If you'll forgive me for invoking a hallowed piece of genre-defining cinema, there's a moment in The Brady Bunch Movie that always tends to stick in my head. Jan Brady, the middle of three sisters, has grown mildly psychotic, and she's begun talking to herself. Her sister, Marcia, always seems to have the upper hand:
Jan (to herself): "She has every right to be mad; they are her socks. But why does Marcia get all the socks? Why does Marcia get all the trophies? Why does Marcia get all the good drawers?"
Jan (out loud): "Yeah, why does Marcia get everything? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"
The poor kid then proceeds to go more than a little nuts. (The next Jan line that the Internet Movie Database shows in its list of Brady quotes is, "Watch my head spin! Kill! Kill! KILL!") For the most part, this is easy to understand. Older, prettier, luckier Marcia gets all the credit, gets all the guys, and generally lives the life of a privileged hottie. Jan, on the other hand, mostly wears glasses, walks into walls, and gets treated like a retarded elephant.
This, in turn, brings me to the Mitsubishi Lancer and the Subaru Impreza. Yep, you read that right: I said Lancer and Impreza with nary a hint of the words "Evolution" or "STI". These are the forgotten sisters, the base-model Jan Bradys of the hot-turbo-rally-clone world. They don't have turbochargers, fancy big-bolstered seats, or massive multi-piston brakes. They have no rally pedigree. These cars are almost perpetually ignored by the media and the public at large, cursed as they are with low horsepower numbers and a lack of drama. They do not, to coin a phrase, get all the good drawers.
This doesn't mean that they're bad cars. It's actually quite the opposite. The Lancer and Impreza are two of the best small, sporting econoboxes on the market, and both of them share a heck of a lot with their more expensive, better-known siblings. You can read our individual reviews of each car here and here, but it's worth taking a look at the two cars side by side. Let's go point by point:
Impreza: You can be forgiven for thinking that it looks a lot like a Toyota Corolla. It does. The 2008 Subaru Impreza may be the least expensive all-wheel-drive sedan on the U.S. market today, but it's also the most obnoxiously styled. The corporate front grille, the high beltline, the narrow shoulders, and the gaudy trim-all of it combines into a look that screams "anonymous," rather than "cut-rate rally star." Subarus of the past used to wear their hearts on their sleeves, with chunky fenders, thin pillars, and frameless door glass. Now they're the perfect embodiment of a wholly anodyne goal: Subaru wants to emulate Toyota in both sales and national appeal, which means being a little bit of everything to everyone. It also means producing cars that have no distinguishing visual characteristics and no real emotion or soul to their lines.
(Note: The Impreza five-door/hatchback is a little more attractive than the sedan, but then, it looks exactly like another car that sells incredibly well-the Mazda 3.)
Lancer: The Mitsubishi wins this one. The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer was designed from the ground-up to be evolved (if you'll excuse the pun) into the Lancer Evolution, and Mitsubishi's stylists also wanted to reflect some of the Evo's glory back onto the base car. It worked. From a distance, the Lancer Evo is virtually indistinguishable from the base Lancer, and up close, only bumper and trim differences, flared fenders, and a larger rear wing give the game away. The non-Evolution Lancer looks aggressive, modern, and fun all at the same time. You may miss the low beltline and fantastic visibility of the previous-generation Lancer/Lancer Evo, but it doesn't matter, because the car still looks great.
Impreza: Subaru focused heavily on reducing NVH and increasing interior refinement on the latest Impreza, and it shows. The fully framed windows cut wind noise, the seats are comfortable, and the dash and console plastics feel solid and well-crafted. It's a huge leap forward from the last-generation Impreza, where hard surfaces and tinny-sounding doors abounded. Granted, those things just tended to reinforce the idea that Subarus were rough-and-ready back-road strafers built for performance, not refinement, but you can't have it all. The navigation system is fiddly to use but otherwise works well, sight lines are reasonable, and the instrument cluster (complete with its prominently displayed tach) is nicely laid out. In all, the whole car is a very pleasant place to be.
Lancer: When is better just not good enough? When it's the interior of a base Mitsubishi Lancer. The 2008 Lancer's insides are worlds ahead of anything Mitsubishi has offered in its econoboxes before, but they're still not quite up to competitive snuff. The dash and door panels are built of hard, scratchy plastics, and while the controls are all conveniently located and easy to use, most of them just feel a little cheap. The levers, buttons, climate controls and radio knobs are blown out of the water by the stuff in the Subaru. Yes, you're looking at a giant leap forward for Mitsubishi-the last-generation Lancer interior felt like it was crafted out of refrigerator boxes and used-up chewing gum-but sometimes, a giant leap just isn't enough. Especially when you're starting from six feet underground.
