Just the word "wagon" used to be enough to make a cool high school student shudder with dread. After years of dreaming about your first car, you finally earn your driver license only to discover that you've been relegated to piloting the family station wagon instead of a sporty new Ford Mustang. When you're 16 years old and full of illusions of coolness, a wagon can be a real blow to your adolescent ego.
For decades, station wagons have proliferated family stigma, but no more. These days, consumers, both old and young, lead more active lifestyles and therefore recognize the convenience of transporting athletic gear and other such necessities by small wagon, instead of trying to jam a hockey stick into the trunk of a once coveted Mustang.
The current market already provides several compact wagon options, and for 2004, Mitsubishi has added its own sporty front-wheel-drive adaptation to the mix.
In 2002 Mitsubishi introduced the Lancer sedan as a replacement for its aging Mirage sedan. Based on the Lancer, the Lancer Sportback wagon is intended to preserve the driving characteristics of a sedan, while adding the utility of a wagon.
The Lancer Sportback comes in two trim levels entry-level LS and sport-model Ralliart. Ralliart is Mitsubishi's international performance brand, engineered by those responsible for Mitsubishi's high-performance Lancer Evolution. In addition to the Sportback, the Ralliart name is also expected to appear on other Mitsubishi models in the future, including the Lancer sedan.
Both Sportback models are powered by a new 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine tuned to produce 160 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque in LS trim and 162 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque in the Ralliart version. That's 30 more horses than sport wagon competitors Ford Focus and Mazda Protegé5, but 20 hp less than Toyota's Matrix XRS. Although the Sportback's fuel mileage figures have not yet been determined, Mitsubishi tells us that the new engine is designed to also reduce exhaust emissions and raise fuel economy.
Only one transmission is available in both Sportback models an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with driver-adaptive control. While we found the current transmission satisfactory, we would cast our vote for a manual option as well especially in the Ralliart model.
The Sportback shares all of its chassis components with the Lancer sedan, though everything has been tightened up a bit for 2004. A structural ring encircles the cargo door opening, adding stiffness to the body. All Sportbacks get a fully independent front/rear multilink suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, plus speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering. The performance Ralliart model gets a full-on sport suspension which includes 20-percent stiffer spring rates, 150-percent firmer front shock damping and 85-percent firmer rear shock damping. Tighter bushings, a stiffer steering rack and a three-point front strut tower brace also help fine-tune the Sportback Ralliart's handling characteristics.
Additional Ralliart modifications include larger 16-inch tires on unique alloy wheels, standard antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and a tuned exhaust system that is opened up to send off a sportier exhaust note, while increasing horsepower a bit.
Outside, the Sportback displays new front and rear fascias similar to those on other Mitsubishi models. They are designed to tie together the entire Mitsubishi lineup, with the intention of providing passers-by with instant brand recognition. Comparing both Sportback models side by side, the Sportback Ralliart is immediately distinguishable from its LS sibling. Both cars have a long, low roofline, but a rally-style body kit that includes front, side and rear air dams; a unique grille; tinted headlamp lenses; and projector-beam foglights set the Ralliart apart from the meeker LS model at first glance. The Ralliart is also over an inch lower than the LS with the lower center of gravity improving handling.
Inside the Sportback LS, the accommodations are basic, yet functional with black wood-grain trim accents, a white-faced gauge cluster and cloth upholstery. The sporty Ralliart provides an all-black interior with carbon-fiberlike accents and sport bucket front seats. A six-way manually adjustable driver seat is standard on both the LS and Ralliart, while the front passenger gets a four-way manually adjustable seat. Both models receive a 140-watt stereo system with an in-dash CD player, but with no option to upgrade. The only additions LS buyers can make to the standard wagon are the Preferred Equipment package (that includes roof rails, color-keyed sideview mirrors and 15-inch alloy wheels) plus cruise control and a cargo area tonneau cover.
At 181.3 inches long, the Sportback is 10 inches longer than the Matrix and almost 11 inches longer than the Protegé5. Most of the additional length is used in its cargo area, as the Sportback's front legroom is just less than an inch-and-a-half larger than the Matrix, an inch greater than the Protegé5 and right on par with the Ford Focus. A winner in rear legroom is too close to call with most competitors reporting measurements close to the Sportback's 36.6 inches.
Cargo capacity is a vast 60.7 cubic feet if you fold down the 60/40-split reclining rear seats, which compared to the Matrix's 53.2 cubic feet is a sizable advantage. The wagon bed also has under floor and side storage compartments, as well as four cargo tie-down points to keep your gear from rolling around.
Pricing for the Lancer Sportback has yet to be announced, but Mitsubishi tells us to expect a ballpark figure of $17,000 for the Sportback LS and $19,000 for the Ralliart version. For an additional two grand, we'd take the Ralliart over the LS any day of the week. Its improved ride and handling make it a wagon worth driving. With Ralliart pricing similar to the Matrix, we'd prefer the sleeker, less beefy look of the Mitsubishi as compared to the Toyota. But even with drivability and design aside, the Sportback should remain on your wagon shopping list if only for its cavernous cargo area.