow is still flying. Unfortunately, the all-wheel-drive setup did little to imbue the Lancer’s aging chassis with competitive levels of grip. Registering 0.81 g on our 300-foot skidpad, it trailed the Corolla (0.82 g), the Golf (0.85 g), Mazda 3 (0.84 g), and Civic (0.83 g). The steering also disappoints by being merely average, dashing hopes that its hydraulically assisted setup might feel better than the electrically assisted systems that competitors-and the front-wheel-drive Lancer-use.
Mitsubishi’s past offerings generated tons of affection, but its current lineup pales in comparison. By producing interesting and capable options like the Montero, Eclipse, and 3000GT (a.k.a. Dodge Stealth), not to mention multiple generations of the Lancer Evolution, it set expectations high. Mitsubishi once was the yin to Mazda’s yang in the realm of driver-oriented Japanese cars. Now, however, there’s no apparent effort to make this car interesting anymore. If Mitsubishi hopes to regain our respect, it’s going to have to give its people the resources and trust to resume their best work.