The Mitsubishi Lancer is one of those cars that brings up very different connotations, depending on how old you are. If you’re old enough to have been paying attention to cars back in the mid-80s, the car probably brings up memories of the craptacular Dodge Colt or Lancer, cars so tiny and tinny that sitting in one for more than 30 minutes was illegal under the Geneva Convention.
However, for those who just received their licenses within the last few years (and let’s be honest, that’s probably most of the people reading this), the Lancer is actually a cool car – utterly unthinkable only a decade or so ago. Most automotive scholars chalk this sudden uptick in interest to a sole factor: Evolution.
No, not the process by which random mutations are selected for and spread throughout a species. I’m talking about the Mitsubishi Evolution, the hopped-up, tricked-out, manufacturer-pimped special version of the Lancer designed to Boldly Go Where No Mitsubishi Has Gone Before: pop cultural significance. Growing out of the company’s desire to compete in the World Rally Championship, the first Evo appeared in 1992. Since then, there have been nine more versions, each marked by a successive Roman numeral, making the current Evolution X the official car of Wolverine.
Indeed, the Evo packs enough punch to be a good ride for America’s favorite mutant. Every version of the car has come with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine, all wheel drive, and a slew of other speed-increasing options. The Evo I cranked out about 244 horsepower; today’s Evo X rips out 291 horses. (However, the Evo has put on about half a ton of weight in that time, so don’t expect those extra 45 horses to give you much of an edge.) And that was just to start with. The Evo proved one of the most popular rides among hot rodders around the turn of the century. Starting in Japan (the Evo wasn’t available stateside until a couple years ago) then continuing here, would-be Vin Diesels boosted, pumped and hopped up their rides with wild paint jobs, spoilers large enough to double as flatbeds, and ridiculous power levels. It’s not uncommon to see stories and videos all across the Web about Evos capable of 220 mile-per-hour top speeds or 9-second quarter-mile times.
The regular Lancer, however, is far more modest. Instead of attempting to tear open Ferrari-like holes in the atmosphere, the Lancer is content to be a solid small sedan. Excluding the superhuman Evo X, today’s car comes in four trim levels. Starting at the bottom of the list is the DE, which comes with a 152-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine routed through either a 5-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Should you decide to spring for this model, you’ll find your $14,340 gives you power windows and mirrors, 16″ wheels, a 140-watt 4-speaker CD stereo, adjustable rear headrests (fancy!) and a “multi-information display,” which sounds like something Commander Data would use but is probably just a tiny screen that tells you time and temperature. You also get no fewer than seven airbags, including one for the driver’s knee. It’s only a matter of time until, in a crash, every inch of you impacts an airbag.
(This might be a good time to point out that, according to Mitsubishi’s website, opting for the CVT on the DE lifts the price a whopping $2250, or about 16 percent of the base price. For the other models, the difference is about $1000. Given the price jump between the stick-shift DE and the automatic is actually greater than the gap between the DE and the ES, I’d suggest learning how to work that clutch pedal and getting the added features, but that’s me.)
Step up to the ES, and you’ll also get cruise control, audio controls on the steering wheel, air conditioning, folding rear seats, keyless entry, and anti-lock brakes for $16,540. An uprated exterior, with body-colored trim and chrome, also gives the impression that you care at least a little about your car’s appearance. There’s also an ES Sport pack, which adds on a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lights, front and rear air dams and a spoiler, so you can brag to people without a lick of car knowledge that you drive the kind of car “from The Fast And The Furious” and they won’t immediately dismiss you as a dick. (The delayed dickage – er, ES Sport – package runs $17,340.)
The third trim level is the GTS, and here, things start to get interesting. Power is bumped up to a 168-horsepower 2.4 liter four, and the CVT receives magnesium paddle shifters and six fake “gears” to play around with. (And yes, making a gearless transmission for improved efficiency then programming it to think it has set gear ratios is as stupid as it sounds. But still fun.) In addition, the GTS comes with a bevy of additional standard features: sport bucket seats, Bluetooth, automatic climate control, two more stereo speakers, 18″ wheels, a sportier suspension and “high-contrast gauges” are among the cream of the crop. (However, low-contrast gauges provide a much better excuse for speeding if you get pulled over, so I guess that last one’s a toss-up.) Best of all, the GTS starts at $18,590, still low enough below 20 grand that you might feel like you’re getting a deal.
The top of the range, the Ralliart, serves as a no-longer-missing link between the Evo and the regular Lancer. (This also marks the official starting place at which you can brag about your Lancer, just so you know.) Powered by a detuned version of the Evo’s boosted engine, the Ralliart cranks out 237 horses, put to the ground through its very own all-wheel-drive system (lesser Lancers are front-wheel-drive), just like its big brother. The Ralliart also gets its own paddle-shifting six-speed manual transmission, just like the Evo; however, the Ralliart’s is a single-clutch system, while the Evo gets the dual clutch version. Needless to say, the difference is far too complex for me to go into here in depth, but just assume that when it comes to clutches, two is better than one. (If you want more info on the subject, try this link and that link.)
The Ralliart also gets FAST-Key (a radio transmitter that unlocks the car when you’re within a couple feet), sportier controls, several traction control systems, and a more badass exterior, all for $26,490. This price jump, however, lifts it out of the econocar price classes and into the mix with some pretty impressive machinery, like the Honda Civic Si, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and its natural competitor, the Subaru Impreza WRX.
As for performance, as one might expect, the wide range of models provides an equally broad rangeof bragging rights. Base models do the naught-to-60 in 8.8 and 9.1 seconds with the manual and automatic transmissions, respectively, according to Edmunds.com; the GTS stick-shift, they found, did it in 7.7. The Ralliart, on the other hand, will rip off 5.5 second 0-to-60s if you do it right, according to Car and Driver. Gas mileage is about what you’d expect; 22 city/30 highway for the 2.0, 21/28 for the 2.4, and 17/24 for the Ralliart.
So what’s the verdict? For me, I’d probably do some extensive shopping before buying a DE or an ES – the competition is pretty strong these days in the cheap-car market. The Ralliart is perfect for anyone who wants a bargain-priced Evo, and presents a strong case even against the other cars in the sports-compact class; however, the GTS seems like the best buy of the bunch. If you’re looking for a car for less than $20,000 that doesn’t feel like punishment, the GTS’s bigger engine and added features (for not too much cash) will probably make you very happy.
Grades: DE/ES: C+, GTS: A-, Ralliart: A-