Friday, May 11, 2007

Mitsubishi Lancer GTS (2008) Review




The Mitsubishi Lancer has been around in various forms since 1973 and is all new for the 2008 model year. Past success in the high-profile world of international rallying generated strong sales of previous Lancers, and the new version's looks play on that heritage.

The massive rear wing, alloy wheels, and aggressive snout on the new Lancer will be familiar to fans of the World Rally Championship (or fans of a few video games) as cues from the Lancer Evolution series of all-wheel-drive, rally-inspired road cars. The Evo X version of this latest Lancer should be available soon, but in the meantime the more sedate Lancers DE, ES, and GTS lead the way into the market. We found the new Lancer's appearance generally pleasing (the vestigial rear wing notwithstanding) and, mostly thanks to the buff front intakes, it won't easily be mistaken for a mere econobox. The simple, classic, 10-spoke 18-inch alloys also looked the part on our GTS.

But the Lancer looks faster than it is. Where this car really shines is in its cabin tech. Our test car was a well-optioned GTS, the top trim level, but fitted with the standard five-speed manual transmission rather than the optional CVT. It was further kitted out with the three main option packages, including the juicy 650-watt stereo, satellite radio, moonroof, hard drive-based navigation with digital music server capability, Bluetooth phone integration, and the "FAST Key" keyless entry and starting system.

With all this good tech, a stiff chassis providing enjoyable handling traits and a price just into the low-$20,000 range, the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS proves that a budget car can have as many or more cabin gadgets than an expensive luxury cruiser.

Test the tech: Save music, play music, find musicTo try out some of the features of the combination navigation and music server system, we decided to crank some digital tunes from the onboard 30GB hard drive while also letting it direct us to some live tunes down the coast.

The General Store in San Gregorio, about an hour's drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco, has been serving drinks and an impressive array of other goods to travelers since 1889, and now includes live music on the weekends among its varied wares. A friend's birthday festivities included taking in some bluegrass at the General Store on a Saturday afternoon, which we decided was the perfect trip to test the Lancer's tech.

We took the Lancer to the San Gregorio General Store, which doubles as the town's post office.

The touch screen navigation system in the Lancer is very easy to use, in keeping with its Asian brethren. A good degree of setup customization is allowed, for instance choosing between an alphabetical vs. QUERTY layout for the on-screen keyboard. But for this jaunt, all we needed was the points-of-interest list for San Gregorio (yes, it's a short list, especially as the post office is also located at the General Store). Destination chosen, route calculated, and changed to the coastal (non-freeway) option all in under one minute, we hit the road.

The first thing we noticed about the Lancer was that 650 watts is an awful lot of audio power. Still in mild San Francisco traffic, the acoustic bass coming through the Lancer's 10-inch in-trunk subwoofer from a Sirius jazz station set off numerous parked cars' alarms as we idled by. The optional Rockford Fosgate-branded system certainly delivers adequate response, with a total of nine speakers controlled by an eight-channel amplifier. Bass, as mentioned, is bone-rattling, and the rest of the range doesn't disappoint. Substantial audio control via Digital Signal Processing and a nice touch screen interface means the sound can be tailored and centered very precisely.

The system's most surprising feature (given the Lancer's MSRP) is its 30GB hard drive, onto which music can be ripped from CDs either as they play upon being inserted, or manually on a track-by-track basis. Sound quality of replayed music didn't quite match the original source in terms of overall clarity, but it was certainly good enough and we were happy to find that a previous driver had put Led Zeppelin on the hard drive--the perfect album for a quick blast down the coast.

Led Zeppelin made for a good soundtrack for our drive down the coast.
With Gracenote software for identifying tracks and a good organizational interface, finding and sorting songs or setting up playlists is simple. The system offers a three-plug RCA video input to allow video playback on the navigation screen (only while the vehicle is stopped), and these inputs can be used for auxiliary audio as well. The navigation system only allows for a single-CD slot, behind the tilt-down screen, instead of the in-dash six-CD changer available otherwise. Our MP3 and WMA discs played readily, although ID3 info only displayed with the former format.

The navigation system's text-to-voice instructions didn't have too much to tell us given the simplicity of our route, so we took a couple of detours and our virtual guide handled them well. Hard drive-based systems like the Lancer's show a noticeable advantage in route calculation speeds over DVD-based systems, and even in cars as inexpensive as the Lancer, hard drives should begin to supplant DVDs quickly. Volume of both the guidance and the audio system can be made speed sensitive to compensate for road and wind noise.

In the cabinSitting in the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS for the first time, the impression is that the car seems quite comprehensively equipped for its class. Steering-wheel buttons control the usual audio and cruise functions, but there are also hands-free phone buttons peeking out from between six and nine o'-clock. Two purposeful analog gauges flank a small LCD screen showing secondary info. And of course, the 7-inch touch screen signifies the presence of real tech.

