2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

Review and photos by Haney Louka

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Winnipeg, Manitoba – Mitsubishi has been a unique player in the Canadian marketplace since its re-introduction here in 2003. Back then, it marked its return with a line-up of middle-aged so-so vehicles that really didn’t give consumers reason to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on what was, to many people, uncharted territory.

Not that Mitsubishi is a newcomer in the business of making cars – far from it – but there just weren’t many of these things on the road at the time and people have a tendency to go with what’s familiar. But now Mitsu has a couple of solid contenders in the bread-and-butter market segments that matter most: the new Outlander is taking the cute-ute category by storm, and the Lancer, the subject of today’s review, looks like it’ll give buyers a good reason to add one more item to their econo-car shopping list.

With an attractive starting price of $16,598, the Lancer DE brings with it some equally appealing standard fare: four-wheel disc brakes, power windows, 16-inch wheels, independent suspension all around, CD/MP3 player, and side curtain and driver’s knee airbags, to name a few. And here’s a pleasant surprise: the Lancer’s trunk is supported by hydraulic struts rather than cargo-squishing hinges. Try finding those on a $30,000 Toyota Camry.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

Also significant is Mitsubishi’s warranty coverage: its five-year bumper-to-bumper and 10-year powertrain warranties blow most competitors’ out of the water. Notable exceptions are Kia and Hyundai which both offer the same comprehensive coverage, but have a more typical five-year powertrain warranty.

Most buyers will opt for the $1,800 package that includes anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, and power locks. My tester was also equipped with the optional CVT (or continuously variable transmission) – a five-speed stick is standard – which adds another $1,100 to the bottom line. Throw in the destination and pre-delivery charges, and the price of our tester weighed in at $20,993 before taxes.

The Lancer shares its platform with the Outlander compact crossover, and to a lesser extent is related to the Chrysler economy models (Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass and Patriot). The Mitsubishi versions have the edge here thanks to sharper styling and interior materials that don’t scream economy.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

In my opinion, the Lancer has an intrinsic appeal that puts it right up there with the class leaders. It looks sportier and more expensive than it should be at this price, and for me, it represents the only real competitor to the Mazda3 because these two cars are alone when it comes to how sporty the drive actually is.

View the Lancer in profile, and its long front overhang mars what is otherwise a very pleasing shape. View it from any other angle, though, and that overhang seems to shrink thanks to clever details around the grille and headlights. The way the headlight lenses are angled back from the grille toward the front fenders gives the car a bit of a Honda S2000-like treatment up front.

The Lancer’s rear is elevated with an aggressive taillight treatment that makes the old Lancer positively dowdy in comparison. Overall, it’s a successful effort at giving the new car some attitude in a sea of ho-hum econoboxes.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

Some may find the Lancer’s interior to be black and plasticky, but let’s not be too picky in the sub-$20K market. I applaud the absence of mouse-fur velour in this car; too many companies seem to think it still looks and feels good. Time will tell, though, how well the cleaner-looking seat fabric will wear. And rather than give us hard plastic interior door panels, Mitsubishi has dressed these ones up in the same fabric as the seats. It’s a small detail to be sure, but one that’s appreciated.

I found the Lancer to have great driving manners, even though my tester didn’t come with the standard five-speed stick. It will be a long time before I find a CVT mated to a small four-banger acceptable, and this Lancer doesn’t bring that date any closer. The gearless tranny exacerbates whatever vices the engine has in terms of noise and vibration, and for this two-litre, the vices are certainly there.

The CVT eschews fixed gear ratios established by a planetary gearset in favour of two variable-diameter pulleys that get larger and smaller based on vehicle speed and power demands. The pulleys are connected by a belt that transfers engine output to the driven wheels.

Picture the sprockets on a bicycle: when the rider engages a gear with a large sprocket at the crank and a small sprocket at the rear wheel, a higher speed can be attained while pedaling more slowly. Choose the opposite combination, and bicycle speed isn’t high but pedaling speed is much higher. It’s the same concept with CVTs, except they are not restricted to 18 or 21 speeds like a bike is. Each pulley can change its diameter in tiny increments, for a much larger combination of ratios.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

This allows virtually any gear ratio to be used to provide either maximum thrust or minimum fuel consumption as the driver’s right foot dictates. The result is both better performance and lower fuel consumption compared to a conventional automatic transmission.

That sounds great, but it’s the execution of the CVT that lets the little Mitsubishi down. Since the engine providing the power is small and peaky, the call for power is responded to by noise and buzzing as the engine lazily makes its way to maximum revs to get the car going. It completely removes the impression of refinement and sophisticated technology from the driving experience, which is a shame.

The source of that buzziness is a 2.0-litre inline four, one of a series of “World Engines” co-developed by Mitsubishi, Chrysler, and Hyundai. While the Lancer seems less prone to noise and vibration from underhood than, say, a Jeep Compass with which it shares its engine design, it’s still nowhere near the head of its class in that department. At least it makes use of electronic valve timing control to produce a healthy 152 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; Click image to enlarge.

While those numbers are in line with many competitors, those others have more powerful optional engines, something that’s absent in the Lancer, at least for now. Look for more exciting engine options for 2009.

Still, the 152 horses galloping from under the Lancer’s hood are eager to please, and impart a feeling of performance to add to the car’s responsive steering. The Lancer consumed less than 10 L/100 km under the supervision of my right foot in heavy city traffic. Not too shabby.

I find it refreshing to see a truly competent contender surface in a class that is too often dominated by frumpy looks or abundant cheapness. Or both.

Pricing: 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer DE CVT


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