I was 17 years old and busily preparing for my final school exams when the current-generation Mitsubishi Lancer first went on sale in Australia.
Little did that pimply teen know that in eight years he’d be road testing that same car – albeit refreshed with a few updates over that timeframe.
Back in 2007 the Lancer shared floor space in Mitsubishi showrooms with the likes of the 380, Colt and Grandis – all now long discontinued. Indeed, key Lancer sedan rivals such as the Mazda 3 and Kia Cerato have advanced through three generations since then, and the Holden Cruze was still 18 months away from our shores.
In the highly competitive small car class, the Lancer is well and truly showing its age, and disturbingly for Mitsubishi, there’s still no sign of a successor, meaning it’s likely to have to fight on into double-figure production years – something typically reserved for agricultural 4WDs and commercial vehicles.
What can the Lancer possibly bring to the table, then, in a market segment that’s moved on so dramatically?
Firstly, in entry ES Sport automatic specification tested here, it’s cheaper than all its mainstream sedan rivals, with its $20,990 plus on-road costs price tag undercutting the Honda Civic VTi ($21,990), Holden Cruze Equipe ($22,090), Mazda 3 Neo ($22,490) and the Toyota Corolla Ascent ($22,990), to name a few.
In this company, it’s the only vehicle to come standard with climate control (as well as that very big – and very Lancer – rear spoiler) and is matched by only the Corolla to offer a driver’s knee airbag. Other standard features include 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
Though maybe acceptable last decade, the Lancer ES Sport’s lack of rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera, a touchscreen media system, and even a flip-fold key leaves it a generation behind today’s competition.
Despite lacking those modern features, the Lancer’s dashboard is still attractive, clean and very user-friendly, and not overcomplicated with unnecessary buttons. The voice-controlled Bluetooth phone system is a nuisance to pair the first time, though cleverly and quickly remembers you each time you start the car after that.
There’s also a handy slot for your phone in the centre tunnel, as well as a USB port in the glovebox to charge it. Decent storage spaces in the centre box, door bins and under the centre stack provide plenty of spots to stash wallets and other loose items.
Speaking of loose, there’s a tacky feel to some of the plastics around the gear lever, and the doors take a good push to close properly or else they flop into the half-closed position. Fortunately there are soft-touch materials on the door liners and sills.
The driver’s seat is well padded and comfortable but not overly supportive, and the steering wheel’s lack of reach adjustment will mean not all drivers can find their sweet spot.
Kneeroom and toeroom for back-seat passengers are both excellent while headroom will be fine for most, though the steeply diving roofline may force taller passengers to sit forward in their seats. The seat bases are comfortable and long, providing good under-thigh support. No rear vents may mean the electric rear windows get a workout in summer.
The 60:40 split-fold rear seats allow owners to expand the Lancer’s carrying capacity, which could be handy given that, at just 400 litres, its boot is tighter than those of some small hatchbacks, and even 50L smaller than the more compact Mitsubishi Mirage sedan’s. Annoyingly, the Lancer also lacks an external boot release button, forcing you to open it from the driver’s seat or press the button on the key.
Turning the key in the ignition rouses the Lancer’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. Far from the most refined unit in its class, Mitsubishi’s ageing engine is coarse and loud compared with its more sophisticated rivals, and sounds strained when pushed to the higher regions of its rev range. (Higher than average wind and road noise is also present at highway speeds and on coarse surfaces.)
Despite this, the engine still boasts competitive outputs of 110kW at 6000rpm and 197Nm at 4200rpm, pulling confidently from down low, cruising effortlessly on the highway, and responding well to calls to overtake at higher speeds.
The Lancer’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) can take a second to react to sharp prods of the throttle pedal and can occasionally shunt, but largely forms an effective and mostly inoffensive partnership with the engine, particularly when driven smoothly.
Likewise, the Lancer’s ride is at its best at lower speeds, where it does a decent job of smoothing irregularities in the road. It’s less convincing when driven quicker around town and on country roads, however, feeling busy on rippled and patchy roads, falling loudly into potholes and over road joins, and loping over speed humps and undulations with exaggerated nods of its nose.
At a tick over 3.5 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is very slow, forcing you into plenty of arm twirling around town and when parking. It also lacks consistency, feeling light and loose around the centre position and increasingly heavy the more lock is applied.
And despite its links to the Lancer Evolution, there’s little encouragement or reward for pushing the handling prowess of the entry-level small sedan, which can’t match the segment’s dynamic leaders (such as the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus) for agility, balance or control.
Mitsubishi’s strong aftersales program sweetens the deal somewhat. Standard is an above average five-year/130,000km warranty, a year of free roadside assistance, and four years or 60,000km of capped-price servicing for a highly competitive $1040.
The Mitsubishi Lancer is soldiering on, and its low purchase price, cheap servicing and reputation for reliability and longevity will get it across the line for some buyers.
None of that changes the fact that it’s now a generation (or two) older than it’s rivals, however, and as a result lacks the modern features, interior space and finish and dynamic refinement of the likes of the Mazda 3, Corolla and Focus.
Photography and video by Mitchell Oke.