2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Mitsubishi Lancer ES courtesy of Orleans Mitsubishi, Ottawa, Ontario.
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson
Photos by Grant Yoxon

Lancer makes a good first impression

Canadians have a new Japanese car to consider when shopping for a compact, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan: the new Mitsubishi Lancer. Mitsubishi’s entry-level car, the Lancer was first introduced in 2002 in the United States, and is largely unchanged for 2003. It competes with some of Canada’s most popular automobiles including the Honda Civic (Canada’s best-selling car), Toyota Corolla, Mazda Protegé, Nissan Sentra, Suzuki Aerio sedan, Saturn SL and the new Ion, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Spectra — quite a list!

At the moment, the Lancer is available only as a four-door sedan, but next year Mitsubishi will introduce a ‘Sportback’, or hatchback version. As well, the high-performance turbocharged Lancer Evolution model is expected to make its debut in North America.

The Lancer is roughly the same size as a Honda Civic sedan, but not quite as tall. Its styling is fairly conservative – almost dated in my opinion – but as you will see, the Lancer was designed with practical aspects in mind. All Lancers have a thrifty 2.0 litre four cylinder engine, fully independent suspension, a roomy interior and a good-sized trunk. Prices range from about $16,000 to $23,000 — or about the same as prices for competitor Japanese models.

Three trim levels

2003 Mitsubishi LS
2003 Mitsubishi Lancer LS. Photo: Mitsubishi
Click image to enlarge

Let’s get the facts and figures out of the way first. 2003 Lancers are available in three trim levels: ES, LS, and O-Z Rally. Starting at $15,997, the Lancer ES comes with a standard 120 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, power steering, 140-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with four speakers, fixed intermittent wipers, 14 inch tires, seatbelts for five occupants, cloth seats, tilt steering column, rear defroster, auto-off headlights, and dual front airbags. For an extra $1,020, you can add a 4-speed automatic transmission.

The base ES model is available with a couple of option packages, and my test car had both of them. The “Convenience Package” ($760) adds remote keyless entry, 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks, rear centre armrest with cupholders, body-coloured door handles, fixed rear head restraints, and floor mats.

A “Preferred Equipment Package” ($1,500) adds air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, woodgrain trim, dual vanity mirrors, 8-way adjustable drivers seat, and roof mounted antenna. With both these option packages, the price of my Lancer ES test car came to $19,277. (Note: ES Model shown in photos has Preferred Equipment package, but not Convenience package.)

I had one beef: ABS is not available on the ES. Only the LS and O-Z Rally models offer it as an option. Is there a reasonable explanation for this? I can’t think of one.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer OZ Rally
2003 Mitsubishi Lancer OZ Rally. Photo: Mitsubishi, Click image to enlarge

Those considering ordering the ES with the above-mentioned option packages might as well consider the Lancer LS because it has the same equipment plus larger 15 inch tires and alloy wheels, variable intermittent wipers, and six speakers instead of four – for an MSRP of $20,370. And it’s possible to add ABS for an extra $730.

For those who want something sportier, the 2003 Lancer O-Z Rally model offers an added appearance package. This includes special alloy wheels, rear spoiler, side sills, brushed metal-look interior trim, and a sporty steering wheel and shift knob. With a manual transmission, the O-Z Rally starts at $19,997. ABS is optional ($730), and the O-Z Rally model is the only one available with a sunroof ($1168). With an automatic transmission, that brings the total price of a loaded 0-Z Rally model to just under $23,000 before Freight charges.

There are also some dealer-installed options: a six-disc in-dash CD changer, stainless steel exhaust tip, roof rack, engine block heater, cargo net, bike rack and snowboard attachments. Prices were not available.

Behind the wheel

Take a look at the Lancer’s doors – they’re very long, and a result offer large door openings that make it easy to get in and out of the front and rear seats. As well, the Lancer has large pull-type exterior door handles which are much easier to grip than typical flip-up door handles.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

Inside, all the seats have fairly high hip-points, and the driver sits up high relative to the cowl and the Lancer’s large windows. As a result, outward visibility is excellent – perhaps the least-mentioned and most-underrated safety feature a car can have. In addition, the Lancer ES has a height-adjustable driver’s seat and a tilt steering wheel, so even small-framed drivers will be able to find a comfortable driving position. I also liked the large ‘dead pedal’ to rest the left foot while driving.

Both front and rear adult passengers have generous headroom and legroom – noteworthy for a compact car. Rear passengers have room for their feet under the raised front seats, and the seats are comfortable, but I noticed that height-adjustable rear head restraints are not offered.

The Lancer’s interior is well-designed, if not totally contemporary in appearance. I liked the Lancer’s comfortable, soft-cloth seats with subtly patterned seat inserts – impressive for a base model. The front seats don’t have large side bolsters, but they’re big enough to keep you from sliding off the seats. The semi-circular instruments, including a tachometer are easy to read, although a bit smaller than those of other cars in its class. The slim stalks for the lights and wipers are easy to use, but the wiper has only a single intermittent setting on ES models.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

The centre dash area protrudes outwards making it easy for the driver or front passenger to reach the standard 140 watt AM/FM/CD player (with four speakers) and heater/air conditioner controls. A bright digital clock sits prominently at the top of the centre control panel. My car had optional dark woodgrain trim which extends horizontally across the dashboard, but not on to the doors. It adds a bit of warmth to predominantly plastic dashboard.

