Mitsubishi unveiled its new Lancer in New Orleans (N'awlins to the locals) to a gaggle of automotive writers. What better place to introduce its kicked-up replacement for the Mirage than in the very place that inspires Mr. "Kick It Up a Notch" himself, chef Emeril Lagasse? Engineers' and designers' goals were better handling, a smoother and quieter ride, more passenger room, a more refined engine and increased luxury. The chief reason for the new name (for the U.S., as the car has always been called the Lancer elsewhere) is Mitsubishi's desire to emphasize that the Lancer is more upscale, larger and better-engineered than the old Mirage. And now that the kids who've been playing rally racing games on PlayStation are buying entry-level cars, the image boost that comes with the Lancer's past successes in World Rally Championship racing doesn't hurt, either.
Built on a 102.4-inch wheelbase (4 inches longer than the current Mirage sedan) the Lancer, at 93.9 cubic feet of interior volume, has one of the roomiest cabins in its class. The increased size promoted the Lancer from the subcompact class to the compact class. Jumping into the back seat, we immediately noticed the expanse of legroom, which is virtually equal to many larger midsize sedans, such as Mitsubishi's own Galant.
Devoid of gimmickry, the style of the Lancer is purposeful and clean. The large, classy grille and headlights reminded some of us of a Lexus'. And the smooth profile and simple taillight treatment furthered the impression of an upscale appearance. Mitsubishi gave the interior a more luxurious feel, as well, with upgraded materials along with woodtone and metallic accents for the dash and center console.
Realizing that hardly anybody buys a new car without air conditioning, a stereo and power windows, Mitsubishi doesn't offer a strippo version of the Lancer. There are just three well-equipped trim levels: ES, LS and O-Z Rally edition. The ES has air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, a tilt steering wheel, a multi-adjustable driver seat and a 100-watt stereo with a CD player. LS models receive 15-inch alloy wheels (versus 14-inchers with wheelcovers), cruise control, keyless entry, a split/fold rear seat with a center armrest and floor mats. The O-Z Rally edition (named after the Italian racing wheel maker) is the most sporting of the trio, with 15-inch O-Z wheels, tasteful ground effects, white-faced gauges and embroidered floor mats. Options consist of two packages; one for the ES that adds a couple of LS features (such as keyless entry and the split rear seat with center armrest) and another for the LS that adds antilock (ABS) brakes and front side airbags. The lone O-Z option is a rear spoiler. We thought it odd that the O-Z didn't have 16-inch wheels, which not too long ago would be considered outrageous on a small sedan but are now commonplace on the sporty versions of these cars. And we feel that the options of ABS and side airbags shouldn't be restricted to just the LS model, but we were told that that may change.
We're sure that the enthusiasts reading this are wondering about the Lancer Evolution VII, seen at the 2001 New York International Auto Show. Mitsubishi also displayed it at this Lancer press introduction. But the short answer is that no, this turbocharged, all-wheel-drive car will not be offered for the U.S. market anytime soon. We assume the reason is that Mitsu is not exactly flush with cash now (even though its U.S. sales rose 65 percent in the last two years), and it wouldn't make sense to spend huge money on an ultra-low-production (and probably non-profitable) image car. If Subaru does well with its 2002 Impreza WRX, however, you can bet Mitsubishi will feel the pressure to import the Evo.
Lancer pricing will range from around $14,000 to $18,000. Warranty protection consists of 3-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper, 5-year/60,000-mile basic powertrain and 7-year/100,000-mile anticorrosion.
Compared to the Mirage, the Lancer's structural integrity boasts increases of 50 percent in torsional rigidity and 60 percent in bending rigidity. What this means is that flexing of the body structure (such as when the car is driven over pothole-strewn roads or cranked into a corner at speed) is reduced, allowing a solid foundation from which the suspension can do its job. A four-wheel independent suspension features a multilink rear design for better wheel control over the bumps and a smoother, more stable ride. The stiffer platform also eliminates potential sources of squeaks and rattles. Another design goal was a high level of crash protection in all types of collisions, including offset frontal and side impact. Mitsubishi's RISE (Refined Impact Safety Evolution) technology employs a number of reinforced crossmembers under the car, stronger A-pillars and even double side-impact beams in the rear doors. Though U.S. crash tests have yet to be conducted, Mitsubishi claims that the Lancer scored high marks in European tests. These include the offset and side-impact tests, conducted at 64 km/h, which happens to be equal to 40 mph -- the speed at which the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's offset tests are conducted here in the States. Improved safety will be very important, as the Mirage fared poorly in crash tests.
Unlike most of its competitors, which have two or even three different engines of varying output for differing trim levels of the same model (for example, the Honda Civic), all Lancers will have the same engine, a 2.0-liter SOHC 16-valve inline four with 120 horsepower and 130 foot-pounds of torque. This powerplant was tuned to provide more low- and mid-range poke, which is often more useable than a more powerful engine that doesn't come alive until the tach is showing at least 3,500 rpm.
Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The automatic features driver-adaptive technology, an unusual feature in this class that tailors shift points according to the driver. An aggressive driver will get higher-rpm shifts while a more relaxed pilot will get lower-rpm gear changes.
We drove an ES with a manual gearbox first, and going over hill and dale (as well as twisty two-lanes and freeways), it was evident that the structural engineers had earned their pay. The car was as tight as a drum and unflappable over broken pavement and in quick transitions. The steering had decent weighting and road feel, but we would have preferred it to be a bit quicker. When wound up through the gears, the five-speed manual tranny had a shift action that approached a Honda Civic's gearbox (what we consider to be the class benchmark) in terms of precise action and satisfying feel. Though we weren't able to conduct performance tests, the 2.0-liter engine possessed a user-friendly powerband that furnished crisp off-the-line response and respectable passing/merging ability. And when the engine was revved up toward redline, it impressed us with its lack of noise and vibration. Braking performance felt about average, with progressive pedal action that made for easy modulation. Cruising at 70 mph on the freeway, the cabin was quiet as road and engine noise was well muted. Only minor wind ruffle around the A-pillars was worth noting.
Next up was an automatic LS sedan. All we can say is that the electronic wizardry that adapts the tranny to the driver works. During this driving enthusiast's stint behind the wheel, the automatic held gears longer than it did for my more conservative co-driver and shifted right at redline whenever the gas was mashed to the floor. And nary a jolt or shudder was felt, even under full-throttle, as the tranny changed gears. The LS felt a little sharper in the turns, and we attributed the crisper cornering to the larger, lower-profile rubber (195/60R15) that the LS has.
We drove the O-Z last and were left feeling somewhat ambivalent toward the sportiest of the Lancer trio. Sure, it's a looker and it handles fine, but it needs more go to back up its show. Although the Lancer's 120-horsepower engine is fine for most folks, enthusiasts are going to want (and expect) more power in the O-Z. Facing competitors such as the 170-horsepower 2002 Sentra SE-R and the 140-horsepower 2002 Mazda Protegé MP3 is going to require more beans underhood as well as bigger wheels.
Apart from the minor beef with the O-Z (which is expected to account for 20 percent of Lancer sales), the Lancer struck us as a well-rounded effort that deserves consideration from those shopping the small-sedan market.