NEW ORLEANS, La. – They call it the Big Easy, not so politely but for good reason. You don’t come to New Orleans to get away from something -- you come here to get away with something. Choose your passion, flesh or food or other fantasy, and the city, rotting amiably under a veil of humidity and laissez-faire inertia, hands you the reins to excess without even checking your ID.
Apropos of nothing, Mitsubishi invited a handful of us here to drive the new Lancer, the new anchor in the entry-level end of their lineup, a car they see as fulsome with sales potential as Bourbon Street is with hurricane shops and come-ons to see live “acts of love.”
Consider its competition – the Honda Civic, the Nissan Sentra and the Toyota Corolla – and you’ll see why Mitsubishi spent a year readying the Lancer for the U.S. market after it had already gone on sale in Japan. It’s not just brutal in this market niche, it’s cannibalistic. There’s almost no room for errors of marketing.
2002 Mitsubishi Lancer LS
Bottom feeder no more
One thing is certain: you won’t catch any Mitsu execs pointing to Daewoos and Kias as potential competition. Mitsubishi says that, with the new Lancer, they’re leaving the low end of the totem pole to Korea, Inc. The existing Mirage four-door will be axed, and the two-door coupe will be sold for one more year before pushing the company out of the sub-$10,000 market. Instead of a lowball bargain, they’re selling the new Lancer as a compact car with a big cabin and race-ready attributes from its fierce Evo VII rally-car brethren.
In truth, the Lancer is milder mannered, with reasonably nimble handling for an economy car. The fiercest edition available for 2002 won’t go anywhere near hamstringing a Subaru WRX or even a rumored four-door Sentra SE-R, but it will offer a decent alternative for the style-conscious buyer who can’t quite swing a Galant or Eclipse.
The four-door-only Lancer will be priced from $14,000 to $18,000, depending on choice of models. The standard equipment list is fairly extensive. Power windows, mirrors and locks appear on all Lancers, along with a CD player and air conditioning.
Mitsu's Lancer ES carries plenty of equipment and a $14,000 estimated base price.
From there, the model ranges diverge. The base ES has an economy-minded soul, trimmed with plenty of standard power equipment but without anti-lock brakes or side airbags as an option. Those features can be had on the more upmarket LS model, along with its standard cruise control and split/folding rear seat. Ostensibly at the top of the price line (we couldn’t get firm figures from Mitsu) but off in left field in features, the O-Z Rally edition is equipped more like the ES, but with optional spoiler and mild bodywork add-ons, to go with standard 15-inch O-Z alloy wheels and black interior trim.
The powerplant is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of 120 hp. Look at the base engine across the class board, and you’ll see the Lancer’s deficit, though on average just 10 hp, is still meaningful. Even the sportiest O-Z Rally edition, with those expensive wheels, musters the same output, while the coming Ford Focus SVT breathes out 170 hp. Pierre Gagnon, Mitsubishi’s chief North American executive, says there are ways under study to bring more power to the picture, possibly via Mitsu’s own 2.4-liter four-cylinder.
2002 Mitsubishi Lancer engine
Exterior styling is from the school of the plain. There’s a faint whiff of 3-Series in the grille and headlamps, and from the profile the Lancer looks quite a bit like the Lexus IS 300. Inside it’s more pleasant Japanese anonymity. On the ES and LS, a strip of rather convincing fake wood lightens a broad swath of dash plastic. I wish they’d put the same material around the radio housing; instead it wears a grained plastic that’s a slightly different color (I counted nine shades) than the other plastics found on the windshield pillars, dash cap, door panels and console. O-Z cars get a piece of aluminum-look plastic that’s similarly well done.
Drivers and front passengers will find plenty of room. Although they say it’s no replacement for the Mirage, Mitsu execs like Gagnon continually refer to the Lancer’s features as “bigger than” or “more refined than” the Mirage. In fact, the Lancer represents a size-class leap over the former car, which was classified as a subcompact by the Feds. It’s grown so much that Mitsu promises that its interior spaces are larger than the Sentra and Civic. Still, better seats front and back would suit the Lancer; flat and short bottom cushions mean low-back punishment on longer trips – just ask my chiropractor.
The handling, too, could use an easy boost. The Lancer’s
tires, even the 60-series ones on the O-Z rally edition, are unambitious and
give up a little too easily. There aren’t many roads in the bayou that would
challenge something as stiff as a rally car, but the O-Z gave in to squealing
pretty early on the occasional off-ramp. The tires betray the Lancer’s basically
sound handling and its generally crisp steering. It gets a little boundy on long
freeway bumps, the same ones that make even Explorers piston up and down, but
otherwise it’s pure, conventional, safe understeer.
Maybe the best selling point of the newest Mitsu is the refinement of the interior. There’s very little noise to intrude on your commuting experience; some hefty sound deadening must live between the firewall and the engine, because even at loftier 6000-rpm engine speeds, the four-cylinder makes just a gentle whirr. Both the Civic and Sentra emit more noise, the Focus slightly more racket.
On paper and in firmament, the Lancer makes the choice for a competent compact even more difficult, especially where refinement is a chief concern. It moves gracefully and puts up with back-road abuse, although the tires and seats will let you know you’ve transgressed the boundaries of polite society. On first drive it feels equal to the challenge of the other Japanese compacts. Whether it can depose the Focus as the most favored compact will have to be decided over the long, twisty two-lane run.
2002 Mitsubishi Lancer
Base price range: $14,000-$18,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 120 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length: 177.6 in
Width: 66.8 in
Height: 54.1 in (ES); 54.9 in (LS, O-Z)
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2646 lb – 2745 lb
EPA (cty/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Dual airbags
Major standard features: Power windows, mirrors and locks; AM/FM/CD player; air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles