We love the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The all-wheel-drive turbocharged rally car for the street grips, steers, and tackles a bumpy road better than many cars costing twice as much. The last-generation Evo--known in Mitsu parlance as Evolutions VII and IX--impressed us with the fact that Mitsubishi had turned the ho-hum base Lancer into such a performance icon. The newest Evo may have lost a little of its raw character, but it's still clearly an automobile engineered by hardcore enthusiasts for hardcore enthusiasts.
That said, like its predecessors, the newest Lancer Evolution had to evolve from something. That something is the new front-wheel-drive, $14,890 Mitsubishi Lancer. We recently spent some time in the top-spec, non-Evo Lancer, known as the Lancer GTS, to see what relationship it had to its manic sibling.
After a scan of the specification list, you can't help but be impressed by the little Mitsubishi. Our CVT-equipped model came in at $23,340, and its window sticker boasted such features as a navigation system, a sunroof, Bluetooth, keyless entry and starting, auto climate control, and eighteen-inch wheels. Not too shabby. The only glaring omission is electronic stability control; this safety feature isn't available, even as an option. We also wish that Mitsubishi had added rake adjustment to the steering wheel and that the navigation unit featured a more intuitive interface.
On the road, it's clear that Mitsubishi spent money on the Lancer's long equipment list rather than chassis development--the wonderful steering and handling found in the Lancer Evo clearly doesn't come from the base Lancer. The steering rack on the GTS is a hydraulically assisted unit, but it feels more like a poorly calibrated electric setup. And while the Lancer's overall ride quality and suspension damping is quite good at normal speeds, rough pavement tends to upset things, sending unwelcome kickback through the steering wheel.(The GTS's standard eighteen-inch wheels surely don't help.) At a quicker pace, understeer rears its ugly head far too early. On a whole, we wish the gang responsible for the Evolution could have sprinkled some of its magic on the base Lancer.
While you can't really expect Evo-like thrust from a $23,000 econobox, the front-drive Lancer's 2.4-liter four-cylinder does provide decent acceleration. Unfortunately, that powerplant is a bit too coarse and buzzy for our liking, a fact not helped by the optional CVT fitted to our test car. During maximum acceleration, the engine sits at a very busy 6000 RPM as the transmission constantly adjusts the drive ratio. Sure, there are magnesium paddles behind the steering wheel, allowing the choice of six different "gears," but you're still better off with the standard five-speed manual. Plus, the row-it-yourself option brings along a small increase in fuel economy. This is a notable plus, because the Lancer's thirst is somewhat surprising. Its 21/27 EPA rating loses out to a great many small cars, including the notoriously thirsty five-cylinder (automatic) Volkswagen Jetta.
While we knew that the Lancer GTS wouldn't be a hard-core driver's car, we do wish it carried a greater amount of the Evolution's DNA. Mitsubishi needs to concentrate on improving the steering feel and upping the refinement levels. (Available electronic stability control is a must, too.) With just a few changes, the Lancer could be a very competitive entry in its segment.