The Mitsubishi Lancer offers an enticing range of compact cars from practical economy to sensible all-wheel-drive sedan to sporty liftback to rally rocket. The Lancer sports a tidy, sleekish shape with a bold and distinctive shark mouth. Its interior is clean, seating is comfortable, instrumentation is blessedly simple.
Good engines give it good value, with its base model bringing 26/34 miles per gallon City/Highway, according to the EPA. Seven airbags, including one for the driver's knee, help make it safe, in addition to anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and the mandated tire pressure monitor. Lancer was last redesigned for the 2008 model year.
The 2012 Lancer SE is a new model. It uses Mitsubishi's all-wheel drive system called AWC (all-wheel control), with the proven 2.4-liter engine making 168 horsepower. Ready for the Snow Belt, the Lancer SE comes with heated seats and mirrors.
The base Lancer DE is not bare bones, with its power doors and windows, keyless entry and auto halogen headlamps, but it lacks air conditioning, folding rear seat, and cruise control. Lancer DE uses the good 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that features Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing Electronic Control system (MIVEC) with double overhead cams and 16 valves.
Driving gets more civilized with the Lancer ES with air conditioning and better seats, front and rear. For 2012, Lancer ES gets new interior fabric and instrument panel trim. The Lancer ES Sportback is a smooth-looking 5-door. We found the Lancer ES offers decent steering response and tracks well through corners, with no excessive body lean.
The 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer GT is last year's GTS model with a changed name. It uses Mitsubishi's excellent 2.4-liter engine, a gem of a powerplant, coupled with a sweet 5-speed gearbox or 6-step CVT (continuously variable transmission) with paddle shifters that's rated 23/30 mpg. We got good seat time in a Lancer Sportback GT 5-speed with front air dam and rear spoiler, looking sleek in Graphite Gray Pearl and 10-spoke alloy wheels. Lancer GT is compelling for its good looks, enjoyable driving characteristics and fuel economy. If you don't need all-wheel drive or turbocharged acceleration, the GT is the one, especially as a Sportback with its 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. The 2012 Lancer Ralliart is available only as a sedan, with flared fenders, hood scoop, vents like shark gills, optional Recaro seats. The sharkmouth gets a chrome ring that shines it up to make it look more like silver lipstick on a largemouth bass.
The Lancer Evolution, or Evo, pumps out 291 horsepower. Sedan only, with 5-speed Evolution GSR model, or with 6-speed twin-clutch Evolution 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, whether you see its snout as being wicked like a shark, or just gaping like a largemouth bass. The body-colored front bumper perfectly splits it up and minimizes its extreme. Angular headlamps top off the look with exoticism.
The GT used to be cleaner than the Ralliart, which outlines the grille with a chrome ring, like silver lipstick on a fish. But in 2012 the GT gets the Ralliart grille. Although not the Ralliart's 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. Its 18-inch alloy wheels are a new design for 2012, and, to us at least, aren't as pretty as the previous 10-spoke wagon-wheel wheels.
The angular taillamps have that same exotic-eyes look as the headlights, wrapping around the edges of the car. The rear deck is quite short, and clean on the ES and SE sedans; while the GT 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 GT has one chrome tailpipe, the Ralliart two.
The Sportback body style has a properly discreet spoiler over the liftgate. Among the Lancer's 5-door rivals, namely Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, and VW Golf, the Sportback has the best and least boxy lines. Its silhouette is sharp and tidy, and the overall lines are sweet, maybe less edgy. It looks good in Graphite Gray Pearl, and Octane Blue Pearl catches the eye.
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 black mesh into the intercooler and radiator. Shark headlamps curl around the fenders in a stylistic optical illusion masking the longish front overhang. Ducts in the hood serve dual purposes (like the chin spoiler), vacuuming hot air out of the engine compartment to cool the engine and reducing lift.
There's nothing not to like about the interior of the Mitsubishi Lancer, starting with the upholstery and trim that are new for 2012. The overall feel for the driver in each model is just right. The sport bucket seats on the Lancer GT are comfortable, afford an excellent seating position, and are made of a handsome rugged cloth (one reason the GT gets our bang for the buck nod). Same can be said on a smaller scale about the more pedestrian seats in the Lancer SE. The optional Recaro seats in the Ralliart are too tight for everyday comfort unless you're small; however on the track they're terrific, so we like them on the Evo.
