The body has been re-styled, with a more aggressive fascia and a wedgier profile. The result, sadly, is mixed. It looks really sharp head on, a little dull going away. Overall proportions are balanced, though, so the final result is a plus.
The engine is new, albeit the same displacement as before, but now with a double overhead cam in place of the '06's single, and updated electronics. Horsepower is up by 32, torque by 16 pound-feet of torque (22 and 12, respectively, in states with California emission rules). A Continuously Variable Transmission replaces the '06's automatic, with a five-speed manual still the standard gearbox.
The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer has gained weight over the '06, between 200 and 400 pounds, depending on model and trim. This, together with the more powerful engine, no doubt accounts at least in part to the lower fuel economy ratings for the 2008 model. Lower, also, than most of the competition, some of which better the Lancer by 5 miles per gallon or more in EPA City and Highway estimates.
Inside, there's roomy seating for five. Instruments and dash are pleasing to the eye and friendly to the fingers, with easy-to-use knobs and switches for the more important functions. Some details are less than ideal, but the Lancer is, after all, an economy car and not Mitsubishi's flagship.
The options list comprises value-adding packages. Disappointing is the need to pay extra for air conditioning and antilock brakes on the base Lancer. But a high-quality sound system is offered for the two upper trim levels. And impressive for this price level is a full-featured navigation-cum-music server system available on the top model.
Pricing wasn't announced as this review is written. Expect, however, the base model to start around $14,000.
The Mitsubishi Lancer returns for 2008 after skipping the 2007 model year. Now, just one engine is available: a 152-hp four-cylinder (143-hp in California emissions form). It comes with a choice of five-speed manual transmission or optional CVT automatic, a continuously variable transmission. Body style remains a four-door, five-passenger sedan.
Mitsubishi Lancer DE; ES; GTS
Where the 2006 Lancer was somewhat minimalist in its approach, with a swept-back hood and squinty headlights, the 2008 presents a brusque face, with a strong chin and scowling eyes, a look Mitsubishi not unfairly compares to a shark's snout. Grille and lower intake form a trapezoid horizontally split by the front bumper; Mitsubishi says this a jet fighter. Blacked-out blanks below the bumper balance the headlights and house the projector-lens fog lights when fitted. Mild creases trace the hood's power bulge from the grille back to the A-pillars framing the windshield, leaving well-defined shoulders over the front wheel wells.
Side view stays true to the shark theme, with the upper edge of the grille looming over the relatively flush front bumper. A high beltline (where the side windows meet the lower door panels) lowers the car's visual center of gravity, giving it a more substantial and more firmly planted look. A character line that plays on the car's wedge shape begins in a deep groove in the front quarter panel and front door and fills in as it moves to the rear just beneath the full-round door handles, fading into a shallow shadow across the rear quarter panel before ending at the acutely angled rear side-marker light. Even the base, 60-aspect tires on 16-inch wheels look right in the circular wheel openings.
The rear aspect is very bustle-ish, with a tall trunk lid. Taillights try to echo the headlights shark-like scowl, but don't quite pull it off, what with the large areas of surrounding, generally flat sheetmetal. In the end, it's a disappointing finish to an otherwise sleek design with a decent dose of personality.
Most important in this measure is the dash, with the instrument cluster and climate and audio controls. In the former, a large, circular tachometer and speedometer bracketing a digital, LCD-based information center in the '08 replace an asymmetrical array of two large and three small gauges in the '06. And therein lies the conundrum. The new, i.e., '08, cluster looks slicker, more modern and even a bit sportier than the '06's. But the analog-style fuel and coolant gauges in the '06 were always there, so they didn't have to be called up by pressing a button somewhere. And they communicated their information more readily, requiring just a quick glance instead of a refocusing of the eye on a tiny tower of light.
There's good and not so good, too, in the climate and audio control panels. The most basic functions, like fan, temperature, mode, volume and tuning, have traditional, relatively large, rotating knobs. They're properly placed, too, with climate below and audio above, where it's more accessible. After all, most people adjust audio settings more frequently than climate. And reasonably sized, well-marked buttons select station presets and manage other media. But the data telltales are easily obscured LEDs tucked away in a slit at the center top of the dash where deciphering them forces drivers to divert their attention from traffic and shift their optical focus from distance to close. Again, like the instrument cluster, it all looks good, but comes up short in function.
The shining exception to all this ambivalence is the display and control head for the GPS-based navigation system. Buttons and rocker switches with firm tactile feel call up the desired screen. Moving a joystick in the lower right-hand corner highlights the desired function. Pressing it accesses the function. While some of the information is more entertaining than essential, like the x/y axis dot graphs showing average speeds and fuel economy over a floating two-hour window (especially when higher speeds coincide with higher fuel economy; cool), the ease of use is tops.
The story pretty much remains the same elsewhere around the interior. Front seats are comfortable, with adequate, if not great depth in the seat bottom cushions. The driver's door armrest and the padded top on the front center console are both too low, and the center console is too far rearward, for supporting a driver's elbows on straight and boring interstates. The handbrake positioning is not optimal, resting proudly between the driver's seat bottom cushion and the center console at just the right height to trip the bottom of a slurpee on its way to or from one of the console's two cup holders.
Rear seats are marked improvements over the '06's. There's more definition in the cushions, the seat bottoms are deeper and now there are three head restraints, all adjustable. The fold-down, center armrest in the ES and GTS is more stable than it looks, meaning everyday driving isn't likely to spill the kids' soda pop.
By the numbers, the 2008 Lancer makes the most of its more than two inches of added width over the '06. Careful packaging of interior features and trim gives most of that two inches to front seat hiproom and adds almost twice that to rear seat hiproom. This parks the new Lancer smack in the middle of the pack on this measurement. The Nissan Sentra, the H
Steering response is decent, if not sparkling, especially on those back roads, as the new Lancer tends to lose some concentration when pointed straight ahead for long stretches. For a front-wheel drive sedan, it tracks well through corners, with no excessive body lean.
The GTS, of course, is the most rewarding driver, with firmer coil springs, shock absorbers and bushings and larger stabilizer bars than the DE and ES models. The stiffness added by the cross brace on the front suspension towers is tangible in a quicker, more precise steering response. Interestingly, however, the GTS' sporty front seats don't add much by way of lateral support over the ES' buckets.
In ride and handling, two of the competitive brands stand out: the Civic, with its longer wheelbase (by about two-and-one-half inches), has a smoother ride just generally, but most notably over weather-induced pavement heaves, and the Mazda 3 is a sportier drive.
Throttle response is respectable for the class. Only the Mazda 3's top engine pumps out more horsepower (160 vs. the Lancer's 152), but the Lancer is the heaviest of the class, with the GTS alone topping 3000 lbs. Brake pedal feel is solid in the ES, even more so in the GTS, which gets the Outlander's larger discs.
The manual transmission's shift lever requires a bit of a stretch to reach third gear and fifth gear with the driver's seat comfortably positioned for a six-foot tall driver. And the juxtaposition of the brake pedal and accelerator force an awkward ankle contortion to effect a heel-and-toe double-clutch on a downshift. In the GTS with the Sportronic, the manual up/down selection slot opens to the driver's side of the shift gate, which some drivers find more natural than away over to the passenger's side. This isn't as much an issue in the GTS, however, what with those handy steering column levers.
In all likelihood due in no small part to that aforementioned weight penalty, the '08 Lancer pretty much brings up the rear in fuel economy. For example, the smaller engine in the 200 lb.-lighter Toyota Corolla makes six more horsepower but betters the Lancer by five miles per gallon in the city and by seven miles per gallon on the highway, according to EPA estimates. And the more powerful Mazda 3, weighing about 100 lbs. less than the Lancer, comes out ahead by three mpg and two mpg, city and highway respectively.
The new, 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer may not be the most attractive, the most popular, the most powerful, the most efficient or the most fun-to-drive in the affordable, compact sedan class. But in each of those measures, it's second in line or at least competitive. That makes it well worth a look when shopping for a car in this class.
[NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Santa Barbara, California.]