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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Lancer - VR hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space and functionality, willing engine, satisfying dynamics
Room for improvement
Road noise, lack of steering reach adjustment, cheap-feel interior

26 Oct 2011

MODEL development is expensive. Car-makers sink capital into development with a view to recouping the cost – and preferably, with a healthy margin on top – by selling the product when they’re ready to start punching out copies and sending them to the dealers.

That much is obvious. Yet, whether the car company has enough money for development – perhaps borrowed, perhaps stuffed in a piggy bank somewhere – is crucial, because the car industry has never been more competitive, in terms of both manufacturing processes and marketplace impact.

If the manufacturer doesn’t have the necessary folding stuff, sharing a powertrain with Schwinn simply won’t cut it. It needs the right dollar investment to ensure a return or the car won’t sell, won’t make them money.

This is all a long-winded explanation for why we’re seeing a model year 2012 version of Mitsubishi’s CJ Lancer. You see, if the global economy didn’t tank in 2008, Mitsubishi would not have had to reign in spending on its new model programs and we’d now be talking about the global release of the all-new 2012 ‘CK’ (or whatever Mitsubishi planned to call it) Lancer.

So here is the upgraded 2012 CJ Lancer, which looks, feels and smells suspiciously like the 2011 model before it.

We drove the ES Sportback CVT, and while tizzied-up with 30th Anniversary adornments (such as a reversing camera) this is the cheapest Lancer hatch automatic you can buy.

Even though the Lancer has been around for a few years, the shark-nose front-end is a styling treatment that doesn’t age. It still looks contemporary. Though the sedan’s tail is equally well proportioned and contemporary, the Sportback looks as if it was designed by another team altogether, perhaps one not even sure what their tail-end was going to be attached to.

The fastback style is fine, but the tail-lights and sheetmetal surrounding them look far too soft and rounded to belong to the same car that has such a crisp, angular front-end. It’s as if you’re looking at two cars in one.

Never mind its looks on the outside, the inside is easier on the eye and functional to boot.

Though the Lancer is not the only small car to do this, it’s good to see that the seats and door openings have been designed with more than limber 20-year-olds in mind. A relatively high hip point with wide door apertures and wide-opening doors permit oldies an easier time of getting in and out.

Once ensconced in the cabin, it dawns on you how great this all would’ve looked in 2006, and yet it still looks sharp five years later. But even back then we realised that Mitsubishi saved a few bucks on interior materials.

Now the doors have a new, soft-feel trim but the dash is still a very plasticy looking affair. It’s better, but there is still the feeling that you’ve bought the tickets for the cheap seats.

The front seats are comfy and supportive but the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment is a glaring omission for some drivers, who find themselves having to either sit more upright to keep in reach of the wheel or push the seat closer for a knees-up position.

The dash cluster is a simple, intuitive information centre, with the analogue speedometer and tachometer dials flanking a clear digital trip computer readout. Yet to cycle through the trip computer info, you need to push on the ‘info’ button sitting out to the right of the cluster, and the information is cycled through one piece at a time, meaning you can’t keep the trip meter live while also reading other information such as fuel consumption.

The rear bench is a little laid back and legroom is not generous when tall occupants rack the seats back, but three adults will comfortably co-habitate for short inter-urban runs.

The news only gets better in the back. The cargo area is easy to get at with a large, low-lipped tailgate and the handles to drop down the rear seat backs are a nice touch. Even if it’s been done before, it’s not by any means universal in the class.

The drive experience is much like before, with the electric power steering marking its presence by a dulled on-centre feel compared with the previous hydraulic set-up.

Reflected road noise is still a Lancer trait, and the coarse-chip bitumen roads we drove on the outskirts of Canberra last week only helped to accentuate the rumble. Wind noise and engine noise are minimal, but then they would seem so with the road noise.

Where the engine becomes rather noisy is when you put your foot down in the CVT transmission Sportback we drove.

Unlike a conventional auto, the CVT flares engine revs like a manual with a slipping clutch. It is a most uncanny noise, the constant wail of a relatively smooth but boomy four-cylinder pegged at 5000rpm.

Don’t rush and you hardly notice it, but the transmission also introduces a time lag in throttle response compared with a conventional auto that you soon become accustomed to, and compensate for with a touch more throttle.

The 2.0-litre may sound noisy in tandem with the CVT but it gets along well and although the claimed fuel consumption improvements with electric power steering over hydraulic are impressive – more than 1.0L/100km – we couldn’t see the difference in a relatively short drive 150km drive.

The Lancer VR gets the smart alloy wheels over the poverty-pack ES but it doesn’t have the Velcro-like tyres of upper-spec models like VRX. So throw it at a corner and it has the poise and balance of a relatively balanced front-drive chassis, but isn’t by any means class-leading.

To call the Lancer a mainstream player rather than exceptional in its class would appear to damn it with faint praise, but the reality is that for many people looking for reliable, easy motoring from a small car, that is all that really matters.

Though it isn’t part of the drive experience, it can’t be too far from a buyers thoughts on a test drive that the Lancer’s long warranty and fixed-price servicing are peace-of-mind features that can make one forgive a cheap looking dashboard.

The Lancer then, it would seem, is more than the sum of its parts. By such measure it makes a persuasive argument. But it is a model that should have been replaced any minute now – and instead it won’t be for at least 18 months – so buyers have better, newer models like the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Holden Cruze to choose from.

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