The Mitsubishi Lancer

Review Notes: Mitsubishi Lancer
Personality Comfortable family sedan with a hint of sport
Unusual features To be repackaged and, though its sales are far lower, to replace the best-selling Dodge car - the Neon
Above Average In: Value, feel, sound insulation, controls
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, center console

With the Neon, Stratus, Galant, and Sebring soon to be replaced by versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer, we thought it worthwhile to investigate the Lancer further. The name may be new to Americans, but Mitsubishi has sold Lancers for a number of years now - along with Colts and Challengers - apparently feeling that buying Chrysler Australia allowed them carte blanche to use any Chrysler name they saw (Lancer last having seen service as a Chrysler LeBaron GTS clone, and before that, as a Valiant clone.) This is just the first time Mitsubishi has sold a Lancer in the US, instead of using the name Mirage.

The Lancer combines a comfortable, absorbent ride with a very solid feel and good sound insulation to make a package that feels more costly than it is. The doors would fit right in on a top of the line Volvo, the front end could have been styled by Lexus on a good day, and the lines have luxury connotations. The interior is very pleasant, with a lighter than usual tan color and tasteful amounts of faux wood that combine to make it quite cheery. The cabin is long enough to provide good leg room in front and rear, at the same time, with a high ceiling to accommodate tall drivers or hat lovers. Yet, handling is quite good.

Acceleration with the five-speed is good and predictable, with no sudden surges. The 130 horsepower 2.0 liter engine (remarkably similar in power-per-liter to the Neon, but bearing no other resemblance) does a good job of combining power and fuel economy, given the large interior and trunk. It runs very smoothly on regular gas, and can barely be heard or felt at idle.

The sound insulation is good, and there is no low-frequency noise when going over bumps, leading to a sense of solidity which is usually absent from cars in this price class. However, wind noise becomes moderately loud at upper highway speeds.

The controls are convenient and easy to use, with a good feel. Our test car had no cruise control, but the pedal had a gradual tip-in which allowed us to move without jerking in stop and go traffic (despite the manual transmission). The vent control had a convenient "max" setting for the air conditioning which harkened back to days of old: it automatically turned on the air conditioner compressor and air recirculation. When not in "max," both recirculation and the air conditioner could be turned on or off by separate buttons, a convenient and easily understood system. The fan is usually very quiet but forceful, allowing good air circulation. Vents are convenient and easy to direct.

The stereo is a standard rectangular size and can presumably be replaced by an aftermarket system.

The Lancer has an unusual "power memory." In many new cars, the power to the radio and windows stays on after the key is taken out, shutting off only when the door is opened. In the Lancer, the radio shuts off when the key is removed, but power to the windows stays on until the driver's door is opened - our favorite implementation of power memory so far.

The instrument panel is clear and well-marked. The backlighting is innocuous and helpful even in twilight.

The luxury image did not carry through to all aspects of the car. The center console was relatively cheap, with bare-bones cupholders and a small two-piece center console. There was also a small hard plastic pullout container to the left of the steering wheel, a padded opening in the instrument panel (probably taken by a CD player in some models), and map pockets for both driver and front passenger. These are small gripes, however, for a generally classy car.

To tell you how nice this car is, DaimlerChrysler executives have decided to end Chrysler's best selling car - the Neon - and replace it with a version of the Lancer. That says something - though we're not exactly sure what.