A mere shell of what promise it once possessed, the three-diamond brand has become entirely too complacent selling mediocre cars with low transaction prices. But we've always been smitten with Mitsubishi's Lancer, at least in high-po Ralliart and Evolution forms. Grin-inducing turbo hot rods, both of them.
So it was with more enthusiasm than we expected that we hopped into a 2014 Lancer GT to see if this more mainstream version of Mitsubishi's compact sedan can channel some of its faster brothers' mojo.
What is it?
Sharing, curiously enough, a platform with the unimpressive Chrysler 200, the Lancer is available in a remarkably wide range of flavors between sedan and five-door Sportback bodystyles.
At the top of the range, performance-oriented buyers are offered the 237-horsepower Ralliart or the blistering 291-pony Evolution. Either one is a thrill on a track or a curvy road - even an unpaved one.
On the other hand, price-conscious Lancer shoppers are directed into the 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter-powered Lancer ES. From there, a 2.4-liter four-banger putting out 168 ponies powers either the front-wheel-drive GT or the all-wheel-drive SE. With more power - and a higher price tag - than a typical compact car, the Lancer GT bridges the gap between compacts and midsizers. At least in theory, that is.
There's no getting around the fact that our GT tester, at $22,240 as-tested (with no options) is awfully expensive for a car only slightly peppier, not usably larger, and not better equipped than the segment's best compact cars.
For 2014, higher-spec Lancers add a new touchscreen audio system but otherwise remain mostly unchanged aside from revised fabric for their seats.
What's it up against?
Attempting to be more upwardly mobile than most compacts, the Lancer GT squares off against the segment's best: Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda Mazda3, Kia Forte and Volkswagen Jetta.
What's it look like?
On the market since the 2008 model year, Lancer's look has grown familiar. That said, styling is actually one of the four-door's biggest assets.
Chiseled and muscular, Lancer is remarkably dapper and sophisticated. In fact, it's a shame that Mitsubishi has abandoned this distinctive, square-faced design language for something more organic and, frankly, more forgettable with its latest Outlander crossover.
Further looking the part, Lancer GTs bring with them special 18-inch alloy wheels (wrapped in narrow 215-width rubber) and a plucky decklid spoiler reminiscent of that found on the Evo.
And on the inside?
Let's start with the positives. For one, Lancer boasts a driving position that means business. A meaty three-spoke steering wheel sits in front of magnesium paddle shifters that wouldn't feel out of place in a Ferrari. Then there's the "just right" relationship between the steering wheel, the driver's seat and the go and stop pedals. Clearly, this car has some performance DNA.
We'll move on to the dashboard, which is more of a mixed bag. Not particularly interesting to look at, it's nonetheless almost free of ergonomic flaws. Everything, aside from an audio on/off and volume knob clearly meant for right-hand-drive markets, is within easy reach. Big, easy-to-read gauges flank a nice LCD screen accessed by convenient steering wheel-mounted switches. The new touchscreen audio system works well enough, but desperately needs a few conventional buttons for commonly-accessed functions. This is a complaint we can levy on more cars than just Mitsubishi's lineup, however.
Magnesium paddles and curiously high-grade soft-touch trim adorning the front door cards aside, the Lancer's interior simply screams low-buck. Knobs and switches work with all the sophistication of a used blender found at a garage sale, while some plastics are downright atrocious. The cheap carpet, which wouldn't be appropriate for a college kid's apartment, is especially heinous.
It's as though Mitsubishi thinks nobody will notice or care. We beg to differ. For $22,240, you deserve a well-finished interior.
You also deserve more equipment. That kind of dough gets you a Ford Focus with leather seats or a Chevrolet Cruze with a moonroof. And those are great cars that hardly need to sell on "value."
But does it go?
With 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft. of torque on tap, Lancer GT is among the segment's most powerful offerings. Unfortunately, that grunt is poorly mated to a continuously variable transmission. In stop-and-go traffic, it's difficult to accelerate smoothly thanks to a poorly-tuned throttle, which either gives nothing in the way of power or snaps heads back into headrests. Moreover, sudden stops in our tester induced a shudder from the drivetrain unbecoming of a modern car.
Those quirks aside, the Lancer began to redeem itself once we snuck out of traffic and onto our favorite back roads. In GT spec, its suspension is stiff, but we generally found it to be well composed over undulating terrain. In the twisties, the narrow tires gave it a delightfully tossable feel that, when combined with what's arguably the best and most communicative steering in its class, reminded us that this GT isn't far removed from the fire-breathing Evo.
But going back into the real world, we again found ourselves disappointed with the Lancer's lulling gearbox, droning engine and apparent lack of sound deadening. A comfortable highway companion, this car is not.
Moreover, the Mitsubishi's 23/30 mpg fuel economy rating is lower than most midsize sedans with 100 more horsepower. On the bright side, we did net 30 mpg on a highway trek - but that's the same kind of fuel economy we've gotten out of much larger and more powerful vehicles.
Leftlane's bottom line
Feeling more like a $16,000 car than a $22,000 one, the Lancer is in dire need of an interior facelift and a new powertrain.
Given its recent track record, Mitsubishi isn't likely to oblige. And that's a shame, because this once-great brand doesn't have much going for it today.
2014 Mitsubishi Lancer GT base price, $21,445. As tested, $22,240.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.