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December 6, 2011 > Auto Review: Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback

Auto Review: Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback

Practically Sporty

When you're retailing, say, Ford F150 pickup trucks or Toyota Camrys, you basically just round 'em up and move 'em out. These models sell in the U.S. in the hundreds of thousands every year. "What color would you like?" is what the salespeople ask their numerous customers.

What if you're Mitsubishi? Things aren't going as well in the U.S. these days, with the sporty Eclipse in decline, the Galant a perennial also-ran and SUV sales stagnant. But there are some bright spots, including the upcoming "i" all-electric models, the brisk-selling compact crossover Outlander Sport - and the Lancer Sportback.

The Lancer is its most ferocious as the Evolution, with its 291-horsepower turbocharged engine, Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, and such. But the Lancer itself, in sedan or Sportback form, is a nice car that is overshadowed by flashier competition.

My Graphite Gray test car looked attractive and had the solid, well put together look of a BMW sedan of a couple of generations ago. The big mouth grille is the new face of Mitsubishi, in the style of Audi, but the general proportions are restrained and handsome.

Inside, the lines are straight, surfaces no-nonsense and hard for the most part; chrome and bling are at a minimum. At first glance, this seems a little Spartan, despite stylish twin gauge nacelles, but, frankly, that's the way 3 Series BMWs have looked for years and nobody has complained. The dash in this car actually does bow out in the center like recent Bimmers. In truth, what matters when you're driving are controls that work the way they're supposed to, information when you need it and reasonable quiet so you can hear the stereo. That unit, by the way, is a 140-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with digital signal processing, MP3 playback capability and four speakers. The Lancer's interior does just fine without overtly styled twists and turns or elaborately crafted dash art.

Funny, but my car came with a hidden USB port. I couldn't find it! But on the last day I had the car I consulted the user's manual. The port was hidden above the inside of the glovebox. I had to reach in and feel for it. Odd - but it means you could hide your iPod away - a convenience.

The ES model, like mine, is new this year. It comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine instead of the previously standard 2.4-liter, mated to a five-speed manual or an automatic transmission. My tester had the automatic, which, as a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), churned out usable ratios without fuss and never left me sitting. The manual, which I sampled in a sedan previously, would be a little more fun.

The ES gets electric power steering, which helps to improve the car's overall fuel economy by eliminating the parasitic drag on the engine that a hydraulic power steering system creates.

The GTS version moves up to a 2.4-liter four with 168 horsepower and adds 18-inch alloy wheels. The Ralliart uses a 2.0-liter engine with a turbocharger to put out 237 horsepower.

Average fuel economy is rated at 25 City and 32 Highway, average 27, and that's about what I got. Because the miles-per-gallon computer kept zeroing out, it's hard to say. My last run was 28.9 mpg... not bad.

The EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers for this car are 9 for Air Pollution and 7 for Greenhouse Gas. Those are very good scores, putting the Lancer in the SmartWay category. The 2.4-liter engine gets a few mpg lower ratings but has similar EPA Green scores.

The real bonus of the Sportback is its generous hatchback. It rises up high - well above head clunking level and a quick drop of the rear seats opens up a surprisingly large and flat carpeted space. When the rear seats are up and the cover is in place, you get the security of a good-sized trunk. It's a best-of-both-worlds deal.

I had a chance to test the brakes when a deer jumped in front of the car - on my street! Yes, they worked just fine, preventing a collision.

Prices for Lancer Sportbacks start at $17,890, including shipping. At $20,105, my tester included optional 18-inch alloys from the higher-level models, rear disc brakes and stabilizer bars for higher performance, a sunroof and a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel. It felt like something of a bargain. I saw another one in Wicked White that looked good, too.

Lancer Sportbacks come with a great warranty: 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain, five-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper, seven-year, 100,000-mile anti-perforation, and five years of free roadside assistance. You can't lose.

You just have to keep an open mind when you're out shopping. First, figure out where the nearest Mitsubishi dealer is located, and head over there.

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