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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Lancer - VR-X sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Handling, equipment, safety, build quality, bigger boot
Room for improvement
Conservative styling, performance, drum rear brakes

25 Apr 2003

OTHERS might have decided to challenge the senses with the styling of their new generation small cars, but Mitsubishi decided to tread the tried and proven route when it introduced its new CG series Lancer in mid-2002.

The new car embodies all the things you would expect of an all-new model - more safety, more space, more power - and is wrapped up in a body that adopts a rakish, squared off cab-forward look that contrasts with the previous (and still existing) model's rounded-off, jellybean styling.

But it is still undeniably conservative.

The CG Lancer initially comes in only four-door sedan configuration, leaving the previous CE model to soldier on in GLi sedan, GLi and MR coupe and GLXi wagon forms.

The new car starts at the same just-under $24,000 price point as the previous GLXi, which means entry level small car buyers are attended to only by the ongoing CE Lancers.

The new car picks up as standard an all-new 2.0-litre engine and boasts significantly more millimetres in body length, width and height, as well as wheelbase. This means the CG Lancer offers a better deal for rear-seat passengers as well as increased luggage space.

Importantly, the new body is also tauter and safer, without suffering too much of a weight penalty. In fact, compared with some of its rivals - such as Nissan's Pulsar - the Mitsubishi is quite lean and trim, even if it is virtually equivalent to, say, the Holden Astra in body dimensions.

The Lancer's cab-forward stance is claimed to play a part in providing a larger, more spacious cabin, although much of this comes from a 100mm wheelbase stretch.

Reduced overhangs come from the fact body length has gone up by a lesser amount than the wheelbase - 70mm - while added shoulder width is aided by a 50mm increase in body width.

The new 2.0-litre engine gives the Lancer something of a head start in the power race, even if the kiloWatts and Newton metres are nothing special.

The twin camshaft, multi-valve four-cylinder produces 92kW at 5500rpm and 173Nm of torque at 4250Nm. The latter is only up marginally over the smaller capacity 1.8-litre Holden Astra (170Nm) and Toyota Corolla (171Nm) engines, which indicates efficiency advantages favouring the opposition.

The engine is hooked up to either a five-speed manual or Mitsubishi's four-speed INVECS II "intelligent" automatic transmission. The sporty VR-X model picks up a "Sports Mode" Tiptronic-style action.

The CG Lancer's suspension comprises MacPherson struts at the front and an independent, multi-link arrangement at the rear.

The new front-end is claimed to improve ride comfort, handling and noise levels through a rework of the front structure, including a 20mm wider track and revised shock absorbers.

The rear suspension has also been subjected to a refinement program that includes a 10mm increase in track width. The sporty VR-X model gains a rear stabiliser bar aimed at sharpening up the handling compared to the regular LS and Exceed versions.

All this adds up to a better Lancer, more of a pleasure to drive and offering more comfort for passengers. The increased body strength - torsional and bending stiffness is improved by 50 per cent - also makes for perceptible improvement in perceived solidity.

Our test car was the $26,000 VR-X version, which meant that it came with a bodykit, white-faced dials, "metal-look" dash trim, five-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels complete with 195/55-section tyres and leather-rimmed steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake lever.

Despite the storming rally car connotations that seem to rub off on many Lancer models, the VR-X is really sporty in appearance only. The combination of relatively light weight (the VR-X and LS models weigh 1160kg) and 2.0-litre engine help move it along quite smartly, although it does not really feel as if it is a comparatively large powerplant.

The 1.8-litre Astra, for example, feels somehow more torquey and responsive on the road. The Lancer needs to be wound out to give its best, although once past 5500rpm where maximum power is developed, there's little happening.

The VR-X clings well to the road in corners yet rides smoothly considering its driver's car bias. It is slightly let down in this respect by the steering, which is a little over-assisted and maybe a little too slow in response to imbue a gung-ho, sports sedan feel.

It cruises nicely though, albeit with some surprising wind noise from either the side mirrors or the windshield wipers - we couldn't quite figure which.

Impressions of quality abound with a nice door-shut sound, a neatly presented, quite classy instrument panel and attractive interior trim. The front seats seemed supportive enough, although there was the impression that a lack of lumbar support might make itself noticeable after a long spell at the wheel.

The lack of a load-through in the back seat tended to compromise the fact that the boot is larger than before.

From a safety viewpoint, the Lancer scores well enough with dual airbags standard on all models and the knowledge that some care has gone into the overall seat structure, including positioning of the headrests, to help minimise the chances of whiplash injury.

But the use of rear drums in the braking system, even in the VR-X, is something of a surprise - as is the fact that ABS is standard only on the top of the line Exceed model.

So the new Lancer is a better car, even if it is not the standout entrant in the small car class. There's a palpable lift in perceived quality, a larger interior along with a bigger boot and the new, bolder front-end with the prominent grille helps hide some of the conservativeness of the styling.

In kitted-out VR-X form it is the usual story of unfulfilled promise - but at least Mitsubishi does not ask a huge premium for the go-fast decorations.

Mitsubishi knows that most CG Lancer sales will go to women without any particular sporting pretensions so the street racers will, for the time being at least, continue to focus attention on the previous model MR coupe.

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