AWD Addition Gives Lancer Needed Grip

Njuguna Kabugi | 9/19/2012, 1:20 p.m.

Over the past few years, as the economic downturn threatened to choke the life out of the automobile industry, Mitsubishi sales suffered a cliff-dive. As rumor mills churned with whispers that the Japanese automaker would exit the U.S. market, most casual observers wondered why Mitsubishi would care to maintain a presence in the United States.

Of the close to 4.5 million Japanese cars sold in the United States in 2011, more than one-third were Toyotas; approximately one-quarter were Hondas. Mitsubishi's market share - and remember, this is just among Japanese vehicle sales - was 1.2 percent. On the market as a whole, Mitsubishi possessed 2 percent of the whole U.S. new vehicle market in 2002 but held just 0.5 percent in 2011.

But instead of closing shop, Mitsubishi has decided to retool - introducing fresher products that include electric and hybrid/gasoline powered cars and light trucks. The Outlander PHEV is a plug-in hybrid SUV that offers the best of three worlds: the environmental performance of an electric vehicle [EV], the cruising range of a conventional internal combustion engine [ICE] vehicle, and the on- and off-road performance of an SUV.

The Mitsubishi i all-electric car is the least expensive EV and has the best mile per gallon equivalent among cars in its class. Unfortunately, these vehicles do not sell in large enough numbers to get Mitsubishi out of its current sales rut. In order to grow, the automaker will have to bolster sales with the help of vehicles like the Mitsubishi Lancer ES, a compact vehicle that we found to be pretty entertaining and capable.

Year in and year out, the Lancer is consistently one of Mitsubishi's best-selling vehicles. The affordably-priced, fuel-efficient and content-laden Lancer model has long provided consumers with a lot of car for their hard-earned money.

Every Lancer model comes with a wide array of advanced safety technologies as part of the standard equipment package. These include advanced dual-stage front air bags with occupant seat position sensor; side-impact head protection curtain air bags [front and rear]; front seat-mounted side air bags; driver's side knee air bag; anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution; Active Stability Control [ASC] with Traction Control Logic and a Tire Pressure Monitoring System.

My test car, the Mitsubishi Lancer ES AWD is specifically designed for the Snowbelt states and includes a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that provides a modest 168-hp output. It is mated to a continuously-variable transmission [CVT] along with the all-wheel drive system - a first for Mitsubishi.

It's an entertaining car for the price range [has a starting MSRP of only $20,195]. I liked the outside appearance, which has athletic lines and cuts a fairly unique sporty profile. A little more power from the four bangers would be welcome, and the spartan black and silver interior should be spiffed up a little more to soften the austere insides.

In trips around D.C., Baltimore and Northern Virginia, the Lancer proved a decent commuter, providing a surprisingly respectable performance, on and off rush hour. Though I was not able to test the all-wheel-drive system, [any significant snow evaded our region this year] I found the CVT the weakest implementation in this package.

To get this car up to speed, you need to really work the throttle hard. In light to moderate acceleration, the CVT allowed the engine to rev up way too high. Passing yielded a rubber-band-like delay, accompanied by a lot of noise. It's a buzzy drivetrain combination with not much punch. In the CVT's defense, I have to admit that it helps conserve gasoline in the Lancer in that I did achieve very decent mileage - about 28 mpg in combined highway and urban driving.

Do I think that this is the car that will propel Mitsubishi to revive its fortunes in the U.S. market? I doubt it. While the good news is that Mitsubishi continues to improve its products, the flip side is also true: the competition is doing the same, and sometimes executing better. But there are many impressive things about the Lancer that puts it in a better position on the playing field, albeit on a turf it must share with intense competitors.