By Charles Krome
After years of lackluster sales—highlighted by a puzzling inability to build on the success of one of the most driver-friendly cars in America—Mitsubishi is in the midst of reinventing itself for the U.S. market. The automaker is stopping production of the Galant mid-size sedan, Endeavor mid-size crossover and style-over-substance Eclipse, and focusing on three key nameplates: The Lancer family of compacts (including the Evolution and Sportback), the Outlander crossovers (among them the recently Savant-reviewed Outlander Sport) and the Mitsubishi i, the automaker’s urban-oriented electric vehicle.
The emphasis clearly is on providing a more fuel-efficient driving experience, even to the point where the future of the Evo is/was an open question. It makes sense given the current industry outlook, and I had a chance to gauge how things are going recently when Mitsubishi was kind enough to loan me a Lancer Sportback GTS, with a full tank of gas, for a week of driving.
As you could guess by the name, the Sportback is a five-door hatch version of the Lancer sedan, and it bears a surprising resemblance to the new Ford Focus in some angles. A key is that while most hatchbacks on the road today seem to be relatively “tall”—I’m thinking of cars like the Honda Fit, and even the new Ford Fiesta—the Sportback and Focus have a low and wide appearance that adds a distinctly athletic flair to their exteriors. The look of the Sportback isn’t as highly detailed as that of the Focus, but it’s Audi-esque grille treatment, narrow headlights and roof-mounted spoiler all work to increase that aggressiveness. The side character line that runs through the car’s door handles is a nice touch, too, although it’s also something you see on a fair number of other vehicles (including the Focus).
Less successful is the design of the B pillars. On many vehicles today, the pillar area where the front and back doors meet is done in black, and the tops of the doors themselves are black as well, creating a sort of black-out effect that makes a single, unified design element out of the side windows. On the Sportback, the top of the doors remain body color, so that the black pillar looks like a misplaced vertical stripe. Also, the shape of the hood creates a definite challenge in terms of minimizing the gap between it and the car’s body panels, which is especially disappointing because Mitsubishi uses a black rubber seal at the leading edge of the hood to effectively minimize that gap. One last nit: The doors didn’t travel very easily on their hinges, and required a too-firm slam to close.
The interior was more of a mixed bag. The main facing of the dashboard was the kind of hard black plastic that really has no place in what’s otherwise a relatively premium compact, and the cut lines around the center air vents/audio system looked a bit sloppy. On the other hand, I really liked the horizontal trim along the bottom of the dash, a cross-hatched glossy plastic that made for a refreshing (and no doubt less-expensive) option to wood or “piano black” trim. And there were just enough “chrome” accents for the pieces to complement the interior, not overpower it. The seats were very comfortable as well.
Unfortunately, the interior amenities weren’t quite up to snuff, perhaps reflecting the fact the car’s architecture has been around for a while now. Thus, some of the expected interior technologies seem to have been retrofitted in unexpected ways. For example, while there were audio auxiliary jacks in front of the gearshift, the USB port was located in the glove compartment. And while the Sportback had keyless ignition, it wasn’t of the push-button variety. Instead, there was a plastic stub integrated over the ignition lock, and you turned that stub thing just like a key to start the car. The seats also had an effective height-adjustment feature—it was a hand-pump kind of thing that inflated the seat bottom to different degrees.
The Sportback also had Mitsubishi’s “FUSE Hands-free Link System,” which is essentially a junior version of Ford SYNC that offers voice control for iPods and Bluetooth-compatible phones. Unfortunately, I’m cell-less at present, and the system didn’t seem interested in communicating with my iPod. Admittedly, I’m one of those nut-cases who has +5,000 songs crammed into the thing, and that’s overloaded similar-type systems in the past. But I do have to point out that the Ford Fiesta I’m driving now recognizes my iPod (and all of the music on it) immediately.
And on the plus side, music-wise, the Sportback had a Rockford Fosgate sound system with a separate woofer mounted in the back, and it didn’t take much to get the bass thumping hard enough to shake the entire car—if you like that kind of thing.
The Sportback’s sportback is another overall benefit, adding significant interior volume and versatility, enhanced by 60/40 split folding rear seats. The only problem was that there was neither an interior-release mechanism nor a release-button on the key fob. The only way to open the hatch was to make sure the car’s doors were unlocked and then use the exterior release.
But this being the sportier “GTS” trim, I suppose the real differentiator here is supposed to be the Sportback’s driving experience. The motivation comes from one of Mitsubishi’s 2.4-liter I4 powerplants, with the company’s “Innovative Valve-timing Electronic Control” system. It’s good for 168 hp and 167 lb.-ft. of torque, which represents a notable advantage over the starter Sportback’s 148 hp/145 lb.-ft. of torque. To put this into context, the Focus offers 160/146, the Chevy Cruze delivers 138/125 and the Hyundai Elantra specs out at 148/131.
The added torque in the Sportback is instantly noticeable and provides relatively strong off-the-line performance, although the car’s CVT puts a bit of a damper on things. I’ve long been on record that a CVT-equipped sports car is a contradiction in terms, and nothing about the Sportback’s powertrain changed my feelings. And note that the car gets the exact same combined mileage number regardless of whether you pick the CVT (23 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined) or the five-speed manual (22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined). I got right around 20 mpg, but I was flogging the car unmercifully.
Road feel was slightly compromised by low-profile tires, but the GTS trim does away with the standard electric power steering in favor of a hydraulic setup, so there was none of the disconnectedness you sometimes get with the former systems, and Mitsubishi did a nice job with the suspension, too, and this is where the Sportback’s close relationship with the Evo comes to the fore. The GTS model has front and rear stabilizer bars, a MacPherson strut front suspension, and a multi-link setup in the back, and it held onto the road very well. As a result, I was always confident in the Sportback’s capabilities, something not always the case even in vehicles that objectively outhandle the Mitsubishi.
The biggest downfall as far as driving goes was that there was a significant amount of “play” in the pedals, especially the accelerator. It felt like I could press down a good half inch or more on the gas pedal before the engine noticed what was happening—luckily, a good, firm stomping usually avoided that problem.
All told, at $24,755 (which includes $3,300 worth of options and a $750 destination charge), the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GTS makes an interesting alternative to all-new compacts like the Focus, Cruze and Elantra, provided you value performance above refinement and fuel efficiency, and it’s a viable option against a similarly equipped Honda Civic Si or Suzuki Kizashi if you absolutely can’t afford the extra cash necessary to get into the latter two.
But as for me, I’d just go for the Kizashi at a lower content level.