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First Oz drive: Lancer grows up

Sports of sorts: The VR-X is the most entertaining drive among the new Lancer sedans.

More space and a bigger engine for Mitsubishi's small sedan

12 Jul 2002

IF you go down to your Mitsubishi dealer shopping for a Lancer, you are in for a big surprise - and maybe a little confusion.

An already comprehensive range of small cars has been re-arranged and added to, with the new generation CG model joining the fray from later this month.

But it is only in the shape of a sedan because there is no new coupe and the new wagon is too expensive to import from Japan. So Mitsubishi elected to keep importing the old CE coupe and wagon for the moment and - now here is where it gets a little confusing - the base model GLi version of the outgoing sedan.

The latter stays because there's no entry level model in the new three-sedan range. The LS replaces the old GLXi while the sporting VR-X and top-spec Exceed are additions. The revised line-up is designed to shore up sedan sales, which have slipped to 600 per month in recent times. MMAL is hoping the new offerings will push them back up to about 800 per month.

Taking into account auto and manual transmission options, there are now 15 Lancer choices in four body styles and three engines.

The new sedans sit at the top end of the Lancer family with the LS kicking things off at $23,490 for the manual (add $1900 for the four-speed auto), which is an identical price to the old GLXi. The VR-X is $25,990 but its four-speed "Sports Mode" auto with the semi-manual shift adds a hefty $2250. The auto-only Exceed is $28,990.

All CG Lancers share the same fundamental, bland styling which bears some connection to the old model, particularly the Exceed with its chrome-trimmed grille. The body is much bigger and significantly stronger, and the wheelbase 100mm longer to release a lot more room inside, which was a Mitsubishi goal with this car.

All three share the 4G54 2.0-litre, single overhead camshaft, 16-valve engine that Mitsubishi is claiming as "all-new" in its press material. All-new to Lancer maybe, but it is a very close relation to the unit first seen here in the Pajero iO, which in turn was an enlarged version of the 1.8 already fitted to CE Lancer.

Although slightly de-tuned in this iteration compared to the iO, producing 92kW at 5500rpm and maximum torque of 173Nm at 4250rpm, that's still about seven per cent up on the 1.8-litre.

However, it is not that impressive compared to rivals that generally exceed, match or at least get close to those power and torque figures with 1.8-litre engines. Take the two top sellers in the small car class, the Toyota Corolla and Holden Astra, which out of 1.8-litres produce 100kW/171Nm and 85kW/165Nm respectively.

The rest of the mechanical package is straight-forward. The Lancer drives the front wheels via either a five-speed manual or four-speed adaptive INVECS II automatic gearbox, its suspension is a revised form of the CE's MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear, while the brakes remain a disc/drum combination boosted in size at each end by one inch.

Standard equipment across the range includes air-conditioning, dual airbags, single-slot CD player, power windows and mirrors, height adjustable driver's seat and remote keyless entry.

The VR-X alone features a full body kit incorporating foglights on the front air dam, white sports instruments, metal-look dash highlights, body-coloured exterior parts including side sills and a rear wing, 15-inch alloy wheels and leather-wrapped steering, gear knob and brake lever.

The Exceed gets fake wood, chrome highlights inside and outside, variable intermittent wipers, lidded centre console, rear armrest with cupholders, two-tone interior trim, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, 14-inch alloy wheels and the same leather appointments as the VR-X.

It also gets ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution as standard while it's a $1000 option on the other two. An electric sunroof is a $1600 option for all three.

PRICING (new models in bold):Lancer GLi sedan $20,990
Lancer GLi sedan auto $22,840
Lancer LS sedan $23,490
Lancer LS sedan auto $25,340
Lancer VR-X sedan $25,990
Lancer VR-X sedan auto $28,240
Lancer Exceed sedan auto $28,990

Lancer GLi 1.5 coupe $18,990
Lancer GLi 1.5 coupe auto $20,840
Lancer GLi 1.8 coupe 20,190
Lancer GLi 1.8 coupe auto $22,040
Lancer MR coupe $24,990
Lancer MR coupe auto $27,040 Lancer GLXi wagon $22,810
Lancer GLXi wagon auto $24,660


THE fact is the new Lancer is not that new at all. It went on sale in Japan in late 2000 as the Cedia and headed into the US market about a year later where the CG model introduced the Lancer name, replacing the Mirage moniker previously used there for Mitsubishi's small sedan.

We are ahead of Europe though, where the Lancer does not arrive until sometime in 2003 when a facelift is due.

We share the privilege with the US of being the only country to get a 2.0-litre Lancer although, as we have already pointed out, that does not mean any significant performance advantage over 1.8-litre rivals, particularly as the CG balloons in weight by 100kg or more.

Search through the press kit and there is no sign of claimed performance figures, and that underlines how the Lancer feels on the open road - pretty slow.

It's smooth enough right through to the 6000rpm redline and does not really get at all raucous until in the upper reaches of the rev range, but you do feel like you are rowing a boat upstream - there's a lot of effort going in for little progress.

The Lancer is certainly adequate enough for around-town use, where the light steering, easy-shifting manual gearbox and compliant ride mark this out as a pleasant enough device. Add in an exceptional amount of interior room and the large boot, and you've got the makings of useful urban transport.

The only rider on the interior accommodation is the optional sunroof, which limits rear seat passengers to the sub six-foot brigade if they want headroom.

The three cars feel quite different in their on-road behaviour thanks to individual suspension tuning and wheel and tyre combinations.

While the Exceed tries to be plush and supple, it ends up being wallowy, lacking in body control and too prone to rack rattle and understeer.

The best thing about driving the Exceed is that INVECS II auto, which extracts the maximum from the engine with a minimum of fuss.

At the other extreme to the Exceed is the VR-X which, with the addition of a 15mm rear stabiliser bar and 15-inch rubber, is the most decisive, controlled and enjoyable to drive of the three. The LS occupies the middle ground.

One thing these Lancers do share in common is a certain feeling of flimsiness - they just do not have the same solidity as an Astra or even a Mazda 323. The plastics used in the cabin are hard to the touch and there has been little imagination put into presentation inside, or outside for that matter.

In reality, this car contradicts a lot of what Mitsubishi now stands for in Australia and internationally. It is the last of a fading generation of mediocre cars rather than part of the new breed that has been doing the rounds of the international motor show circuit over the past few months.

Lancer will find buyers and fans for sure - it is a competent execution of small car transportation, like the Nissan Pulsar.

But there are better cars in the class, like the Corolla and Astra, while Mitsubishi itself has some exciting new concepts on the way. And we would rather look forward than back.

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