Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Lancer - VR-X sedan
Fun handling, zippy engine, roomy cabin, rally reputation
Room for improvement
Ageing and dull styling inside and out, no standard ABS
25 Feb 2005
Right now, Mitsubishi is having a hard time of it all.
The mid-2003 facelift of the ageing Magna has gone down like a cup of cold tea and, in Mitsubishi's twin-pronged Lancer approach, the former is fading fast while the latter is hurting.
Joining the ancient and now discontinued CE coupe in October 2003 was the aesthetically challenged CH four-door sedan, which debuted worldwide during 2000 and then inexplicably took two years to arrive here.
And you know what? Sales have stiffed, as small car buyers forsake the CH for sassier new stars like the Mazda 3 and the evergreen Toyota Corolla.
Now that’s bad luck for Mitsubishi, because the CH Lancer had a nose job designed to stop just that from happening.
The thing is, it was carried out by Olivier Boulay, the French stylist who also grafted the Magna’s universally panned proboscis. And of course it looks exactly the same – although on the Lancer it is a more harmonious integration.
You’d think Mitsubishi was purposely trying to sabotage its long-coming recovery.
So is it time for the Lancer eulogy?
The answer is a resolute no.
The Lancer has always been a survivor. Please consider these facts: The 1974-vintage nameplate is one of the oldest, and early models look seriously cool now, it's had a distinguished rally career since that time, the 1992 Lancer GSR – with fulltime four-wheel drive and a potent turbocharger plumbed onto its engine – predated the iconic Subaru Impreza WRX and, in awesome EVO VIII guise - the ultimate expression of that original CC series GSR – BMWs and Porsches run for cover.
And this is the crux of the Lancer’s appeal. Young (and young-at-heart) new car buyers know all this. They’re reminded daily, whether it be by their Playstation Grand Turismo-style game machines featuring generations of Lancers, Mitsubishi’s on-going assault on the world’s highly publicised rally circuit, or the thousands of modified models from your garden-variety GL upwards doing the rounds (and round) at every cool street corner from Tarcutta to Tokyo and back.
Thus the CH Lancer VR-X tested has big shoes to fill.
With the VR-X, if you squint your eyes and step back a few paces (say, to Singapore) you may mistake the subtle bodykit and five-spoke alloy wheels for the mythical Evo. Now that’s not such a bad association, is it?
Then there’s that frumpy midriff styling. It may not be sexy, but it does accommodate four adult passengers with five at a pinch. Ample legroom is its forte, although heads, shoulders and behinds are also welcome, making this Mitsubishi feel like a little big car.
And there are no complaints about the driving position or the front seats, although the latter – as well as the rear pew – could use a little more lateral support when throwing the car around hard.
Sadly there’s a real charmlessness to the VR-X’s plastic all-black fascia despite the CH makeover’s new trim and metallic highlights around the console and dash. An aftermarket-look CD/radio player doesn’t help matters (although it does lend itself to the inevitable audio upgrade so vital to the aforementioned demographic).
Next to the much newer Mazda 3’s stylish interior, humdrum is the best way to describe it. But it’s all ultra-simple and clear to use, and there’s nothing obviously nasty about the quality of build inside. It also does a great job at leaving all the noise and elements outside.
The reprofiled bootlid is as big as they come in small cars, so why Mitsubishi hasn’t specified a split-fold rear seat to make the most of the space is a mystery.
And speaking of boots, giving the Lancer one shows off an unexpectedly eager engine and undercarriage.
Mitsubishi makes durable, lusty engines, and the Lancer’s 2.0-litre unit, which develops 92kW of power at 5500rpm and 173Nm of torque at a handy 4250rpm, pulls well from low revs, and packs plenty of mid-range punch.
You need to row the long but sure gear lever for maximum oomph, but that (like the motor) is agreeably smooth enough.
But compared to the gutsy 108kW 2.2-litre four-cylinder Astra SRi engine, the VR-X’s is a bit of a let-down, especially if you’re expecting a bit of extra sizzle and squirt compared to lesser Lancers.
That isn’t the case, and just like the base $19,990 ES, it sounds just too ordinary, especially with that wheezy induction sound that all Mitsubishi’s seem to emit.
Emitting anti-lock brakes (ABS) from the standard equipment list, by the way, is another real disappointment. There’s no way anybody considering buying a VR-X should do so without ticking the $1000 ABS/EBD (Electronic Brake-force Distribution) box.
As tested, the VR-X did have ABS, and with its firmer suspension and fatter tyres proved surprisingly sweet to steer through corners. Over the regular Lancer, it features a 15mm rear anti-roll bar, lowered suspension and a strut tower brace under the bonnet for added rigidity.
So while there’s none of the sophisticated fluency and suppleness of the Ford Focus’ independent rear end (regular-issue coil springs and multi-links make up this Mitsubishi’s innards), the light-footed Lancer makes a case with eager steering, quick direction changes and utterly flat, secure roadholding.
And if you push hard in a turn, it's possible to slightly swing the rear out in very controllable oversteer, and catch it again just as easily.
Large bumps or potholes can throw the Lancer off its line momentarily though, so quick corners require some concentration and correction, but all-in-all it can be quite a lot of fun, and a world away from the mind-numbingly dull scrubby and wide steering of the softly-sprung CG Lancer Exceed.
Helping the VR-X out this time was the good looking, good gripping 195/50 R16 tyres. Their ride quality didn’t come into question either, although there was some road rumble radioed into the interior over some surfaces.
Ah, surfaces. Scratch underneath the new CH Lancer VR-X’s, and you’ll find an eager and easy-to-drive small car that feels cheap and cheerful in the old school Japanese way.
Of course the game has moved on, and there’s no amount of facelifts or makeovers Mitsubishi can do to hide that. But the Lancer has been around long enough to have a dedicated worldwide following, so there’s never a danger of being stuck with one for too long, despite the VR-X’s dowdy small four-door sedan styling.
The Lancer would certainly be part of the answer to Mitsubishi’s woes - if it wasn’t for the Honda Civic, Holden Astra, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Mazda 3. All soundly beat it.
But because of its cool heritage, the vivacious VR-X deserves to at least not be ignored to death anyway.
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