Mitsubishi has been building cars for a lot longer than you might have guessed. Since 1917, in fact, when the then-known Mitsubishi Shipbuiding Company contradicted its name by building the Model A – a hand-built, seven-seater sedan based on the Fiat Tipo 3.
The Japanese manufacturer sold only 22 Model As owing to the model’s relatively expensive price tag compared with mass-produced vehicles out of Europe and the US, though it certainly hasn’t experienced the same issue with its Mitsubishi Lancer small car.
The Mitsubishi Lancer has also been around for quite a while, as a mainstay of Mitsubishi’s global sales. Our Sportback test car is a member of the ninth-generation Lancer family that dates back to 1973.
The Mitsubishi Lancer has certainly hit the heights globally in the past, thanks to multiple World Rally Championship (WRC) titles with the high-performance, all-wheel-drive Evolution models (a badge that continues today), though here we’re testing a more humble Sportback ES model that props up the Lancer range.
The Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback was the realisation of the ‘Concept Sportback’ first shown at the 2005 Frankfurt motor show and later released as a series production version in 2007. It essentially replaced the Lancer Wagon from that moment on, with the hatchback providing the alternative to the sedan.
While the final Sportback production version never quite captured the standout styling of the concept car, especially at the rear end, it does however hold its own among some stylish competition from the likes of Ford, Mazda, Kia and Hyundai.
The Lancer sedan is just 15 millimetres shorter than the Sportback and has a larger boot capacity with the rear seats up, but as with most hatchback’s the Sportback has the practicality advantage when you don’t need to accommodate rear passengers.
Fold the seats flat, which can be cleverly done via remote latches from the rear of the cargo area, and stowage capacity weighs heavily in favour of the Sportback. There’s a tonne of load space and plenty of room for extra long items such as prams, ladders and several surfboards.
There are also plenty of useful storage spaces, especially around the centre console that came in handy as phones, wallets, and sunnies can be easily accessed without needing to fish around in the centre bin.
Backseat legroom is reasonable, too, though the Sportback’s ‘fastback’ styling reduces headroom by 27mm compared to the sedan.
Although the ES is the entry-level Sportback, our test car was equipped with the optional ‘convenience pack’, which adds electro-chromatic mirror with reverse camera, reverse sensors, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, leather-wrapped steering wheel and front map lamps. For the grand total of $960, we think this is an option box worth ticking.
Mitsubishi has also sweetened the offering for the 2012 model, adding electric power steering, new design wheel covers, rear spoiler, chrome plated door inner door handles, dark sliver interior trim, new design seat fabric and soft touch door trim with leather insert.
While those additions to the interior are certainly a marked improvement over previous-generation Lancers, the Sportback interior can only be regarded as acceptable when compared with a number of rivals in the small car segment.
The Lancer’s instruments and switchgear are well laid out and easy to read, but soft-touch materials on the dash, or anywhere else except a small part of the door trim, is non-existent.
There are a few interesting metallic-look accents around the cabin, such as the dark silver insert across the width of the dash and door trim, but that’s about it; the remainder is a mix of various hard plastics.
A tilt-only steering wheel isn’t ideal, either, to find the perfect driving position, though at least the seats are comfortable and cosseting.
Bluetooth connectivity with music streaming is also standard, and one of the easier car-pairing set-ups: simply tap the phone symbol on the steering wheel, mutter a few voice commands, and then, presto, you’re good to go.
Higher-grade Lancers gain the premium Rockford Fosgate audio system, while our base model ES only comes with a non-descript four-speaker system. That’s no reason for folks to despair, though, even audiophiles; this entry-level unit actually produces an exceptional sound (via Bluetooth streaming) that would see us call the public relations team at Mitsubishi just to check that it wasn’t in fact the higher-end unit.
Under the bonnet is Mitsubishi’s 2.0-litre MIVEC engine, which puts out a fairly ordinary 110kW of power and 197Nm of torque on regular unleaded fuel. In this guise it’s nothing special, with an even less inspiring engine note that is decidedly metallic in sound.
Much of the blame for this rests with the optional continuously variable transmission in our test car (standard equipment in the ES variant is a five-speed manual transmission). While there’s no desperate shortage of engine torque, the noise and commotion between 3000 and 4000rpm is best described as a symphony of a blender on ice-crushing mode and a petrol engine remote control car with its throttle wide open.
There’s little to get excited about on the road. Electric power steering systems can be tuned to produce accurate and quick response steering, but this is not one of those. There’s too much weight in the steering at low speeds and it feels numb and lifeless on turn in at any speed.
The Lancer Sportback doesn’t feel that composed negotiating bends. Despite the ES model weighing only 1355kg, the car produces enough weight transfer for this to feel like a heavier vehicle that it actually is.
Mitsubishi has got plenty right with safety, though. Active and passive safety systems are well catered for on the Sportback, with no less than seven airbags, including driver’s knee airbag, as standard kit. There’s also a 5-star ANCAP safety rating.
If you can manage a manual transmission, then it’s also quite well priced at $21,690, for a car of these proportions. Otherwise the Lancer Sportback ES’s best attributes are its spacious cabin and versatile cargo space.
Mitsubishi also provides Australia's best new car warranty with 10 years or 160,000 kms on the powertrain, 5 years or 130,000 kms as the new car warranty and 5 years on corrosion, which in itself is a strong selling point.
There’s certainly plenty on Mitsubishi’s ‘Need to do’ list if it is to make the 10th-generation Lancer a more competitive rival for the growing list of commendable small cars on offer.