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The 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer and Lancer Evolution are each throwbacks to an earlier era of car, although the reasons vary considerably. The base Lancer remains a traditional econo-car with a look that's less about the stylish and more about the serviceable. That sets it apart from other compact sedans, which today are far more focused on design details, well-appointed cabins that surprise and delight, and features only found on high-end luxury cars not so many years ago. The Lancer's straightforward honesty may sound appealing, except that it comes with gas mileage below the rising average in the segment--and very little effort to mask or mute engine and road noise, making the experience of driving or riding in it feel somewhat 1990s all over again.
It gets better with the the Lancer Evolution, which serves as a reminder of the kind of tech-forward performance for which Mitsubishi used to be known. The finely honed Lancer Evolution is an all-wheel-drive track star, while the Ralliart is satisfying and sporty. Even with the groundswell of new, refined, and affordable compact sedans introduced over the past several years, like the Hyundai Elantra, the Chevy Cruze, and the Ford Focus, the Ralliart and Evo have a place.
The overarching design of the Lancer attractive, bold, and practical, and it still manages to stand out in a good way, seven years after its introduction. Packaging and interior space are impressive, too, and this is one vehicle that makes smart use of its cabin dimensions. At issue, really are the interior details; from a distance, the instrument panel might be described as elegantly simple, yet up close the materials are disappointing, and there's too much hard, hollow plastic.
Although there the Lancer is lacking inspiration inside, it tends to make up for that with a neat, responsive driving experience. Steering is also nice and direct throughout the lineup, while handling is reassuring and a bit communicative for all but the more basic models. The Lancer ES has a 152-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's perky at lower speeds with the five-speed manual but barely gutsy enough with the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. If you move up to the 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that comes in the Lancer GT (or all-wheel-drive SE), you get plenty of power and torque to move this small sedan or hatchback with more confidence. With the CVT, on GT models, you get magnesium steering-wheel paddle shifters with six simulated gears, too.
The driving-enthusiast draws of the lineup are the Evolution and Ralliart. With the Ralliart, you essentially get a Lancer GT, fitted with a 237-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four, With a few more borrowed components from the high-end Evolution, like its quicker-ratio steering, you get a car that's a lot more engaging to drive. Yet those craving track time will want to head straight to the Evo; its much stronger 291-hp engine and sophisticated all-wheel drive system are complemented by serious performance upgrades all around--even a strengthened body structure and aluminum panels--to deliver awesome performance and grip. If drivability is important, though, you might prefer the Ralliart for its better drivability and broader torque curve.
Those willing to pay up to $45k for an Evo will have to get past a few hurdles--like how, awesome Recaro seats aside, the interior appointments aren't all that much different than in a $17k base Lancer. The Lancer GT and Ralliart are still the best bets in the lineup if you want that look, at a much lower price. With them, you get 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.
For 2014, Mitsubishi has added a new 6.1-inch touchscreen display audio system to SE all-wheel drive, GT, and Ralliart models; it features HD Radio and a rearview camera system. Also available is a new navigation system with seven-inch touch screen, voice command, 3D mapping, and real-time traffic information. The base DE model has been dropped from the lineup.