2002 Mitsubishi Lancer Road Test

2002 Mitsubishi Lancer Sedan

(2.0L 4-cyl. 4-speed Automatic)

Mediocrity, Thy Name Is Lancer

Big news, everybody. Mitsubishi is finally moving toward car names that actually have meanings. Heretofore, we had to search in the dictionary (the big, hernia-inducing one) as to what exactly a Diamante is (it's a sequin, rhinestone or other glittery ornamentation on a garment.) A Montero is defined as a Spanish hunter's cap, round in shape and having an earflap, because that conjures up images of not one but two of the company's SUVs. Our spellchecker always highlights Galant as inappropriate; "two Ls!" it chastises.

A couple of Mitsu's names are real words. Whenever we see an Eclipse, for example, we are reminded of a naturally occurring phenomenon that used to scare the bejeezus out of less scientifically astute generations. And a Mirage — well, there's just no better way of connoting the image of a well-built car than something that's without substance, an illusion, an ephemera. "Is that a good car?" "It's just a Mirage." Many of you agreed. Of the 32,000 Mirages sold last year, only about 8,000 went to actual customers. The rest of them languish in rental car fleets.

And now, to replace the vanishing Mirage sedan, is the Lancer. That's more like it. Lancer conjures up images of lace-festooned cavaliers, mustachioed villains and, uh, clean-shaven honorable knights who thrust-and-parry in graceful duels for the hand of the fair lady with the heaving bosom.

And the Lancer is graceful. Unilaterally praised was the suspension, which properly sorted out the rutted and grooved roadways of California. The MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear setup kept the 2,734-pound car planted through corners and communicated the feel of the road. "You can feel the years of rallying coming through with each turn of the steering wheel," declared our road test coordinator.

Yes, the Lancer is a sixth-generation descendant of the moniker whose ancestors have a World Rally heritage that spans nearly 30 years and includes four World Rally Championships. The ties, while tenuous at best, still translate to a well-balanced car, one that can thread through the cones of our 600-foot slalom in a plucky 6.57 seconds at 62.3 miles per hour. Compared to the Mirage, the Lancer's structural integrity has been improved by 50 percent in torsional rigidity and 60 percent in bending rigidity. Helped along by a tight and nimble steering rack that gives a modicum of feel from the road, and a tiny turning circle of 33.5 feet, you'll have no trouble squeezing it into a tight parking spot. You could also almost imagine yourself doing four-wheel drifts on a deserted dirt road, heading toward the finishing line and a cheering crowd.

Right. Almost. The Lancer offered to the U.S. market is no Evo VII, much to the chagrin of car dudes everywhere. Senior Editor Brent Romans expressed his articulate best when he recalled: "When Mitsubishi announced at the 2001 New York Auto Show that it was going to offer a Lancer in America, I stripped down to my undies and ran through Times Square yelling, 'The Lancer is coming! The Lancer is coming!' Despite the fact that no New Yorkers seemed to notice or care, you can only imagine my later disappointment (and embarrassment) when I learned that Mitsubishi wasn't talking about the real Lancer, the four-wheel-drive 280-hp Lancer Evolution."

Rather, this is a watered-down version for the cash-strapped masses, powered by a 2.0-liter SOHC inline four that makes 120 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 130 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. A powerplant displacing two liters isn't particularly small; but we feel that more horsepower can be wrought from it. While the engine generates spirited noises that make it seem faster than it is, 0-to-60-mph acceleration runs were achieved in a lackluster 10.5 seconds.

Of course, our tester's four-speed automatic tranny sapped all the power from what was already a pretty dry well. Mitsubishi touts its adaptive shift control system, a fuzzy logic software that "learns" the driving habits of its pilot and adjusts shift points accordingly. However, the system takes about 45 minutes to acclimate. On longer-distance runs, we did notice that during more aggressive driving, shift points were held longer, allowing the engine to rev higher before upshifting. But the best runs were achieved by manually shifting the lever through the gears. Look, it's not very fast; plan well ahead for freeway merges. We'd also be more interested in the five-speed manual, but alas, no such gearbox is available in LS trim — you have to get an ES or O-Z Rally edition.

Engine noise accounts for most of the decibels during the ride. Well-insulated spaces between the interior and exterior panels keep out road and wind noise. No rattles or squeaks intruded while driving over smooth surfaces, although jouncing over bumps revealed some looseness around the dash. Build quality was up to par for cars in this class, with minor gap variances around the headlamp area. Around tight corners and the parking lot, prepare for a lot of howling from the skinny tires — the Goodyear Eagle LS P195/60R15s let you know well in advance that they're not in the business of hanging on for dear life for your driving amusement.

The brakes, composed of front discs and rear drums, were fleet of foot, allowing for 60-to-0 halts that took 127 feet. Our LS model was equipped with ABS, which isn't available as an option on the ES or O-Z Rally versions. When engaged, the system produces a lot of noise, but it does its job. We were impressed with the lack of nose dive and rear squat upon stops and launches, again speaking well of the suspension. The pedal could be tightened up to give better feedback, but otherwise was well modulated.

