Review: 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer – Click above for high-res image gallery

As any kid learns on Christmas morning, expectations are a bitch. And once you've made the transition to adulthood, things don't change. It's widely accepted that most of us who pray at the altar of the car Gods are simply eight-year olds with a bit more expendable income... and for the most part, that's true. There are a few synapses that get fired when we overcook a particular corner in our daily rides, the same ones that were triggered when we yanked up on the makeshift e-brake of our Big Wheels. So when we took delivery of a 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer ES, we were expecting handling and motivation to match the new Lancer's aggressive styling, even in this just-better-than-base model. After seven days of merciless flogging, we were left with a sport compact-sized hole in our hearts, just like when Santa didn't leave the Super Nintendo underneath our tree.

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Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc/Weblogs, Inc.

Our 2008 tester came in ES trim, slotting in between the base DE and the current range-topping GTS. Like all three models, the ES comes equipped with the 2.0-liter MIVEC-equipped inline four making 152 hp at 6,000 rpm and 146 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,250 rpm. Thankfully (sort of) our Electric Blue loaner was fitted with a five-speed manual, saving us from the drudgery of dealing with Mitsubishi's CVT.

Viewed from afar, the new Mitsubishi Lancer is a pretty stunning piece of kit, particularly when compared to some of the other moribund offerings available in the segment (we're looking at you Corolla). The aggressive shark snout, raked and reversed Audi/VW grille and angry eyes flanking the sides of the fascia, all give potential owners something to look forward to when leaving home in the morning. As it's been pointed out before, the Lancer's tail lamps are a not-so-subtle rip from the Alfa Romeo 156, but we could think of worse design cues to ape.

Unfortunately for us, the majority of the press shots we've seen, and the only Lancer that's graced Mitsubishi's show stand, has been the body-kit equipped GTS model. That includes 18-inch ten-spoke wheels (versus our model's 16-inch rolling stock), front and lower air dam extenders and a rear spoiler, all of which adds considerably more visual weight to the Lancer's look. The lack of a spoiler wasn't much of an issue, but the prominent proboscis wasn't as attractive without the lower body extensions for balance.

Lifting on the color-keyed door handle and making our way inward reveals that Mom was right; it's what's on the inside that counts. Just like the high school heartthrob whose waist size was equivalent to her IQ, the Lancer's interior immediately confirms that serious concessions were made on materials, despite the sleek body that surrounds them. While the steering wheel is perfectly sized both in dimension and girth, everything else is a considerable let down. The seats are sorely lacking in lateral support, feeling like they were made of left over cardboard, cut-rate cloth and ball-point springs, while the quality of the door and dash material is the same as dollar store Christmas ornaments. An even lower grade of craptastic plastic is affixed to the stereo, window and climate control switchgear, providing about as much tactile feedback as pressing "C-12" on a vending machine for a Snickers.

The few shining pearls found amidst the detritus include the clean gauge cluster and accompanying multi-function LCD nestled between the speedo and tach. The 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate sound system, with its ten-inch subwoofer mounted in the trunk (optional with the "Sun and Sound" pack) lets your mind temporarily escape the Lancer's penalty box, but even those few highlights weren't without their detractors. The read-out on the dash and the stereo was all but invisible in anything but low light, and the auxiliary input jack mounted in the very back of the center console only accepts RCA plugs (red and white) versus the industry standard 1/8-inch adapter.

Once underway we were ready to accept the Lancer's interior material foibles as standard economy car fair, but things simply didn't click – primarily with the manual transmission. Think back to the first driving arcade game you played that had a shifter. Remember the sensation of rowing through four gears feeling absolutely no attachment to anything mechanical? Add a fifth cog and even less feedback and you're driving the Lancer. It's that bad and it left us (gulp) wanting to at least experience the six faux ratios on Mitsubishi's CVT.

Motivation from the 2.0-liter four-pot is adequate most of the time, but isn't up to snuff when partnered with the ton-and-a-half body. Merging onto the freeway is best done with no one barreling down the right lane or traffic crawling along at morning commute speeds. Since this will be the natural environment for Mitsubishi's entry-level econobox, we were somewhat disappointed, but there was only nominal doubt that the Lancer could put up with most daily slogs, assuming that passing maneuvers could be performed with plenty of pre-planning.

While getting down and dirty on a few back roads is likely to be out of the average Lancer owner's purview, we still had to see how this new chassis could cope with the twisties. After all, it does serve as the basis for the Evolution X and the forthcoming Ralliart, so a quick look over the spec sheet shows that everything seems to be in order. A MacPherson strut setup keeps things suspended in the front, while a multi-link rear arrangement handles the bounce and rebound duties out back. The chassis itself is incredibly well sorted. Bending resistance and torsional rigidity have both been increased by over 50-percent from the outgoing model and it shows, but everything Mitsubishi shoved into the wheel wells is pure trash. The springs may as well be made of red licorice rope and the struts filled with marshmallow fluff. The body roll is unbearable and when coupled with the all-season rubber, taking a corner at speed makes for a sphincter-straining, full-body workout.

The brakes do an admirable job of hauling down the Lancer in a straight line – once. But after repeated bursts to scrub off speed before reaching a corner, things got mushy quick. The Power Package-equipped ES came with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), but blessed are those that left-foot brake. After a particularly spirited jaunt through a series of tight bends, we rolled to a stop on the side of the road and found that not only was smoke billowing from within the front wheels, but the engine was stuck at 4,000 rpm. We're unsure as to what may have caused this temporary electronic confusion, but after about ten seconds, all was well and we trundled along, content that we wouldn't be testing the Lancer's boundaries any further.

And that may be the biggest issue with the 2008 Lancer; it's a vehicle that doesn't really want to be driven. Granted, a commuter car is strictly an appliance, but that doesn't mean that some measure of engagement should be left out of the equation. For a nominal premium over our Lancer's price ($18,115) you could avoid the dread of the daily grind behind the wheel of a Honda Civic or Mazda3. Both are more composed, more focused and ultimately, more rewarding. And until Mitsubishi recognizes that there's a middle ground between the magnificent (Evo) and the mundane (Lancer), then budget-minded drivers would do best to look elsewhere when shopping for their next sub-$20k run about.

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Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc/Weblogs, Inc.

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