If it's a compact car you're looking for, the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer will have your head spinning at nine enticing models. The Lancer is a clean and lovely car, even with its fish face. Some see a shark mouth, and say the Lancer is lovely because of it, not despite it. Its good looks give it distinction in its field. Its good engines give it value.
All 2011 Lancers have anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control standard, along with seven airbags, the latest being driver's knee.
The 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer lineup starts with the $14,995 Lancer DE, not quite bare bones because it's got power doors and windows, keyless entry and auto halogen headlamps, but lacks air conditioning, 60/40 folding rear seat, and cruise control. But it's got the same good 2.0-liter engine with variable valve timing making 148 horsepower. Driving gets more civilized with the Lancer ES with air conditioning and better seats, front and rear.
New for 2011 is the Lancer ES Sportback, a smooth-looking 5-door that made its debut on the 2010 Lancer Ralliart. Fuel economy for the Lancer ES is an EPA-estimated 25/32 mpg City/Highway. We found the Lancer ES offers decent steering response and tracks well through corners, with no excessive body lean.
The Lancer GTS climbs the ladder with its 2.4-liter engine, a gem of a powerplant coupled with a sweet 5-speed gearbox or 6-step CVT with paddle shifters (23/30 mpg). We tested the Lancer GTS Sportback version complete with front air dam and rear spoiler, our test car with a 5-speed, looking sleek in Graphite Gray Pearl and beautiful 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels. The GTS is a compelling value for its good looks, enjoyable driving characteristics, affordable pricing, and fuel economy, with an EPA-estimated 24/31 mpg City/Highway. If you don't need all-wheel drive or turbocharged acceleration, the GTS is the one, especially in the new Sportback body style with a great cargo area.
The all-wheel-drive Lancer Ralliart moves into high-performance land with an intercooled and turbocharged 2.0-liter engine making 237 horsepower, and showcasing Mitsubishi's racy 6-speed twin-clutch automated manual transmission. Sedan or Sportback, flared fenders, hood scoop, vents like shark gills, optional Recaro seats. The fishface gets a chrome ring, like silver lipstick on a largemouth bass.
The Lancer Evolution, the Evo, pumps out 291 horsepower. Shapely sedan only, with 5-speed GSR model, or with 6-speed twin clutch MS, which adds Bilstein shocks and lighter brake rotors. Have fun at the track, your car is ready.
The Mitsubishi Lancer is a lovely car, even with its fish face. Mitsubishi calls it shark-like, but it's more like a largemouth bass. The nose seems to copy Audi's oversize grille, although the body-colored front bumper perfectly splits it up and minimizes the gaping mouth. And if the angular headlights were human, they would be exotic eyes.
The GTS is cleaner than the Ralliart, which outlines that mouth with a chrome ring, like silver lipstick on a fish. But the Ralliart has a cool aluminum hood with an inset scoop for the turbocharger intercooler, and two functional vents that do resemble shark gills. The Ralliart also has flared fenders that house low profile tires. The beautiful 18-inch alloy wheels, a 10-spoke wagon-wheel design, standard on the GTS and Ralliart, add an extra touch of class.
The angular taillamps have that same exotic-eye look as the headlights. They wrap around the rear edges of the car. The rear deck is quite short, and both the GTS and Ralliart have a spoiler wing that's so big it nearly fills up the trunk lid. It's not unattractive, but it is overkill. The GTS has one chrome tailpipe, the Ralliart two.
The Sportback body style has a properly discreet spoiler over the liftgate. Of all the 5-doors, namely Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza, the Ralliart's main rivals, the Sportback has the best-looking lines. The Sportback pulls off not looking boxy. Its silhouette is sharp and tidy, and the overall lines are really nice, unlike the more edgy Impreza. It's very handsome in Graphite Gray Pearl, and Octane Blue Pearl catches the eye. But Rotor Glow Metallic, a bright orangeish copper, is the prettiest color with the most creative name. Although we like Phantom Black too, even for $250 extra.
As for the Evo, the nose borders on brutish, with a deep spoiler that does double duty, shoving the onrushing air out of the way to keep the front tires firmly planted while forcing cooling air past a sporty looking mesh through the intercooler and radiator. Shark eye-like headlamps curl around the fenders in a stylistic optical illusion masking the longish front overhang. Functional, NACA-like ducts in the hood, like the chin spoiler, serve dual purposes, vacuuming hot air out of the engine compartment, both cooling the powerplant and reducing front end lift.
There's nothing not to like about the interior of the Mitsubishi Lancer. The Lancer ES offers good rearward visibility, although the big rear wing on other models blocks a chunk of visibility out the rear window.
The sport bucket seats on the GTS are comfortable, afford an excellent seating position, and are made of a handsome rugged cloth. The steering wheel has one of the nicest leather wraps we've felt, and is the perfect size for sporty driving. The overall feel for the driver in the GTS is just right. This is another reason the GTS gets our bang for the buck nod.
The optional Recaro seats in the Ralliart seemed to us a bit too tight for everyday comfort. On the track they're terrific, however, so we liked having them on the Evo.
Cubbies and console compartments are good and plentiful, including cupholders between the front seats and in the front door pockets.
The dash design is graceful. The GTS interior is trimmed in faux carbon fiber, stylish and cleanly done. The gauges are tasteful, white-on-black with silver rims. The tach and speedo have eaves, a double-hump visor on the dash, that provide shade for the rectangular digital readout that's between them, so you can read its red letters in the sun. It offers the usual information, miles traveled and distance to empty and such, but it's most immediately useful to show, clearly and always correctly (unlike some), the gear you're in, when you have the 6-speed twin-clutch transmission in the Ralliart.
Both the Ralliart and the CVT are shifted with butterfly paddles behind the steering wheel, which are big enough to reach without moving your hands when you're holding the wheel in the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position.
Rear-seat room is adequate, relative to other cars this size. There isn't much knee room in the otherwise comfortable rear seat. 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. In terms of roominess, the Lancer is comparable to that of the other cars in its class. Trunk space is also mid-pack.
The 710-watt 9-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system sounds terrific; it's been upgraded from last year's 650-watt and 8 speakers and we found it delivered incredibly crisp highs.
The Lancer DE and ES 2.0-liter engine with variable valve timing is a good one, and so is the 5-speed manual transmission, so it's a very fun car. Although with just 148 horsepower, you have to stay on top of it because ample acceleration isn't always there. The CVT seems to rob some punch, but with the magnesium-alloy paddles working the 6-step CVT in manual mode, it still feels lively enough.
We found the Lancer ES smooth, spirited and sporty. Around-town handling is nimble, and cornering is taut at speeds inside the box. The ride is comfortable. Although the Honda Civic feels smoother and the Mazda3 more challenging.
The Lancer GTS uses a 2.4-liter engine with 20 more horsepower, and it's a big difference. It revs to a sweet 6500 rpm. You can relax at the throttle a bit. Brakes are nicely sensitive, and the 5-speed gearbox is positive, easy to shift with solid clutch action. There's enough power that you can definitely feel the front-wheel torque steer under hard acceleration. It's quiet and smooth on the freeway, where 80 mph feels like 70, and that's saying something for a small car with a four-cylinder engine. The eye-catching 10-spoke alloy wheels are shod with P215/45R18 Dunlop all-season tires.
The Ralliart brings all-wheel drive, and ups the performance ante. It uses the GTS suspension and brakes, upgraded a bit, with speed-rated Yokohama tires. It takes on an all-aluminum 2.0-liter intercooled turbocharged engine making 237 horsepower. There's only one transmission, the 6-speed Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission. The TC-SST is essentially a manual transmission without a clutch pedal. This twin clutch design now prevails as the method for shifting manual transmissions without a clutch pedal, either automatically or with paddles. Many are built by the German company Getrag, but Mitsubishi builds its own.
Surprisingly, the Ralliart's ride can sometimes feel too firm on the street and wear on you, especially when equipped with the optional Recaro seats.
The Ralliart's electronic all-wheel-drive system, which Mitsubishi calls All-Wheel Control (AWC), can be set for Gravel, Snow or Tarmac, but the system is not as encompassing as the Evo's Super All-Wheel Control. The Ralliart also lacks the Evo's track-ready suspension. So it doesn't handle like an Evo. When driven hard in slower corners, the Ralliart will understeer and even lurch as its tires try to bite the asphalt. This happens before the electronic stability control kicks in. The difference is apparently in the simple All-Wheel Control versus Super All-Wheel control in the Evo, plus the softer GTS suspension.
On the road with the Ralliart in Washington's Cascade Mountains, we found the Sport Manual mode worked exceptionally well in the TC-SST, providing sharper downshifts and quicker upshifts; and Normal Drive works so smoothly you can scarcely feel the relaxed upshifts. But Sport Drive confuses the transmission; it upshifts and downshifts at inconvenient times, inconsistently. The fourth possible mode, Normal Manual, is pretty much a contradiction, unless you just like to play with the paddles. So we preferred Sport Manual for sporty driving, Normal Drive for around town. We found that it takes a couple blocks on cold mornings for the transmission to shake off some sluggishness.
As for the 291-hp Evo, we think it's simply the best. The Evo X (as in 10) is heavier and has a bit less horsepower than its main rival, the Subaru WRX STI, but it feels more precise and nimble. You won't find a car that's more at home on the track than the Evo, especially not for less than $40,000. It's very easy to drive very hard.
More serious than the Ralliart, the Evo uses forged aluminum control arms, a quick steering ratio, and big brakes with four-piston front calipers, plus that higher level of stability control. The Super All-Wheel Control integrates all of the electronic dynamic controls, including Active Center Differential and Active Yaw Control in the rear differential.
Its TC-SST has an extra mode, called Sport Plus, for the track. You can turn the stability control entirely off, and it still feels balanced on the track, in this case Pacific Raceways near Seattle. We hit 140 on the sweeping bend on the front straight, and the Evo tracked steady where a lot of race cars do a scary twitch. The four-piston Brembos slowed it down to 70 for the turn at the end of the straight, quickly and without drama. And repeatedly, without fading.
Mitsubishi has everyone covered in the compact class with the 148-hp Lancer ES for those with their minds on economy; the 168-hp Lancer GTS for those with spirit and an eye for value; the 237-hp Ralliart for those with a sense of adventure; and the 291-hp Evo for those with a need for speed. For 2011, there's a Sportback 5-door hatchback body style. The GTS is a compelling value for its price of around $20,000, fuel mileage, enjoyable driving characteristics, and good looks. If you don't need all-wheel drive, turbocharged acceleration, or rigid cornering, the GTS has the style of the Evo for half as much.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove the Lancer GTS in the Pacific Northwest and the Ralliart and Evo at Pacific Raceways near Seattle; Tom Lankard drove the Lancer ES in Santa Monica and Evo in Phoenix; editor Mitch McCullough drove the Evo at Firebird Raceway near Phoenix.