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First Drive

Mitsubishi's Lancer Is Aimed at the Young

November 21, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lancers, in days of yore, were a formidable force of fast-moving cavalry armed with long, needle-sharp lances: a first line of offense in any meaningful attack on a foe.

Mitsubishi might have envisioned that same role for its entry-level Lancer sedan, because surely the Lancers that have carried Mitsubishi drivers to scores of victories on the European rally circuit have been formidable indeed.

Unfortunately, the Lancer brought to the United States this year, though quite respectable in the form department, falls far short of the formidable.

Yes, it will be an important car for Mitsubishi and should sell well.

But it isn't likely to be much of a challenge to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla--import nameplates that dominate the compact-car segment in this country. The Lancer is not sharp enough to penetrate that barrier.

Still, it isn't really aimed at the mostly middle-of-the-road crowd that lines up for Civics and Corollas. Mitsubishi has taken pains to position itself as a company for the young and restless and is promoting the Lancer as a good-looking ride for the cool crowd.

It will be a good steed for most who buy it--if they buy it for the well-equipped compact people-mover it is and not in hopes that it will transmogrify into the fire-breathing, turf-tearing warrior that is the top-of-the-line twin-turbo, 280-horsepower Lancer Evolution VII sold to enthusiasts overseas. (Mitsubishi executives in the U.S. hint strongly that a version of the Evo is indeed coming, but it is probably at least two years away.)

For now, the U.S. Lancer replaces the four-door Mirage in the Mitsubishi lineup for 2002. That, at least, is something we can be thankful for.

The Lancer is a true compact--longer, wider and a tad lower than the subcompact Mirage--and has a slightly larger engine and a far better ride and handling qualities.

There is no two-door Lancer yet, so Mitsubishi is keeping the Mirage coupe for 2002. A base coupe, with a starting price of $12,500, is almost $2,000 less than the cheapest Lancer and will serve as the company's price leader. Mitsubishi executives say, though, that they don't expect much in the way of Mirage sales; the advertising dollars are being spent on Lancer.

It shouldn't be a tough sell.

Even the base Lancer ES--at $14,442, including the $545 destination charge--comes with a parcel of standard goodies, including 14-inch wheels and tires; air conditioning; power windows, locks and side mirrors; a height-adjustable driver's seat; and a 100-watt, four-speaker stereo with cassette and CD player. An optional four-speed automatic transmission to replace the fairly snappy five-speed manual adds $800.

The upscale LS model, at $16,442 with automatic (no manual available), adds 15-inch tires and alloy wheels, a six-speaker stereo, folding power side mirrors, cruise control, floor mats, remote keyless entry and a center armrest with cup holders for the 60/40-split rear seat.

There's also a screaming yellow O-Z Rally edition of the Lancer, with an aerodynamic "ground effects" kit that adds special 15-inch O-Z-brand alloy wheels, front and rear air dams and side skirts, a slightly heftier front anti-sway bar and a rear stabilizer bar that isn't offered on other models; and a special interior package featuring black fabric and brushed metal with white-faced instrument gauges. The five-speed manual transmission from the ES is standard on the Rally, priced at $16,032; the four-speed automatic adds $800.

Anti-lock braking and side air bags are available in an $800 option package, but so far only on the Lancer LS--a limitation Mitsubishi might want to rethink as the parents who are the most likely co-signers for those student-body base ES models or boy-racer O-Z editions might be more inclined to co-sign if they could get the upgraded braking and air-bag protection.

Regardless of version, all Lancers get the same 2.0-liter inline-4 engine, rated at 120 horsepower and 130 foot-pounds of torque. That's up from 111 ponies and 116 foot-pounds in the 1.8-liter four-banger offered in the Mirage.

The brakes are discs up front and drums in the rear. Fuel economy is rated at 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway with the five-speed, or 24 and 30 with the automatic.

That automatic is a so-called adaptive transmission with software that "learns" a driver's style and modifies the shift pattern to fit--so a sporty driver who uses a lot of throttle will find the tranny holding in gear a little longer and snapping off gear changes a bit quicker than will Joe or Jill Commuter. It takes almost an hour's driving time for the transmission to learn, so those adaptations will occur only on longer trips.

Although the Lancer weighs in at 2,646 to 2,745 pounds (depending on trim level and transmission), the new engine is powerful enough to give it respectable on-street performance.

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