Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback — A great comeback

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If you’ve crossed Mitsubishi off your shopping list when looking for a compact sedan or hatchback, you may be making a mistake.

We understand how easy it has become to overlook this Japanese automaker that has fallen on hard times in the United States. With every passing month it seems that Mitsubishi's market share shrinks. You say, thanks but no thanks, you will stick with successful entities such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

But low sales numbers in North America do not necessarily equate low value or poor product; for example let’s take a look at the 2010 Lancer Sportback.

The Sportback is a new addition to the compact Lancer lineup for 2010. It looks good. Its styling out shined the all-new Honda Accord Crosstour in our driveway during our test week.

The two vehicles are not competitors, the Lancer Sportback being a compact sloping roof hatchback, the nearly full-sized Crosstour a new-kind of crossover with a fastback design. We are just saying, Honda’s styling department could take a few pointers from Mitsubishi.

The sloping roof — a design trend that has caught on in recent years with wagon-like vehicles — cuts into cargo space, but it makes a positive visual statement. And when compared to the Lancer sedan, the Sportback offers considerably more cargo area, particularly with the second-row seats folded.

Mitsubishi dropped the previous-generation Sportback edition following the 2004 model year. While direct competitors Mazda with the Mazda3 and Subaru with the Impreza have had hatchback variants, the Lancer has soldiered on but only with a sedan configuration for the last five years. The return of the Sportback is a welcome one.

The new Sportback delivers 53 cubic feet of cargo area, a starting price under 20 grand, and offers two engine configurations. It’s a great way to make a comeback.

We drove the standard-engine model, a GTS with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 168 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. Our test car was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, which we found easy to shift with good clutch feel. It can also be purchased with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The GTS manual starts at $19,910 including destination charge. The CVT-equipped edition begins at $20,190.

For the fast and furious among us, a Ralliart version — same setup as in the sedan — brings a 237 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four paired to a dual-clutch manual transmission with paddle shifters and all-wheel drive. Be prepared to lay out $28,310 for these go-fast goodies.

We’ve driven the Ralliart version in sedan form, and we found it a blast to drive. But for our money the GTS Sportback version makes a solid statement for the single-car family, or as a second car for the two-car garage.

Be assured the four-cylinder is energetic. This is no dog. It’s capable of pulling from a standing start to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds with the manual. The CVT is probably about a second slower, but still well within the modern parameters of adequate.

In fact, we found the GTS manual a blast to drive. Keep it in the optimum gear and the Sportback will reward you with plenty of go for the dough in all situations.

The standard sport-tuned suspension provided sharp handling and proved to be an entertaining companion on some weekend road carving. Yet we found the ride acceptable, not too harsh, and suitable for family hauling. We found the body structure to be solid based on a couple of our railroad-track torture tests.

Road and wind noise is well controlled giving the Sportback a relaxing environment for long-distance travel.

There is a downside — the 2.4-liter engine is rated at just 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. We figure with a curb weight of just over 3,000 pounds, the Lancer should do better.

While we can’t speak to the optional navigation ($1,999) layout, the gauges and climate and audio controls in the standard edition were easy to read and easy to use. It’s a fairly simple, standard layout that works well.

The climate controls are self explanatory with three large round knobs for temperature, fan speed and air direction. Likewise, the radio has standard presets and an adequate readout panel for satellite radio information. A clock is embedded in the radio readouts and an outside temperature gauge is provided inside the speedometer oval.

There are several dashboard cubbies good for storing a cell phone or other small things. A small bin is also provided between the seats.

While Mitsubishi still tends to use a lot of hard plastics in the interior, we had few complaints because they at least looked good; and fit and finish in our test car was excellent.

We found the driving position suited us, but one front-seat passenger complained that she could not get her manually controlled seat at the right height. We wonder if she would have had the same problem behind the wheel. She didn’t want to try.

Rear seat legroom is adequate, and we discovered that it’s possible to slide your feet far under the front seat, making the accommodations more comfortable. The rear center seat position, as in most compacts, is for emergency, short-distance use only.

Safety is adequately addressed by Mitsubishi with front and front side airbags, knee bags, full-length head-curtain airbags, antilock disc brakes, and stability control. One test showed that the Lancer will stop in a short 115 feet from 60 mph. That’s excellent for a car in this price range.

The standard equipment list is impressive and includes 18-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, keyless entry, cruise control, power windows and locks, a six-speaker audio system with CD/MP3 and steering wheel controls, and Bluetooth.

Although our test car did not come with navigation, it included the other two pricey options. The Sun and Sound package includes a 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate with nine speakers including a subwoofer. We recommend it. The package, which also includes a power sunroof and keyless ignition, is $1,900.

Our test vehicle also came with touring package, which includes HID headlamps, and heated leather seats at a cost of $1,500. Total cost for our test car, including destination charges came to $23,310.

We like the styling, utility and the upscale feel of the Sportback and we think it shows well against the competition. It is certainly worth your time to find that Mitsubishi store and test the Lancer Sportback.

Base price: $19,910; as driven, $23,310
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 168 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 167 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Length: 180.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,098 pounds
Turning circle: 32.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 53 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 7.7 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Mazda3 hatchback, Subaru Impreza hatchback, Toyota Matrix

The Good:
• Edgy styling
• Decent performance and handling
• Practical utility

The Bad:
• Cargo space compromised by form over function styling

The Ugly:
• Poor gas mileage for 4-cylinder engine