The shift lever is located on the floor console, and engages so smoothly and easily that I felt I had to mention it. I’ve driven many $50,000 plus cars with annoying ‘zig zag’ shift gates that make shifting into and out of gear a real chore. Kudos to Mitsubishi for keeping it simple! I also liked the fact that the gear lever’s default position is ‘D’, not ‘3’. However, it doesn’t have an on/off overdrive button.

The Lancer has a few storage areas for odds and ends – just below the heater is a conspicuous open storage area that is easy to reach but rather unattractive. To the left of the steering wheel is a covered storage bin with a flip-down cover; the doors have large door pockets; and a centre armrest opens up to reveal a small bin that’s big enough for a few CD’s. There are also two open cupholders just behind the shift lever.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

My car had the optional 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks which are released by pulling on levers next to the fixed head restraints. The seatbacks don’t fold flat and the opening to the trunk is not huge, but it does expand the car’s versatility significantly. My only complaint is that the seatbacks are not lockable.

The trunk lid is lightweight and has a low liftover height, but it doesn’t have an external handle or grip. The 320 litre trunk is a decent size for a small car, and is fully covered with a felt padding material. A small space-saver spare tire resides under the trunk floor.

Driving impressions

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

The Lancer’s 2.0 litre single overhead cam four-valve-per-cylinder four cylinder engine is remarkably smooth and quiet at idle. With a larger displacement than many engines in its class, and a respectable 120 horsepower developed at 5500 rpm (well below its redline) and maximum torque of 142 lb-ft reached at 4250 rpm, the Lancer has more mid range responsiveness than you might expect for a small car. Initial acceleration is responsive, and prompting the accelerator pedal will invoke a passionate and busy response from its 2.0 litre powerplant. The 4-speed automatic transmission slides smoothly from gear to gear even when the throttle is mashed.

Even under hard acceleration, the engine is relatively quiet and smooth – I say ‘relatively’ because most cars in this class are rather noisy when the pedal hits the metal. The Lancer’s engine is busy but not harsh, and kind of sporty. And for most driving situations, the engine is barely audible. Even at freeway speeds, there’s more road noise and wind noise than engine noise. The motor does about 2600 rpm at 100 km/h and 3100 rpm at 120 km/h.

Fuel consumption is decent: 9.8 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 7.8 l/100 km (36 mpg) on the highway – yet not as good as its major competitors, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The Civic for example, with an automatic transmission, offers 8.2 l/100 km (34 mpg) in the city; and 6.1 l/100 km (46 mpg) on the highway.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

I was very impressed with the Lancer’s comfortable ride, and nimble handling. The Lancer has a fully independent suspension (front MacPherson struts and rear multi-links with coil springs with front and rear stabilizer bars) and a fairly long wheelbase – so it soaks up bumps and irregularities with ease, and is extremely easy to drive – there’s none of the choppiness or harshness that you’ll find on some small cars. My only concern was that I found the suspension a little soft when cornering and there was more lean than I preferred. Also, the standard Yokohama 185/65R-14 inch tires limited cornering ability – I would recommend upgrading to the optional 15 inch tires on the LS.

The Lancer’s standard power-assisted rack and pinion steering has a light, easy feel at parking lot speeds, yet feels firm and offers excellent on-centre feel at highway speeds. And the Lancer’s turning circle is just 10 metres (32.8 ft.) for easy manueuvering in tight parking spots.

The Lancer’s standard brakes are front disc/rear drums which provide good pedal feel and quick stopping distances – unfortunately though, as I said, ABS is not available on the ES model. And rear disc brakes are not offered.

The 2002 Lancer was crash-tested last year by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In a 40 mph front offset crash test, the Lancer was rated ‘Good’ and a ‘Best Pick’, the top rating when compared to other cars in its class. As there have been no major changes to the Lancer for 2003, it should have the same crash performance.

Competitor overview

The Lancer compares well with its major competitors in terms of ride, steering, acceleration, interior room, interior fit and finish, and warranty – but its styling and fuel consumption lag behind.

The Lancer is priced comparably with other Japanese compacts like the Civic, Corolla, and Protegé – but is more expensive than some of its North American and Korean competitors. As a newcomer to the Canadian market, I might have expected the Lancer to be priced a bit cheaper than other Japanese cars. But perhaps Mitsubishi wants to be perceived as being on the same level as Toyota.

Another concern: the Lancer is not likely to hold its resale value as well as the Civic and Corolla.

I looked up the reliability record of other Mitsubishi models in Consumer Reports Magazine: the Mitsubishi Eclipse Coupe is rated Average; the Mitsubishi Galant Worse than Average; and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport Better than Average. Certainly, the Lancer’s standard 3 year/60,000 km warranty and 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty is some assurance for prospective buyers.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Click image to enlarge

The Lancer is built in Korashiki, Japan.


In terms of its hard assets – price, performance, interior room, features, safety and warranty – the Mitsubishi Lancer compares well with its better-known Japanese competitors. But as a new vehicle, factors such as reliability, future resale value, parts availability, and quality of dealer service are still unknown.

Technical Data: 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

Base price (ES, Auto) $17,017
Options $2,260
Price as tested $19,277
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, SOHC, 16 valve
Horsepower 120 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 130 @ 4250 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic (std. 5 speed manual
Tires 185/65R-14 all-season
Curb weight 1220 kg (2690 lb.)
Wheelbase 2600 mm (102.4 in.)
Length 4510 mm (177.6 in.)
Width 1695 mm (66.7 in.)
Height 1374 mm (54.1 in.)
Trunk space 320 litres (11.3 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.8 l/100 km (28 mpg)
  7.8 l/100 km (36 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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