LA JOLLA, California - Because Mitsubishi's Lancer sedan stems from the company's rally-racing background, it's always handled better than some of the compact competition. After all, Mitsubishi also markets the super-performing Evolution, based on the same basic design. Though available previously in Japan, the first-generation Lancer for U.S. sale debuted as a 2002 model.
Now entering a new generation, as a 2008 model, the Lancer has improved its handling capabilities even further. This Mitsubishi sedan can hold its own with quite a few sport sedans, rolling through twisty two-lane roads. With 26 percent more engine horsepower than its predecessor, the 2008 Lancer also stands tall in acceleration for its class. As Bryan Arnett, manager of product strategy, proclaimed, the new Lancer has been "engineered from bumper to bumper to provide a driven-to-thrill experience."
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, but Mitsubishi also offers - for the first time in the U.S. market - a continuously variable transmission (CVT). As explained by Arnett, the CVT "delivers a noticeably different driving feel, [with] no discrete step or shifts." Arnett says it keeps the engine running at optimum speed, however fast the car is rolling. The uplevel GTS edition adds Sportmatic shifting, with paddle shifters to control elecronically-provided "virtual" gears.
Dimensions have not changed dramatically except for width, which has grown by 2.5 inches. Track width (distance between left and right wheels) is 2.3 inches greater. Wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer, but the 2008 Lancer is a tiny bit shorter overall. Torsional rigidity is 56 percent better than its predecessors, and bending rigidity has increased by half.
All Lancers now contain seven airbags, including a new knee airbag for the driver. Mitsubishi says the knee bag is a "first" for this segment. Antilock braking is standard on midrange ES and top-of-the-line GTS models, but an option for the entry-level DE sedan.
Under the hood, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine develops 152 horsepower at a relatively swift 6000 rpm, plus 146 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. The new engine also is 60 pounds lighter.
Lancers exhibit a high wedge beltline that "carries the entire length of the vehicle," Arnett said. Designers wanted the latest Lancer to "leave a strong impression as it passes other cars on the road." Distinctive touches on the GTS sedan include what Arnett calls "jet fighter air intakes" and a lower front chin spoiler.
Inside, a curved accent panel on the dashboard extends into the front doors. Deep-set gauges have an information display between them. ES and GTS models get a 60/40 split rear seat. Options include a navigation system (dealer-installed on DE/ES models), Fast-Key system (for the GTS), and a Rockford Fosgate 650-watt audio system. Bluetooth connectivity is standard on the GTS sedan.
Standard DE equipment includes a CD player, power windows and mirrors, 16-inch wheels, and an engine immobilizer. A CVT package for the DE includes antilock braking and air conditioning. The ES edition adds ABS, a rear stabilizer bar, air, keyless remote, and power locks. Front sport bucket seats and automatic climate control are among the extras in the GTS.
For a comparatively conventional compact sedan, the 2008 Lancer is eager to exhibit some impressive road behavior. Even with the CVT, this is one lower-end car that's fun to drive through winding rural roads, and a pleasure in urban environments as well, even if acceleration isn't its strongest virtue.
Steering feel is superior, yielding excellent control and maneuverability. Stable on the highway, the 2008 Lancer - even in midlevel ES form - copes particularly well through repeated, quick curves. Good side bolstering in the seats keeps occupants rooted, too.
The engine does buzz a bit when pushed, which is inevitable with a CVT. During hard acceleration, the sound escalates to a low-level blare. Still, the sound is more refined than on some CVT-equipped cars. Engine response is good, but short of stimulating. Sometimes, reactions of the CVT-equipped Lancer fall short of what you expect and anticipate. Once you realize its limitations, though, this shortfall isn't much of an issue.
Ride quality ranks as top-notch. Some body motion occurs on wavier pavement, due to a relatively taut suspension. But recovery is quick and the cushiony effect is reasonably good.
Gauges are easy enough to read, despite their deep-set position. Mitsubishi's flowing instrument panel is one of the most attractive around, So is the car's front end, for that matter. Front-seat occupants get plenty of space all around. Back-seat headroom is so-so, though leg and elbow room are good. Entry/exit is especially easy.
A Lancer GTS with manual shift almost seems like a different car. Though the gearshift works with snappy action, it's not always easy to determine which gear you're in. Super-smooth takeoffs aren't so easy to achieve, either, even though the clutch is sufficiently well-behaved. Strangely, too, the engine sounds more snarly when pushed hard with the stick-shift GTS than it does with the CVT-fitted ES sedan.
With the CVT in a GTS, the paddle shifters respond almost instantly, especially when downshifting. More than many such shifters, these are truly tempting to use, and would be most helpful on long downgrades.
Whatever the model, though, confident handling is the Lancer's top talent. Few small cars feel more secure on the highway - and also when the road turns curvy.
Mitsubishi competes against the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, and Honda Civic, among other compacts. Lancer sales begin in April, starting around $14,000.