In the compact sedan market, the top spot has been dominated by the Honda Civic for – well, almost forever. It is the most popular car sold in Canada although Hyundai's Elantra has been giving it a run for its money recently.
Whatever is left over is taken up by the Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Mazda3 and so on. This is a fiercely competitive market and any car maker wanting in on the action had better bring its 'A' game.
With a couple of qualifiers, Mitsubishi has done this with its Lancer sedan. Hardly more than a blip on the screen, the Lancer is every bit as good as a Civic, Elantra, Corolla or any of the rest. In some respects, it's better.
Available in six different trim levels, with a couple of drivetrain choices, the Lancer is priced competitively ($15,498 to start), and actually comes with a slightly more powerful base engine than the Civic. The standard equipment level is comparable, and so are the interior dimensions: the Civic has 2,678 litres of passenger volume, while the Lancer is good for 2,648; and trunk space is 348 litres versus 353 litres. A slight edge to the Civic here, but not by much.
But what the Lancer offers that you can't get with a Civic is all-wheel drive. Available with the SE and GT versions, this gives the Lancer an additional dimension of performance and is unusual in this end of the market (unless you opt for the Subaru Impreza).
My test Lancer, a GT AWC version, had this feature, and while I didn't use it, I loved the fact that it was there, just the same. And this is not just your run-of-the-mill AWD system that cuts in when the weather changes. There are actually three settings: 2WD, 4WD Auto and 4WD Lock, which means that theoretically at least, the Lancer AWC could handle some pretty nasty conditions, if it had to.
It also comes with a larger engine; the base powerplant is a 2.0 litre that develops 148 horsepower, while the AWD versions are fitted with a 2.4-litre that develops 168 horsepower. Again, an extra dose of performance. The downside is that you can only get a CVT with the larger engine – regrettable. And, of course, fuel economy is affected; the AWD version is considerably thirstier, especially on the highway. Natural Resources Canada tells us that an average driver's fuel costs for a year for the GT AWC would be $2,116, compared to $1,806 for a FWD with a manual transmission. The Civic? About $1,600, equipped with the five-speed automatic.
Having AWD also bumps the price tag up considerably; the GT AWC starts at less than $28,000, but you get a full complement of features and modcons. For example, a climate control system, heated front seats, Sirius satellite radio, leather upholstery and a power sunroof. Think of the Acura CSX in terms of interior accoutrements.
The Lancer also has something else the Civic lacks: peace and quiet. Honda has made good progress stifling NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) volume levels with the Civic, but it is still a comparatively loud car on the highway. The Lancer is more placid inside and assembly quality seems to be superior. Much as I like the Civic, the Lancer has a more substantial feel to it and belies its relatively humble status in the marketplace. It feels more upscale than it is.
That said, it needs a facelift – badly. This body style is getting a long in the tooth and, in the car business, time stands still for nobody. Check out the sleek styling of the Civic, Elantra and Focus, for example, and the Lancer looks frumpy in comparison. Sticking a cheesy spoiler on to the rear deck doesn't help.
And a word about the CVT. In this application, it seems to be better behaved than others I've driven lately. I remain a non-believer as far as this snowmobile-inspired transmission is concerned. Most of the time, it's snatchy and unpredictable, but in the Lancer GT, it's a reasonably good fit. Car makers swear up and down that manufacturing costs are not a factor when it comes to a CVT versus a conventional planetary gearbox, and that fuel economy is the number one consideration, but I don't believe a word of it. The Civic has a five-speed automatic and its fuel economy is actually superior to the Lancer with a CVT. So there.
But Mitsubishi's challenge with the Lancer is not what kind of transmission to use or how to improve its looks, but how to get the public to sit up and take notice. Honda sold almost 50,000 Civics in Canada last year; the Lancer, meanwhile, isn't even on the board, and doesn't make the Top 10.
It deserves better.
2013 Mitsubishi Lancer GT AWC
Base Price: $27,998; as tested: $29,345
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 168 hp/167 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta, VW Golf, Kia Forte