The Mitsubishi Lancer is now six years old, having launched locally in 2007, which makes it the oldest small car available.
It is cheap and roomy, so as a budget family conveyance the Mitsubishi Lancer offers simple virtues that have helped maintain its popularity. A low base price has also kept its hand high in the fleet and rentals bidding wars.
Wrinkles have emerged with age, however, and they’re most clearly exposed here in the regular range flagship, the Mitsubishi Lancer VRX Sportback.
Priced from $29,990 in manual form, the Lancer VRX Sportback – also available as a sedan for no extra cost, and with an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) for $2000 extra – is the pseudo-sporty specification that squeezes between $23,990 2.0-litre Lancer LX and $39,990 turbo Lancer Ralliart.
The Lancer VRX was upgraded with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine in 2010 – it previously had a 2.0-litre – and since the demise of the quasi-luxury Aspire earlier this year, is the sole specification level to use the engine.
MY14 upgrades have seen Isofix child anchorage points made standard across the range, while the previously optional seven-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation is now standard on the Lancer VRX. It joins an equipment list that includes 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, spoiler, alloy pedals, reversing camera, leather seats with electric slide, height and tilt adjustment, climate control air conditioning and Rockford Fosgate premium audio system with nine speakers and subwoofer.
The competitor set for the Mitsubishi Lancer VRX includes the Holden Cruze SRi-V ($26,490), Honda Civic Sport ($30,990), Mazda 3 SP25 ($31,490), and the recently launched Hyundai i30 SR ($27,990) and Nissan Pulsar SSS ($29,240).
All, as with the Mitsubishi, include larger four cylinder engines than regular models in the range, but only the Cruze and Pulsar are turbocharged, and only the Mazda has a larger non-turbo engine than the Mitsubishi – 2.5-litres versus 2.4 litres.
The Lancer VRX is also among the best equipped cars for the money. Although the i30 SR, Pulsar SSS and 3 SP25 offer bi-xenon headlights and an extra zone for the climate control, only the Hyundai gets electric seat height adjustment standard, and then only for the driver. Mazda also lists leather trim and Bose audio as an option. Worth noting, too, that only Hyundai can match the standard driver’s knee airbag and five-year warranty of the Mitsubishi, though the i30 SR has unlimited kilometre cover versus a 130,000km maximum for the Lancer.
Although the Lancer VRX cabin is well specified, it is sorely lacking in terms of both finish and refinement.
What were acceptably durable plastics in 2007 – hard, but textured – now look and feel dated. Flimsy controls and variable shut lines are matched by the aftermarket-looking Mitsubishi Multi Communication System (MMCS), which includes unintuitive voice control-activated Bluetooth connectivity and cheap graphics (even the start-up phase that shows a globe spinning behind a tri-diamond badge was glitchy in our test car, as though the computer couldn’t keep up).
The Rockford Fosgate audio system is strong, though, and the electrically-adjustable driver’s seat allows a decent driving position that is lacking in lesser Lancer models that feature manual adjustment, although the seat itself is mounted too high, even in its lowest position. The leather trim also feels more like vinyl and the front seats are flat.
Further back, the Lancer still offers the most rear legroom in the small car class, with a flat but expansive bench. The hatch of the Lancer VRX Sportback tested here delivers more loading practicality than the sedan, but it eats into rear headroom, which is worse than the sedan and below average for the small car class. Rear-seat air vents are also lacking in all Lancer specification levels.
Less luggage will fit into the Lancer VRX Sportback, too – 345 litres versus 400L for the sedan – though it still offers competitive boot space and a handy lever in the boot to auto-fold the seatback.
Where the sedan isolates occupants from road noise that comes up through the rear wheelarches, thanks to a fixed parcel tray and rear window, the Sportback has a removeable parcel shelf and a liftback that keeps noise out only via rubber seals.
The Mitsubishi Lancer in any specification is among the noisiest models in its class, both in terms of wind and road noise and engine intrusion.
On coarse chip surfaces the Lancer VRX Sportback is louder than many modern light hatchbacks, with a constant drum from the wheelarches and whistle from the door seals in particular.
The 2.4-litre engine produces 125kW of power at 6000rpm, which is no better than what Hyundai and Ford achieve from their 2.0-litre engines in the i30 SR (129kW) and Focus Trend and Sport (125kW). But torque is what the ‘big block’ engine in the Lancer delivers best, its healthy 226Nm at 4100rpm being only 1Nm behind the even larger 2.5-litre engine in the soon-replaced 3 SP25.
Even without glancing at the on-paper torque figure, the Lancer VRX feels muscley and willing down low in the rev range around town, which aids driveability. It is tractable enough in taller gears to mean the long-throw but decently direct five speed manual doesn’t need to be rowed constantly. Use lower gears and heavy throttle, and the Mitsubishi Mivec engine delivers sporting (but not sporty) performance in the 1370kg liftback.
Refinement is the engine’s downfall, however. It is coarse, grainy and buzzy when revved, even streaming some vibrations through the manual shifter and steering wheel to further expose this generation Lancer’s vintage.
The engine and big wheels may verge on sportiness, but the steering and dynamics of the Lancer VRX do not.
Its steering is far too heavy around town, particularly when there’s little reward for the effort. The rack is slow, meaning plenty of arm twirling to get into tight inner-city parking spots.
A blunt chassis means the Lancer VRX relies mostly on tyre grip to string corners together quickly, but the cheap Nexen rubber fitted to our test car were squeal-prone and failed to offer the adhesion required even in the dry.
The Mitsubishi understeers early, and then offers little of the front-to-rear balance that makes its rivals – particularly the Cruze SRi-V, i30 SR and 3 SP25 – rewarding to drive.
This is despite fairly firm spring and damper rates that only provide adequate ride comfort around town. Although the Lancer VRX deals decently with road irregularities at lower speeds, it becomes fidgety at medium speeds and lacks body control on rough country roads.
In many ways the Mitsubishi Lancer VRX is the pseudo-sporty hatch of the old school: grunty and roomy, but basic and lacking a depth of talent.
For around $5000 less it would make a stronger case for itself against lesser powered small cars, but its dated interior and refinement, and below average dynamics makes its $29,990 pricetag difficult to justify.