Partly lost in the doom and gloom of the shutting of its Australian manufacturing operation has been Mitsubishi’s success as an importer. The Lancer, for example, has been selling very well. So is this mid-size sedan the benchmark in the category, a role held for a long time by the (recently replaced or about to be replaced) Mazda 6 and the Honda Accord Euro?
Well, yes and no.
There’s plenty of good news about the Lancer. All models come with electronic stability control and lots of airbags – the tested VRX having no les than seven airbags (the 7this a driver’s knee bag). Pricing is also very sharp, with the top of the range VRX stickered at AUD$31,490 minus the two options fitted to the test car – a sunroof and Rockford Fosgate sound system.
The platform on which the Lancer is built is also new, being shared with the Outlander (though on the road you’d never guess). The engine – yet another new component – is a variable valve timed 2 litre, developing 113kW (at 6000 rpm) and 198Nm at a high 4250 rpm. However, the high revs at which maximum torque is developed (implying a weak low rpm power curve) are very well masked by the Continuously Variable Transmission fitted to the test car.
This trans, as its name suggests, constantly varies in ratio – there are not distinct gear steps. Left in Drive, the revs slur their way upwards and downwards as the situation demands. Unlike some CVT cars, there are very few situations where you find the engine screaming away at the redline as speed only slowly increases. Instead, you might not even notice (until you’re looking for it) how the tacho needle tends to hover at certain revs as the speed changes, rather than rising and falling conventionally. The main benefit of the CVT is that there’s a ratio for all occasions, and at 100 km/h the engine is turning at a very leisurely 2000 rpm. In turn this reduces engine noise and improves fuel economy.
However, if after that spiel you still want to change gears, you can. Up/down paddles (incidentally, made from magnesium) extend from the steering column and you can manually select from six ratios, using either the paddles or the gearshift. Apart from a slight driveline jerk accompanying on/off throttle movements, we found the gearbox a delight - whether used manually or left to do its own thing.
Fuel consumption is listed at 8.5 litres/100 (noticeably more than the lighter, lower trim manual trans models) and in test driving we achieved an average of about 9 litres/100km. However – and perhaps because of the CVT – the fuel economy performance is an interesting one. When drive gently in either city or rural road conditions, economy disproportionately improves – it’s easy to get Eights in the city and very low Sevens in the country. But drive even a little harder and these jump to Tens and Nines, respectively.
The VRX comes with larger brakes front and rear, stiffer suspension and revised anti-roll bars. Like all Lancers for a long time, the rear suspension is a ‘proper’ independent system. The ride is clearly sporty (you wouldn’t confuse the VRX for a cushy Mon and Pop model) but the car handles with precision and poise. Step over the adhesion limits and the stability control is well calibrated and effective. Grip levels from the 215/45 Yokohamas worn on 18 inch rims is high. However - and it’s a noticeable downer - tyre noise is excessive.
The A-pillars are very thick – this is one car where the driver constantly needs to move their heads to cover blind-spots – and the large spoiler blocks rear vision. However, on the plus side most people we talked to liked the styling of the VRX body kit.
Step inside and the Lancer is not quite the medium-outside, big-inside car we were expecting.
For two adults and two under 14 year olds it’s fine, but if the rear passengers are lanky teenagers or full size adults, the front seats will need to be positioned forwards – biting well into front legroom. The rear seating positions are also a trifle knees-up (that sharing of the platform with the Outlander, perhaps?) and getting in and out the back can be a tight squeeze – the high sill panels and tight seat/door clearance making it easy to get your feet tangled. Finally, rear head room can be tight.
The boot, despite initially looking large, cannot swallow two full-sized suitcases and is long and shallow with a limited opening. The boot carpet is also scrappy and easily slides around. Digging further, you’ll find a space-saver steel spare wheel and, under that (on the other side of the boot floor) a huge muffler that appears positioned just to steal boot space! The rear seat 60/40 split folds but the floor remains stepped and the access buttons for the seat releases are awkwardly placed. There are good sized door pockets front and rear but no vents are provided for rear passengers.
Build quality (or is it design quality?) of the test car was variable. The doors operated with metallic clangs that had to be heard to be believed and the boot was hard to shut. Some panel margins were also variable, although the paint was good.
The equipment level is very good for the money, with effective auto wipers and auto headlights, Bluetooth and auto key operation (you can leave the ‘key’ in your pocket most of the time). The optional Rockford Fosgate sound system – complete with boot-mounted subwoofer – pumps hard but can be adjusted for any musical taste.
We can certainly see why the Lancer is proving to be a sales success – good driving dynamics, equipment and fuel consumption. But if you’re a potential buyer, make sure you also assess the way the doors shut, the limited rear utility (passengers and boot space) and the tyre noise.
A good car – but not an excellent one.