Impreza: While most of the Impreza was gifted with all-new or partially redesigned components for the 2008 model year, the 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder that lives under the hood was given a pass. It survives largely unchanged from the previous generation Impreza, albeit with a slight bump in horsepower and torque. Power is up to 170 hp at 6000 rpm, torque climbs to 170 lb-ft, and the torque peak has fallen, from 4400 rpm to 4000 rpm. It all adds up to a slightly more usable, slightly more pleasant version of an already fantastic powerplant. The boxer revs smoothly and produces power in a fairly linear fashion, and it suffers from none of the odd throttle calibrations that plague Subaru's non-STI turbo engines. As a result, gearchanges come smoothly and easily, and the five-speed manual's linkage is still nicely direct, if a little rubbery. With the windows closed, you hear little of the characteristic boxer wuffle, and while we're sad to see the old car's raucousness go, highway cruising is nevertheless calm and sedate. Our only real complaint is with the Impreza's thirst: 20/27 EPA city/highway.
Lancer: Unlike the Impreza, the Lancer gets an all-new engine to go along with its all-new face. Gone is the familiar iron-block, 2.0-liter four from previous Lancers; in its place is an aluminum-block, 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder. It spits out 152 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque, it sports variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts, and it while it can grow a bit buzzy at higher rpm, the whole package is nevertheless smooth and torquey. Our test car was equipped with Mitsubishi's optional CVT, complete with magnesium shift paddles that live behind the wheel. This transmission offers the choice of six different "gears," and it "shifts" relatively smoothly, but the five-speed manual is still more entertaining. (Happily, it also offers a slight bump in fuel economy-the manual-equipped Lancer achieves a 21/27 city/highway rating. It's not fantastic, and barely betters that of the Subaru, but we digress.)
The Lancer's new mill doesn't have the spunky charm of the Impreza's powerplant, but it gets the job done well enough. The same goes for the Lancer's available five-speed manual transmission; the Subaru's isn't quite as conventional in its throws or synchronizer feel, but it's definitely more fun. Chalk this win up to the Subaru, because while its parts aren't fresh off the drawing board, they work together better.
Impreza: Our test car held its own on the back roads without being ferociously sporting or supremely capable. A new control-arm rear suspension replaces the old strut-type setup (a modified version of the old front strut/control arm setup remains), and while it offers greater composure and improved wheel control (as well as an increase in luggage capacity due to its more compact packaging), it also seems a little too softly sprung for its task. On dry roads, moderate understeer rears its head, but dirt brings about a nicely tail-happy balance that likes to sort itself under throttle. Ride quality is soft and impact harshness muffled, but body control suffers; the chassis tends to take a while to settle out after large road undulations.
Lancer: At low speed, the Lancer feels more involving than the Subaru, but the harder you press it, the more distant it becomes. Ride quality diminishes at high speed, and unfortunately, the hydraulically boosted steering offers none of the Lancer Evo's feedback (or any semblance of its gloriously quick ratio), and it suffers from more kickback than the rack on the Subaru. The Lancer's more aggressive ride quality and more raucous engine tend to make driving at any speed a little more fun than it would be in the Impreza, but its shorter-travel suspension and less compliant dampers can't cope as well with poorly paved roads. Chalk this win, too, up to the Subaru: It may not feel quite as lively, but it's ultimately more capable.
SUMMING THINGS UP...
Impreza: Feels like a traditional Subaru, even if it doesn't look like one. Substantial, nicely assembled interior. Notchy, satisfying shifter-not as quirky as those found in previous Imprezas, but still decent. Understeery in the dry and wet, nicely tail-happy and self-sorting in the dirt; cursed with numb, kickback-prone steering. A better all-around car than the Lancer, and more satisfying to drive quickly. Reminds you of a charming old girlfriend who just recently had some ill-advised plastic surgery. Or one too many bottles of Nyquil.
Lancer: Feels and looks like the Evo's twin, but doesn't drive like it. Slightly tinny interior. Lackluster CVT. Nimble chassis, but nowhere near the long-travel back-road hammerer that the Impreza is. More understeer than the Subaru; ride quality is good at low speeds, but falls apart the faster you go; steering just as kickback-prone as the setup in the Impreza. Feature-loaded for the price. A dang decent car if you've never driven anything else. Desperately in need of more of the Evo's magic, but a good choice if you want to be different. Reminds you of that ex-chess-team chick you met at the club who just recently got a face tattoo.
While either one of these cars would be a fine choice for daily transportation, the needs of most people-ok, most people we hang out with-are a little more complex than that. As such, we tend to be drawn towards the Impreza. The Lancer offers a lot for the money, but the Subaru is simply more fun, and it feels much better built. It may look like a boring, staid appliance, but under the skin, it's mostly the same old Impreza we know and love. Yes, we'd rather hang out with the Lancer Evo and the WRX STI than either one of these two cars-Marcia, after all, was the hot one-but the compromises of real life mean that such things aren't always possible. Thankfully, despite the fugly glasses and the social stigma, Jan Brady ain't all that bad. On the contrary: no matter what badge is on her hood, she's actually one hell of a decent date.