The new Mitsubishi Evo is on the way, and everyone who has seen the Concept-X showcar knows it. The ongoing Evo buzz has made us pretty eager to get into the new 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS.
With our first drive of the Lancer GTS, we already found out that this is a radically different Lancer than ever before. For one thing, it's got a CVT (continuously variable transmission), technology that we're seeing on a growing number of cars in this segment.
It shows us that cars in this class are trying to deliver performance, not just gas-sipping value.
Say Goodbye to Cheap and Cheerful
The 2008 Lancer does a good job of making you forget the strange, oddly proportioned little cars that have worn the nameplate for the last couple of decades. It's been stretched in every dimension, with a 1.4-inch-longer wheelbase, another 2.3 inches in width and 4.0 inches of height, and it adds up to 94.8 cubic feet of passenger volume.
This platform doesn't have a very sexy heritage, as it was developed by DaimlerChrysler to furnish a building block for a lot of different vehicles, from the Dodge Caliber to the Mitsubishi Outlander. But it brings 56 percent more torsional rigidity than before, as well as 50 percent more bending rigidity, and this gives the Lancer GTS a substantial, almost German feeling of substance.
The Lancer GTS features special bodywork, foglights, sport seats, a front strut-tower brace and an aggressive suspension calibration with 215/45R18 tires. It's a Lancer made for guys who care about driving.
The only thing that hasn't grown larger is the Lancer's engine. The former iron-block 2.0-liter 4G63 inline-4 has given way to an aluminum-block 2.0-liter 4B11. The new 2.0-liter inline-4 produces 152 horsepower, a lot of power from so little displacement. And thanks to Mitsubishi's variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust cams, there's a broad torque curve that starts at about 2,000 rpm with 135 pound-feet and then plateaus a short time later with 146 lb-ft at 4,250 rpm.
But pulling around as much as 400 pounds extra compared to the former Lancer pretty well erases the engine's output advantage. While we weren't expecting trails of fire from the all-new 2.0-liter inline-4, we were hoping for better than the 9.0 seconds it takes to reach 60 mph, only a tenth or so quicker than the 120-hp 2006 Lancer managed.
In comparison, the $21,290, 197-hp Honda Civic Si sedan with its six-speed manual transmission reaches 60 mph in just 7.1 seconds. The $19,400, 177-hp Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V does the job in 6.7 seconds.
Meanwhile, the Lancer GTS will get smoked by almost any 2-ton V6 crossover and even a few minivans. And the droning engine note sounds more janitorial than sporty.
Continuously Vexing Transmission (CVT)
We partly blame this GTS's sluggish performance on its CVT transmission. While a five-speed manual continues to be available (and we recommend it for this car), the traditional four-speed automatic has been replaced with the CVT. It allows you to shift among six ratios with steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Mitsubishi says the CVT offers a wider range of ratios than the outgoing four-speed automatic, thus increasing both performance and economy.
Instead of varying engine speed and shifting gears to suit, the CVT can maintain a predetermined engine speed and continuously vary the transmission ratios for the desired vehicle speed. And the combination of the 152-hp four-cylinder and CVT does outperform the 120-hp four-cylinder with four-speed automatic with both quicker acceleration and better fuel economy.
Driving a car is an even more variable endeavor than either of these two continuously variably optimized situations, however, and the GTS's CVT has a hard time figuring out which one you want. Even with what Mitsubishi calls Intelligent and Innovative Vehicle Electronic Control System (INVECS III), a program that learns the driver's behavior pattern over time, too little power always arrives too late.
In due course, we noted the system responded more quickly if we downshifted when we wanted more speed, and so we did — all the time. Since we noticed the engine reached redline quicker in Manual mode (at 45 mph instead of 75 mph in "Drive"), we left it there until the top of 1st gear, then switched over to Drive to complete the rest of the quarter-mile, cutting a second from our time in Drive-only mode.
The CVT gives you a kind of elasticity in performance like a conventional automatic transmission, and it's more responsive and more fuel-efficient. But you wouldn't exactly call it responsive compared to a manual transmission, and you have to continuously keep tugging at the shift paddles to achieve any speed. And that kind of diminishes the whole point of a CVT, doesn't it?
Got Its Feet on the Ground
The GTS's handling is above average for its class, especially considering its base price of $18,490. It has just about a perfect compromise between performance handling and daily ride comfort.
Although the new engine sits farther forward in the chassis than before, our only dynamic demerit arose because the ordinary all-season tires heated up and gave up long before the rest of the package did. The rock-solid chassis is very good at isolating the passengers from the outside, even with the standard 215/45R18 tires.
Before the front tires relinquished grip during skid-pad testing, we recorded an admirable average lateral acceleration of 0.86g (plus 0.89g in one direction). The rear tires wilted first in our slalom, yet we were pleased with the Lancer's thoroughly entertaining performance of 65.5 mph.
We'd prefer a bit more communication through the steering wheel, though.
The GTS's four-wheel disc brakes apparently come right from the 3,800-pound Outlander SUV, so stopping the 3,100-pound Lancer unsurprisingly proves to be a fade-free experience that inspires confidence, and it comes to a halt in 118 feet from 60 mph, just shy of a rating of "Excellent."
Going Upmarket With Smart Styling
On the outside, the Lancer has a genuine international flavor, and we find hints of Acura, Audi, Volvo and even a little Alfa Romeo in the rear view. It has a look that sets it apart from the omnipresent Honda Civic, stodgy new Nissan Sentra and uninspired Toyota Corolla.
The 2008 Lancer also goes upmarket with a selection of standard features once regarded as luxury items. For the added cost of a typical power moonroof, our test car came equipped with the $1,500 P2 Sun and Sound package, which includes a high-end 650-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system (see Stereo Evaluation), Sirius Satellite Radio (free for the first six months), six-CD/MP3 in-dash head unit, an aux-input jack, plus the moonroof.
An additional $2,000 for the P3 Navigation and Technology package nets the 30-gigabyte hard-drive-based navi system, which also provides for digital audio uploading to the music server (it's totally useful), a 7-inch touchscreen, and a wide array of trip-related functions.
The Promise of Power To Come
At a grand total of just $22,615, our loaded-up Lancer GTS presents somewhat of a dilemma. Once regarded as a marginalized, low-cost, second- or third-choice cheap-and-cheerful compact, the Lancer now measures up to first-class status in many ways.
Now if Mitsubishi would just ladle a generous portion of motivational tempo on top of its nimble GTS chassis, it would really have something. Fortunately we've learned that's exactly the plan.
Within a year, there will be three more Lancer variants. First there will be a front-wheel-drive model with a 2.4-liter inline-4 dubbed either Lancer GST or Lancer Ralliart. Then there will be the all-wheel-drive Evolution X (perhaps with as much as 320 hp). And finally something between the two that will be positioned against the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX, which we believe will be an all-wheel-drive Lancer GSX with an inline-4 boosted to 250 hp with a light-pressure turbo.
Once this horseless carriage gets some motivation, the Lancer should be our kind of car.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of 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.
Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says:
I hate the wing. More often than not "hate" is too strong a word, but not in this case. When a car wears a wing as large as the Lancer's, it better have the beans to back it up. That's how the Lancer Evolution and the Subaru WRX STI have gotten away with such styling vulgarity for so long.
But the 2007 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS with the CVT transmission is one of the slowest cars around. Packing only 152 hp, it goes from zero to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds and finishes the standing quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at just 83.8 mph. A Kia Sedona minivan is quicker, and where I come from the only thing worse than getting outrun by a mom in a minivan is getting outrun by a mom in a minivan when you have some enormous wing glued to your trunk.
The thing is this Rally Red Lancer GTS lacks beans. It's got magnesium shift paddles, a sunroof, a navigation system, CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers, Bluetooth, 18-inch wheels, a well-tuned suspension, strong four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, side-impact airbags, a driver's knee airbag, keyless entry, a trip computer, a fold-down rear seat, a tire-pressure monitor system, foglights, electronic brakeforce distribution, a chrome exhaust tip and the CVT automatic. For $22,615 as tested, it's a hell of a value. And it drives like it costs more, too, with an overall refined feel and sporty responses.
I just wish Mitsu would lose the wing, or better yet, add some beans.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer in NJ is: