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.

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