Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
The all-new 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer makes you wonder what's happened to the market for economy cars. Whether you're tickling the magnesium shift paddles of the Lancer's continuously variable transmission (CVT) or twisting the meaty rim of the steering wheel or reveling in the composure of the chassis in the corners, it's clear the term "economy sedan" doesn't mean what it used to. The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer is a robust and satisfying people mover that will further elevate buyer expectations in this ever-elevating segment.
Rebuilding the brand The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer arrives at a time when Mitsubishi is struggling to redefine itself. The Lancer is part of the company's overall effort to upgrade its reputation for quality and reestablish its credibility with mainstream American drivers.
The Lancer's all-new chassis is a stoutly engineered effort, derived from the Dodge Caliber and upgraded sufficiently to serve as the basis for the forthcoming all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution X. In fact, this new Lancer's structure starts out stiffer than that of the current Evolution IX before any structural enhancements are added.
Compared to the previous-generation Lancer, the new car's wheelbase has been stretched 1.4 inches and the track has been widened 2.3 inches. Torsional rigidity has been increased an amazing 56 percent, while bending resistance has been improved 50 percent. Every detail of body structure, from the steering system's mounting points to basic structural design, was reviewed during development in an effort to maximize chassis integrity. For instance, the new Lancer repositioned the exhaust system to permit chassis cross members that are straight and strong.
Heavily updated As might be expected, this increase in the strength of the Lancer's chassis adds to the car's curb weight. Depending on trim level, the new car is approximately 200 pounds heavier than the previous-generation Lancer.
Aside from the weight of a car that's physically larger than before (although actually a half inch shorter), there's also a system of no fewer than seven airbags: front-seat airbags, front-seat-mounted side airbags, curtain-type head protection airbags and the first standard driver's knee-protection airbag in this market segment.
Once you add the powerful four-wheel-disc brake system from the Outlander, as well as 18-inch wheels (both standard on top-line GTS models), it's easy to see where the 200 pounds comes from.
Some weight has actually been saved in the drivetrain, as the former iron-block 2.0-liter four-cylinder has been replaced by a 2.0-liter DOHC MIVEC four-cylinder that uses an aluminum block that represents a savings of 59.5 pounds. This engine puts out 152 horsepower (143 hp in PZEV form for California) and 146 pound-feet of torque. Variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust camshafts helps broaden the power band.
No 2.4-liter engine has yet been officially announced for the Lancer, but we'd expect to see this power plant return to the Lancer lineup when the Ralliart version becomes available in the coming year. Meanwhile, the 2.0-liter mates to either a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional CVT automatic. On top-trim GTS models the CVT includes a six-step "Sportronic" shift mode that's controlled via the titanium shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
Worth the weight While added weight can hurt anyone, it actually gives the new Lancer a substantial, almost Teutonic sense of over-the-road confidence. The steering requires more effort than before, but it's not heavy and doesn't make the car feel cumbersome. This weightiness similarly describes the car's ride quality and chassis reactions, but in a good way. In particular, the Lancer GTS charges through corners with pronounced certainty, even when the pavement is bumpy and broken.
You can't quite fling the Lancer into corners as if it were a Mazda 3 or Honda Civic, but that's partially because the chassis is begging for more power. It's clear all the hard parts are properly bolted together and capable of much greater demands than this 2.0-liter four-cylinder can generate. We expect buyers who are unwilling to wait for the Lancer Ralliart with its 2.4-liter engine to go to the aftermarket for a turbocharging system, and we expect these more powerful Lancers will be a hoot to drive.
Flavors and options Three trim levels of the Lancer will be offered when the car goes on sale in March. Entry-level DE models will come with 16-inch steel wheels, front disc brakes and a 140-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3 capability. DE buyers can opt for antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution as part of the A/C & Power Package, which also includes air-conditioning, power door locks and a one-touch driver's power window.
Midgrade Lancer ES models are upgraded to 16-inch cast-alloy wheels, plus four-wheel disc brakes and ABS, air-conditioning, a 60/40-folding rear seat, power door locks with keyless entry and Bluetooth cell phone connectivity.
Step up to the GTS trim and the most obvious enhancement comes in the form of 10-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels wearing 215/45R18 tires. GTS Lancers also get a six-speaker audio system, automatic climate control, some aerodynamic bodywork trim, foglights, a rear spoiler, bucket seats and a sport-tuned suspension with a strut-tower brace.
Both ES and GTS customers can add the Sun & Sound Package to add both a power sunroof and a 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with six-disc changer, auxiliary input and six months of prepaid Sirius Satellite Radio. A Navigation & Technology Package, offered only on GTS versions, gives the Lancer Lexus-like features that range from keyless start to a 30-gigabyte digital music server to a GPS navigation system, all accessed via a 7-inch LCD touchscreen.
We expect the new Lancer to accomplish two goals when it arrives in March. First, it will convince economy-sedan buyers that Mitsubishi is once again a serious player in this segment. Second, it will convince hard-core enthusiasts that all the hype surrounding the Lancer Evolution X is fully justified. These are critical steps on the road to recovery for Mitsubishi. Fortunately, the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer appears to be robust enough to stand up to just this kind of pressure.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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