Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback--Hidden Gem

When you're retailing, say, Ford F150 pickup trucks or Toyota Camrys, you basically just round 'em up and move 'em out. These models sell in the U.S. in the hundreds of thousands every year. "What color would you like?," is what the salespeople ask their numerous customers.

What if you're Mitsubishi? Things aren't going as well in the U.S. these days, with the sporty Eclipse in decline, the Galant a perennial also-ran and SUV sales stagnant. But there are some bright spots, including the upcoming "i" all-electric models, the brisk-selling compact crossover Outlander Sport--and the Lancer Sportback.

The Lancer is its most ferocious as the Evolution, with its 291-horsepower turbocharged engine, Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, and such, but the Lancer itself, in sedan or Sportback form, is a nice car that is overshadowed by some flashier competition. My Graphite Gray test car looked handsome and had the solid, well put together look of a BMW sedan of a couple of generations ago. The big mouth grille is the new face of Mitsubishi, in the style of Audi, but the general proportions are restrained and handsome.

Inside, the lines are straight, surfaces no-nonsense and hard for the most part, and the chrome and bling are at a minimum. At first glance, this seems a little Spartan, but, frankly, that's the way 3 Series BMWs have looked for years and nobody has complained. In truth, when you're driving you want controls that work the way they're supposed to, information when you need it, and reasonable quiet so you can hear the stereo. These things the Lancer does just fine, and the lack of overtly styled twists and turns and elaborately crafted dash art are pleasantly non-distracting.

The ES model, like mine, has a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a manual or automatic. My tester had the latter, which, as a Continuously Variable Transmission, churned out usable ratios without fuss and never left me sitting there. The manual, which I sampled in a sedan previously, would be a little more fun.

Average fuel economy is rated at 27 and that's about what I got. Not bad.

The GTS moves up to a 2.4-liter four with 168 horsepower and adds 18-inch alloy wheels. The Ralliart uses a 2.0-liter turbo to put out 237 horsepower. See their website for model specs.

The real bonus of the Sportback is its generous hatchback. It lifts up high--above head clunking level--and a quick drop of the seats opens up a surprisingly large and flat carpeted space. When the rear seats are up and the cover's in place, you get the security of a good-sized trunk. It's a best-of-both-worlds deal.

At $20,105, including optional 18-inch alloys from the higher-level models, rear disc brakes and stabilizer bars for higher performance, a sunroof and nice leather-wrapped steering wheel, the car feels like something of a bargain.

You just have to keep an open mind when you're out shopping--and figure out where the nearest Mitsubishi dealer is located.

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