The leather wrap on the GT steering wheel is sweet, and the wheel is perfectly sized for sporty driving. The GT interior is trimmed in faux carbon fiber, titanium plastic that's stylish and clean, although not expensive looking. There's good rearward visibility, although the big rear wing on winged models blocks visibility out the rear window. Cubbies and console compartments are good and plentiful, including big ones in front of the shift lever. There are cupholders between the front seats and in the front door pockets, which are good but not especially deep.
The dash is graceful. The gauges are tasteful, white-on-black with silver rims. The tach and speedo have eaves, a double-hump visor on the dash that provides 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, in the Ralliart with the 6-speed twin-clutch transmission, it's most immediately useful to show the gear you're in, clearly and always correctly.
Both the Ralliart twin-clutch 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. The CVT in the SE is one of the sharpest we've felt. Some are awful (e.g. the Scion iQ) and some are acceptable; the Lancer is on the high end of acceptable.
Rear-seat room is adequate, relative to other cars this size. There isn't much knee room in the otherwise comfortable rear seat, although ingress and egress is good. The fold-down, center armrest in the Lancer ES and GT is more stable than it looks, meaning everyday driving isn't likely to spill the kids' drinks out of their cupholders. The console is deep under the armrest. In terms of roominess, the Lancer is comparable to that of the other cars in its class. Trunk space is also mid-pack. We would have liked a catch to open the trunk, not just the remote with keyless access.
The navigation system is easy to operate. Our 2012 Lancer SE had the optional $2295 navigation package, using a 4×8 screen that also displayed other information. We fell in love with its operational ease, the simplicity of finding things like fuel mileage (27.1 mpg at a steady 75 mph) and distance to empty. It offers some things we weren't sure we needed, such as a maintenance calendar and the car's rolling latitude and longitude, and Trip Environment offers you a graph showing outside temperature every five minutes, which is a bit much; but there's also an altimeter in there, and that's kind of cool. We never did figure out the icon with floating figures like a whole team of happy astronauts on a spacewalk.
One thing we didn't like was the lack of knobs to tune the radio. Carmakers haven't figured out yet that buttons are not safe like knobs because they require more concentration, time, and your eyes. You can't grab a button, so your tuning finger bounces unless the pavement is perfectly smooth. However, the Lancer uses simple old-fashioned climate control knobs, hooray.
The optional 710-watt 9-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system sounds terrific, with 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 GT and SE use 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, because when you boot it, it will catch right back up and then some. We'd even say the acceleration is great, for a car like this. The torque is strong.
The brakes are nicely sensitive, and the pedal has excellent feel. The 5-speed gearbox is positive, easy to shift with solid clutch action. With the larger 2.4 there's enough power that you can definitely feel front-wheel torque steer under hard acceleration. The Lancer ES is 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.
Handling is tight and quick enough, and the ride offers no jolts or surprises. We enjoyed driving both the GT and SE in every situation we encountered, including some light snow with the all-wheel-drive SE. Mitsubishi calls it AWC, or All Wheel Control, because it incorporates their traction control. New for 2012, the Lancer SE is intended for buyers in winter climes. The AWC can be adjusted by the driver, for 2WD, 4WD and lock. So you can stay in 2WD for better mileage, as we did to achieve a 27.1 mpg average.
The Ralliart brings performance all-wheel drive, and ups the horsepower ante. It uses the GT 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.
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, or 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 GT 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 the Evo 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 wanting economy; the 168-hp GT for those with spirit; the all-wheel-drive SE for those in snowy places; the 237-hp Ralliart for those feeling bold; and the 291-hp Evo for those with a need for speed. The GT is especially compelling for its price, fuel mileage, driving characteristics, and good looks. If you don't need all-wheel drive, turbocharged acceleration or rigid cornering, the GT has the style of the Evo for half as much. And if you do need all-wheel drive but not high performance, the SE is for you.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove the Lancer GT and SE 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; Mitch McCullough drove the Evo at Firebird Raceway near Phoenix.