New Orleans - Not to be confused with Dodge's K-car-based compact sedan from the '80s (remember the Lancer Shelby?), Mitsubishi's Lancer aims to cash in on some motorsports heritage of its own. That heritage--in the form of the Japanese-market Lancer's four titles in the World Rally Championship--is part of what Mitsubishi hopes will bring compact-car buyers to the triple-diamond brand. More likely, its young target market will recognize the car from appearances in Sony PlayStation racing simulation games.
The Lancer sedan replaces the Mirage in the Mitsubishi lineup. As prophesied by its name, the Mirage is fading from the automotive landscape, with the sedan disappearing for '02 and the coupe (which won't be replaced) following a year later.
Although the Lancer is not heralded as a descendant of the subcompact Mirage, the Mirage is the measuring stick for the Lancer's comparative superiority. It's larger inside and out and features a bigger four-cylinder engine--2.0 liters, up from 1.8--with an additional nine horsepower and fourteen pound-feet of torque, to 120 and 130, respectively. Because of increased weight, however, that power proves adequate but not revolutionary. The Galant's 2.4-liter engine is under consideration for the Lancer, which would certainly add fun to the drive. Through miles of straight-road bayou country, the Lancer's front strut and rear multi-link suspension provided a well-damped and quiet ride--which is its mission much more than sporty handling.
Inside, the Lancer is ergonomically efficient and surprisingly roomy. A 102.4-inch wheelbase allows for greater passenger volume than the Mirage, and, at 36.6 inches, rear legroom is identical to that enjoyed in the upscale Diamante sedan. Marketing types claim that it's a "mid-size driving experience at a compact price," and, with more passenger-compartment volume in the Lancer than in the Honda Civic or the Nissan Sentra, their claim is more than wishful thinking.
But the Lancer is not just a practical economy car; it's also a pretty face. Borrowing styling cues from cars upmarket, the headlights are pure Lexus IS300, and the upright grille pulls off a convincing imitation of last year's Infiniti Q45.
Even the base-level ES is well equipped, with power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; and a 100-watt stereo with CD player. One rung up the options ladder, the LS adds an electronically controlled four-speed automatic (which adapts its shift points based on your driving style), body-colored door handles and mirrors, aluminum wheels, and keyless entry. ABS is optional on the LS, as are front side air bags. Finally, an O.Z. Rally edition, available with either manual or automatic transmission, has larger-diameter struts, special wheels, a sport steering wheel, an aero kit, and decorative gewgaws.
Chief operating officer Pierre Gagnon says he expects the Lancer to double Mitsubishi's U.S. small-car sales. With 2 million compact cars sold in the States each year, 64,000 Lancer sales should be within reach. And to increase demand, we'd suggest expediting the importation of the turbocharged Lancer Evolution VII. Buyers already will be acquainted with it from their time behind the virtual wheel in Gran Turismo 3.