This stereo system allows for much better audio control than some other Rockford Fosgate systems we've seen.

The optional FAST Key remains pocketed throughout the Lancer experience, another feature we haven't seen in too many cars at this price. Sensors in the door handles and on the trunk respond to touch as long as the car's key fob is close by. Once inside, a twist of a lever in the usual ignition-key spot fires the car to life. Buttons on the door handles lock the doors and activate the alarm when exiting, or warn you if the key is still in the car.

With the navigation option, comes the interface Mitsubishi calls the Multi-Communication System, which allows a wide range of vehicle systems to be configured or reset, such as alarm beeping behavior, trip computer functions, a lap timer, calendar, and maintenance reminders. One great feature we hope to see trickling down to other bargain rides is the one-touch three-flash lane-change turn signal, which can even be turned off via the setup screen.

Bluetooth phone integration was obviously another valued tech addition, with the Lancer's system again very familiar to anyone who's driven a Honda or Acura lately. It understands about 60 voice commands and pairing a new phone from scratch can be done in a couple of minutes, although not with the car in motion. One odd hiccup we experienced with the Lancer was that after pairing our phone at number four on the seven-spot priority list, it got dropped and reacquired in continuous five-second cycles. Placing or receiving calls was impossible until we deleted the other phones from the list and gave our phone first priority, after which everything worked seamlessly.

An icon shows phone connectivity in the lower left-hand corner of the navigation screen.

Nice minor touches around the cabin are plentiful, like 12-volt outlets in both the dash and center console, clean and intuitive climate controls, and a split-folding rear seat for trunk passthrough. Even the unconvincing faux carbon fiber trim, usually a sore spot, seemed OK in the Lancer, probably a factor of our car's dark gray interior and exterior muting the trim somewhat. We also found the inclusion of a small joystick-button control on the nav system a reasonable nod to those who might not like the touch screen for some reason--if only all the joystick-only systems out there could throw in a touch screen as well, we'd really have something.

Under the hood

We're accustomed to driving some pretty potent machinery around the CNET offices, so the pleasantly menacing appearance of the Lancer GTS had us ready for a week's indulgence in turbocharged all-wheel-drive mayhem. But alas, the non-Evo Lancer remains lots of bark without the requisite bite, or as editor Kevin Massy assures us they say in the United Kingdom, all mouth and no trousers.

The Lancer's MIVEC engine improves its specs over the previous version, but it doesn't justify the car's external styling.

That's not to say the 2008 Lancer GTS isn't fun to drive. It's light on its feet and turns very crisply thanks to front-wheel drive. The suspension damping is well-tuned, feeling tight and reassuring when pushed in corners, but also soaking up city ruts and rough pavement nicely, despite some pretty low-profile rubber.

Straight-line acceleration is where the Lancer loses out, with only 143 horsepower on tap for states like California where it must meet PZEV emissions requirements (peak power is 152 for the non-PZEV Lancer). The all-aluminum, two-liter, inline four-cylinder engine uses dual overhead cams and a variable valve-timing system called MIVEC to produce its combination of power and efficiency. At 60 pounds lighter than the last Lancer motor, the 2008 version revs freely and makes good use of the five-speed manual with which our tester was equipped.

But perhaps paradoxically, the power only shows up as adequate in producing heaps of torque steer, which fouls the overall driving experience. Constant-speed sweepers and in-town hairpins are taken in style, but any full throttle application tugs at the steering wheel enough to disrupt a cornering line or demand a firm hand during gear changes. Our relaxed coastal cruise on a textbook sunny-and-foggy day found the Lancer in its element, feeling composed on the more entertaining sections of road and lugging along through towns without any drama.

Mitsubishi does away with all other gauges but a tach and speedo. A center bar graph lets you know how much gas you have.

The EPA rates the Lancer GTS with the five-speed as getting 21mpg in the city and 29mpg on the highway (the city figure is 22mpg with the CVT option). These figures seem middling at best for such a modest power output but represent the EPA's new-for-2008 testing procedure, which will lower mileage expectations for most new cars. The equivalent numbers from the pre-2008 test are 25mpg in the city and 31mpg highway for both transmissions. For our money, it looks like the EPA is closer to an approximation of real-world driving with the new test: the Lancer's trip computer showed an average of just under 25mpg for our week with the car.

In sum

Mitsubishi has a potential winner on its hands with the 2008 Lancer. In the absence of final pricing information, we estimate that a Lancer GTS equipped like ours will have an MSRP just shy of $22,000, including destination charges. Its tech amenities make it a top-tier car in terms of cabin gadgets, and a great value.

The masculine styling won't be for everyone, but Mitsubishi can't risk softening the profile of its aspirational rally mobile at this point, and sales likely won't be affected anyway. This is a car with a carefully crafted heritage which it lives up to admirably (and which the Evo X will really embrace).

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