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The Mitsubishi Lancer family of compact sedans and hatchbacks stand out as different, yet confounding. It's hard to make a case for the most of the Lancer lineup–unless you're considering at the finely honed Lancer Evolution--an all-wheel-drive track star--or the satisfying, sporty Ralliart. That's become increasingly true with the long list of recently redesigned models in this class, like the excellent Hyundai Elantra, the very comfortable Chevy Cruze, or the particularly stylish and fun-to-drive Focus.
Admittedly, the Lancer has its merits.The boxier, more upright look, and the distinctive shark-snout front end still manage to look refreshingly different, even though they've been around now for many years. Steering is also nice and direct throughout the lineup, while handling is crisp and responsive for all but the more basic models. Plus, there's back-seat space for adults, and both Sportback (hatchback) models and sedans offer lots of cargo space, and versatility.Driving enjoyment is another big plus for the Lancer lineup--provided you don't go with one of the base models. The Lancer DE and ES have a 152-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's perky at lower speeds with the five-speed manual and barely gutsy enough with the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. But step up to the 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that comes in the Lancer GT (or all-wheel-drive SE) and you get plenty of power and torque to move this small sedan or hatchback with more confidence; GT models with the CVT also get magnesium steering-wheel paddle-shifters with six simulated gears.
Evolution and Ralliart models are the driving-enthusiast draws of the lineup. The Ralliart is essentially a Lancer GT, fitted with a 237-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four, but it gets a number of borrowed components from the high-end Evolution, including its quicker-ratio steering. But those planning for track time will want to head for the Evo; with a more sophisticated all-wheel drive system and a much stronger 291-hp turbo four, plus exclusive strengthened body structure and aluminum panels, and serious performance upgrades all around, the Evo delivers awesome performance and grip. Some drivability is lost in translation, though; the engine in particular is much peakier in the Evo, and we prefer the broader torque curve and better drivability of the Ralliart.
While the package and performance of these models brings lots of appeal, there's plenty to sour the impression. Across the lineup, these models sorely lack refinement; materials feel cheap; and ride quality can be harsh. Cabin materials are decidedly basic, with lots of hard, hollow-sounding plastic, and in CVT models the engine gets raucous and buzzy on acceleration. And those willing to pay up to $45k for an Evo will be disappointed to find that, awesome Recaro seats aside, the interior appointments aren't all that much different than in a $17k base Lancer. Even in those more affordable Lancers, there are too many hard-and-hollow plastic surfaces.
If you want the Evo or Ralliart look, but not their high prices, the Lancer GT or Ralliart are still the best bets. They come with a sport suspension, big 18-inch alloys (a fresh design this year), fog lamps, rear spoiler, and air dams, plus automatic climate control, high-contrast gauges, and sport seats, as well as a USB port plus FUSE, a hands-free system that allows voice-command access to phones and media players. For 2013, Mitsubishi has also expanded your options for the all-wheel-drive SE model with a new Premium Package bringing upgraded audio and a sunroof, among other features, and the SE gets new-style alloy wheels and a Thule roof-carrier option.