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car review

2012 Mitsubishi Lancer

A low-flying airplane fills the rear-view mirror. It's an OPP aerial surveillance Cessna 206, we're guessing, closing in to make positive i.d. before alerting a pursuit car.

Thing is, we're only doing 110 km/h, just barely over the limit, and the OPP surely have bigger fish to fry than this Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWC.

In fact it's not a Cessna in the mirror. It's the very hunky rear spoiler that dominates the view through the rear window.

Manufacturers pop big spoilers on sporty sedans the same the way rock stars have been known to stuff their pants, to overstate their potential, and this one establishes the SE AWC as the boy racer entry in Mitsubishi's sizable Lancer lineup.

An enlarged engine and all-wheel-drive deliver on its promise, with rewarding (if not sizzling) performance, a modest thirst for regular gasoline, and four-door sedan practicality.

At $24,698 including destination charges, the SE competes with such winged wonders as Mazda3 Sport GT, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and the pricier Honda Civic Sedan Si.

Frankly, I hate the Cessna-sized spoiler. I do like the rest of the car. The way it drives is what I like most of all, but one needn't be a driving enthusiast to be charmed.

It looks cheeky as all get out. The octane blue pearl paint perfectly suits this model's light-hearted nature. And the finish is near flawless – surprising at this price point. A chrome frame around the front grille tidies up its proportions so effectively that every Lancer should get the same treatment.

Comfort for four is exceptional. Start with the commodious back seat – foot room, headroom and knee room all are more generous than in many larger cars. A fold-down central armrest offers two cup holders, and this is but the first of noteworthy hospitable features abound throughout the interior.

The door pockets are configured to hold bottles, console cup holders are nicely positioned, and two bins in the console hold all kinds of stuff. The glove box, though, is too small to be of much use.

Premium-level equipment includes heated seats and Bluetooth 2.0. Steering wheel controls cover cruise, telephone and audio volume and selection. Mercifully, there is no touch screen taking one's eyes off the road: knobs for climate control are intuitive and include the rare combination of floor-level heating and defrosting functions.

Grab bars above all four doors come in handy during the brisk cornering that is encouraged by the firm suspension, or to relieve fatigue during long boring highway travel.

Did we say this car is a treat to drive, as opposed to being driven in? It is. You begin by positioning yourself just so relative to the controls, made possible by the six-way adjustable driver's seat and tilting (but not telescoping) steering wheel.

The steering is light but direct. The SE AWC changes direction with ease, cornering flat without leaning, yet is capable of erasing pavement joints and sharp bumps.

The standard automatic transmission – continuously variable, maximizing fuel efficiency – will pain those sporty drivers who triumph in changing gears, no matter the wear on their clutch legs in stop-and-go traffic. The SE AWC is not available with a manual transmission, unlike its direct competitors. The automatic is not out of character for this car, as a modern take on fun driving, totally undemanding, easy to enjoy.

Magnesium alloy paddles under the steering wheel allow shifting among six simulated gears, for those who enjoy the sense of control, but one needn't bother. Accelerating to 60 km/h in 4.2 seconds in fully automatic mode is only a tick off our Mercedes-Benz C250 coupe's test time some weeks ago. The 2.4-litre engine's 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque offer ample propulsion.

Wheelspin is on tap for those who enjoy wasting their tires and attracting police attention at intersections. On the other hand, engaging all-wheel-drive erases the wheelspin for faster launches and security on slippery surfaces. This part-time system isn't in the same class as the full-time AWD in the Ralliart or Evo models, but is useful nonetheless. Mitsubishi makes the case that front-drive operation uses less fuel, while all-wheel-drive is at hand when its superior traction is a benefit.

The Lancer GT, which sells for $900 more than the SE AWC, serves up more luxury features with leather upholstery and automatic climate control. But its only advantage in power is in its 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system; its smaller, 2.0-litre engine with 148 hp and 145 lb-ft renders it less responsive than the SE AWC.

What's not to like in this car? You have to think hard to come up with a complaint. The radio reception is weaker than in most cars I drive – stations fade out at the eastern edge of Toronto that normally remain clear.

And the ever-present feeling of being followed creeps me out. I never entirely come to accept the spoiler that is such an essential part of the SE AWC's character.


Type: Four-door sedan

Base price: $23,098; as tested, $24,698

Engine: 2.4 -litre, DOHC, four-cylinder with variable valve timing

Horsepower/torque: 168 hp/167 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.1 city/6.8 highway; in our suburban area driving, 9.8; regular gasoline

Alternatives: Honda Civic Sedan Si, Mazda3 Sport GT, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Volkswagen GTI