Inside, a height-adjustable seat allowed most of our drivers to find comfort; our editors, ranging in height from 5-feet 6-inches to 6-feet 2-inches, had little to complain about. The seat bottoms are rather flat, though, and our long-femured colleagues found them to be too short. Covered in medium-grade velour that's acceptable for a car of this price point, we couldn't find too much to criticize, save for its utter lack of character or sense of style.

A swath of faux wood splits the dash in two, adding a bit of color to the Lancer's ashy gray interior. While the materials are soft-touch plastics, a knuckle rap will reveal a hollow-sounding thunk. The stereo, while easy enough to use, reminded our drivers of economy cars of two decades past with its small, glossy buttons. A-pillar-mounted speakers are a classy touch, but they don't seem to enhance the Lancer's mediocre sound system. And the tiny, cylindrical tuning knob, while appreciated for its mere existence, was perplexing for all.

The best part of the package is the roominess of the rear seat. With 36.6 inches of legroom and 53.3 inches of shoulder space, it exceeds the dimensions of many of its competitors. Indeed, the Lancer has almost all of them beat with 93.9 cubic feet of passenger volume (the Hyundai Elantra has an even 94 cubic feet). These generous proportions were achieved by a platform whose wheelbase is 4 inches longer than that of the Mirage (resulting in a proportionate 4-inch increase in overall length). Rear passengers get a fold-down armrest with cupholders and three-point seatbelts in all three seating positions, but no true headrests are available. Foot room is plentiful, but watch your shins, because a metal bar hides underneath the plastic cover of the back of the front seats. Cargo space is 11.3 cubic feet, with low liftover but a smallish hole through which to insert your parcels.

The Lancer has a well-padded list of standard features, such as power windows, locks and mirrors; a CD player; air conditioning and dual-visor vanity mirrors. The LS trim adds cruise control, remote keyless entry and 60/40 split-folding rear seats, and you get the option of adding a Preferred Equipment group that includes ABS and seat-mounted side airbags.

All this is rendered in a package that will offend few. With a more traditional design and crisp creases in the sheetmetal, the Lancer is an improvement over the invisible Mirage. If you're dying for that faux-Evo VII look, an O-Z Rally package is available, with racing alloy wheels, bumper extensions for the front and rear, side air dams, exterior and interior badges, a black interior with brushed metal trim and white-faced gauges. Yes, it's still powered by the 120-horsepower engine, and, no, there are no suspension modifications or tire upgrades.

Mitsubishi wants to forgo the bottom-end market (namely economy sub-compacts) to the Korean manufacturers and concentrate on that next level of consumerism, the economy compact. Trouble is, some of those low-end market cars are just as tightly screwed together, and as well-equipped, as the Lancer is. Take the Hyundai Elantra, for example. A Hyundai with all of the above features, plus a sunroof, traction control and a 140-horsepower engine would come in more than $3,000 under the Lancer's price.

While the Lancer represents a vast improvement over its predecessor, the Mirage, aside from some of its handling aspects, nothing gleams to recommend it over all the swell competition that exists in this class. And when it comes down to cars of this class, money talks. Our LS model topped the scales at $17,242, which is on the upper end of the compact economy sedan spectrum.

The Mitsubishi Lancer is a solid no-frills car, but with so much competition out there, it turns out to be merely a contender, not a true competitor. Mitsubishi hints that a larger 2.4-liter powerplant can fit into the engine bay, and, of course, the company keeps doing the dance of the seven veils about bringing the Evo VII to the American market. We're all a-tingle.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 5.5

Components: It's encouraging to see speakers mounted in the A-pillars of a low-budget model. This feature is usually reserved for sports cars and luxury vehicles, while economy models are commonly equipped with a simple head unit and four low-powered speakers. Unfortunately, the tweeters up top are the only difference between the Lancer LS stereo system and the standard template. The single CD player is mounted high in the front console and its simple controls are easy to use, but the volume knob is too small, and the radio preset buttons feel flimsy. The head unit is responsible for powering the tweets, a small mid-bass driver low in each front door and two wimpy 15-watt Mitsubishi speakers in the rear deck.

Performance: The aforementioned high-frequency drivers near each end of the dash help construct a soundstage that tells you this system is at least one step above what's found in rental cars. The tweeters are clear at high volumes thanks to good crossover settings that keep the lows going to the other speakers. The mid-bass drivers in the front doors are mounted very low, causing some sound to get blocked by the shins of the driver and front passenger. These small speakers try to reproduce everything from vocals to bass drums and are easily overwhelmed. Along with rattling the door panels, hip-hop songs reveal the hollow and often distorted bass output. This is partly due to the grainy signal produced by the system's amplifier under high volumes. Folks in the back seat get no special tweeters and are blasted by the small speakers in the hat shelf, that is, if 30-watts max can be considered blasting.

Best Feature: A-pillar speakers for good imaging.

Worst Feature: Backseaters get shortchanged.

Conclusion: Three words can sum up this mediocre audio system: It's not bad.

Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
With an all-new name, engine and exterior appearance, you would think that this little Mitsu would be a whole new driving experience. And it is, sort of. Compared to the Mirage it replaces, the Lancer is quite an improvement. The suspension is excellent for a car in this class, soaking up bumps and freeway transitions nicely and with little noise. It's not exactly a thrill in the turns, but for everyday commuting it has a solid, planted feel that's as good as anything at its price.

The interior was standard-issue econocar, but that's not to say that it's bad. The gauges, climate controls and radio buttons are all logically arranged and present an overall clean look. The fake wood trim looks silly on a car in this price range, but you can't knock 'em for trying. The seats are reasonably comfortable, and there was plenty of room to fit my tall frame without much fuss.

An afternoon of running around town, with a few quick jaunts on the freeway thrown in, showed the Lancer to be comfortable and likable. The engine did take its time getting the little four-door up to speed on the highway, but it was otherwise peppy and quiet. I came back to the office with the impression that this was a much-improved car that should fare well in the class. That is until I saw the window sticker.

Seventeen big ones for this puppy? I don't think so. It's a fine little commuter car, but after plenty of seat time in our long-term Hyundai Elantra, I would be hard pressed to pay an extra four grand for the Lancer. The Elantra has more power, an equally well-appointed interior and a significantly better warranty. The suspension on the Lancer is noticeably more sophisticated, but certainly not enough to justify the price premium. Basically, it's a nice little compact sedan, but for the money, I think I would shop around a bit before I settled on the Lancer.

Associate Editor Erin Riches says:
If you need a small car for navigating a crowded city, the Lancer would be a good choice. The engine provided good off-the-line thrust, even with the automatic (and when traffic is heavy, not having to shift your own gears is a huge bonus). The ride was generally composed and smooth, and the car cornered smartly. The Lancer's pleasant around-town nature subsided a bit on the highway. The automatic transmission's early shiftpoints worked quite well in the city, but when I pressed the pedal harder to pass another car, the transmission seemed reluctant to dip back into second or third gear. But to be fair, this transmission has driver-adaptive technology, so I guess it had decided that I was of the more conservative persuasion (and I won't suggest that this is entirely untrue). Once the downshifts did arrive, the engine revved mightily (with some irritation) until the required speed was achieved — at which point, the transmission slipped back into its overdrive gear, and all was well. Really, so long as I wasn't trying to accelerate, it was quiet in the cabin at highway speeds, save for some wind noise, and the stereo easily took care of that issue.

It was readily apparent on hilly canyon roads that the Lancer's engine (and I) would benefit from additional mid-range torque or at least a manual transmission. However, the car's handling ability showed me a good time nonetheless. Although, the steering got a bit heavy on some of the turns, the suspension was surprisingly communicative and remained composed around every turn. Obviously, there was some body roll, but the Lancer never got wallowy or out of sorts.

I was rather taken with the interior. The seats were comfortable, and I had plenty of legroom — plus the upholstery combo of woven fabric and faux suede is sure to be cool in hot weather. The center stack ergonomics were great — the stereo faceplate was mounted high, and there were easy-to-use dials for the climate control and a prominent two-sided seek button for the CD player. The rear-seat armrest was a thoughtful touch, though I wish the one in the front seat were more usable (but that might preclude the conveniently placed cupholders). I liked the soft-touch dash, including the "hidden" passenger-side airbag cover, but I also want a leather-wrapped steering wheel (or at least a higher-quality plastic skin) and padded door trim.

The Lancer is a good economy car — it handles well and it has a comfortable interior. But Mitsubishi ought to increase the engine's output (variable valve timing, perhaps?), as this will hold the car back in the current economy segment — drivers expect more power these days, especially for 17 grand.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
When Mitsubishi announced at the 2001 New York Auto Show that it was going to offer a Lancer in America, I stripped down to my undies and ran through Times Square yelling, "The Lancer is coming! The Lancer is coming!" Despite the fact that no New Yorkers seemed to notice or care, you can only imagine my later disappointment (and embarrassment) when I learned that Mitsubishi wasn't talking about the real Lancer, the four-wheel-drive 280-hp Lancer Evolution. Mitsu was talking about a plain-Jane Lancer that didn't seem all that different from the Mirage it was replacing. Boorrriinnggg.

However, after driving our Lancer LS test car, I feel like I have to give this car at least a little respect. Though lacking personality, it has decent power, a well-sorted chassis and exterior styling that looks more upscale than other cars' in this class. It's not cheap, but it isn't a rip-off, either. With the LS, I can't think of any other features I would really want on an economy sedan.

Would I recommend buying one, though? That's the real question, and I'm rather ambivalent about it. I think I'd ultimately suggest other cars first, those being the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra, specifically. The Focus is more fun to drive, the Civic has more models to choose from, the Elantra is cheaper and the Sentra, other than its small back seat, is simply better.

The Lancer is worth a look, though. And Mitsubishi continues to drop hints that it will import the Evo. My rip-off athletic pants are at the ready.

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