2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD: Driven

August 11, 2012
Subaru has, for years, pretty much owned the market for basic, mass-market small cars with all-wheel drive. Looking back, while other automakers have brought out crossovers, minivans, and larger sedans and wagons with all-wheel drive, mainstream AWD offerings that are genuine passenger cars (or close to it) have been few and far between—and limited to models that tease high-utility niche appeal, like the Toyota Matrix and Suzuki SX4.

Enter the 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE, an all-wheel-drive version of Mitsubishi’s Lancer small-car family that’s neither performance-focused, nor priced high. It’s surprising that Mitsubishi didn’t catch on to Subaru's game any sooner. The Japanese automaker’s Evolution and Ralliart have for years chased (and at times passed, enthusiasts might say) the Subaru WRX and STI, respectively, and yet it hasn’t offered an affordable all-wheel drive passenger car in the U.S. in many years.

A sedan, with the gas mileage of a crossover

Just looking at the window sticker, the Lancer SE doesn’t give those who’re looking for better mileage than four-cylinder crossovers much reason to consider this small sedan instead. Its 22/29-mpg EPA ratings seem borderline pathetic next to the Subaru Impreza's 27/36-mpg ratings (or 25/34 with a manual gearbox). And unfortunately, just as with the Outlander Sport crossover that’s also built on the Lancer platform and uses this more bourgeois all-wheel-drive system—it’s only offered with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

As you might guess, this AWD system should be fine for the snow, but it forgoes all the dynamic prowess, subtle transitions, and brute-force finesse (paradoxically, yes) of the Evolution’s system. It’s more of a simple AWD system that does allow the front wheels to spin from a standing start (okay, when you’re on a grittier surface) and otherwise seems to bog down for a moment and take a breath before moving quickly.

The AWD system also requires you to switch it on—or at least click it into the 4WD Auto mode (there's also a 4WD Lock mode)—but while we had dry summer weather the entire time with the Lancer SE we only clicked into 4WD momentarily to make that full-throttle traction check. All of the week except for a mile or two, we drove in 2WD, and noted no significant difference in the dry in 4WD Auto.

The benefit of such a system, we think (although you'll need to verify with the dealer) is that the 2WD mode does make towing easier.

Oh drivability, where art thou?

While the 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that's under the hood is perkier and has more torque than the 2.0-liter in the Impreza, the CVT here simply doesn't work as well as Subaru's in making the most of it. In light to moderate acceleration, the CVT allows the engine to rev up near 2,500 rpm; it’s accompanied by a somewhat coarse (but not all that obtrusive) engine note even then, which is okay, but there's a noticeable 'ratcheting' (changing the ratio in small microsteps rather than smoothly) that makes it feel like its surging on you. Passing also yielded a familiar rubber-band-like delay, and unlike many other CVTs, there’s no way to manually tap into preset ‘gear’ ratios.

During our week and just under a hundred miles with the Lancer SE, we averaged just 22 mpg—matching the EPA city rating—and based on the kind of (mostly light) driving we did, we don’t think you’ll be able to manage much better than that. Again, kudos to Subaru, even if the Lancer is a bit quicker.

As we point out in our full review of the Lancer, the interior packaging of this small sedan is excellent, and at 6'-6” I could sit up straight in the backseat and have both enough headroom and legroom (though it's strictly two across). We loved the driving position in this car (even though you still can't telescope the steering wheel); front seats are more supportive than you get in most other small sedans as well, and trunk space feels almost mid-size-caliber.

Great steering and handling; lackluster interior

The steering also deserves to be singled out; despite the rather tall-sidewall tires fitted to the SE, the rather quick-ratio steering feels light but naturally weighted and has some feedback. As with the rest of the Lancer lineup, it's a joy zooming around tight corners.

But there’s still lots to be desired inside the Lancer—not because the interior isn’t well-designed, as it is, but mainly because the interior appointments feel so darn cheap; and it’s sorely lacking noise insulation. Once underway, when you don't hear the engine you're listening to a drone of pavement noise; you literally hear everything that's going on with the road surface. There's hard plastic everywhere that looks like it might be easily scratched, and the upholstery, whether for the seats or center-console cover, is the proverbial mouse fur, attracting lint and showing what already looked like stressed seams.

One additional point: The doors and trunk slam with a sort of secondary reverberation that we thought Japanese automakers lost in the 1990s; and a very loose, felt-like mat kept sliding out of place with whatever parcel we carried in the trunk, revealing bare metal underneath.

Against Subaru, can this Mitsubishi measure up?

The Lancer SE starts at $20,195, but with the navigation system—packaged with music-server media storage and real-time traffic—our test car had a bottom-line price of $23,285. To compare, a Subaru Impreza Premium with navigation, a moonroof, and the alloy wheel package adds up to about $700 less.

So is the Lancer SE any threat to Subaru? And would we even seriously think of getting this instead of an Impreza? Let there be no doubt: Absolutely not. Feature-wise it adds up, but the low mileage, the shoddy interior, remarkably bad CVT drivability, and all the noise bring a clear answer.

Meanwhile, Subaru continues to make bank from, in part, its all-wheel-drive primacy. For the sake of a free market, may a competitor please step up.

See our review pages for details on the rest of the 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer lineup—including the (more likable) sporty Ralliart and high-performance Evolution.

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