Review: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS
By Chris Haak
If you ask automakers what the hot ticket is likely to be in the next several years, they might say that premium compact cars are a potential growth area. After all, with gas prices approaching the $4.00 per gallon line in many parts of the US, uncertainty in the Middle East, and increasingly-stringent CAFE standards on the horizon, we’ll have more small cars in the new-car mix.
With more small cars, that means more variety in the style, powertrain, equipment, and even size. Yes, there are varying degrees of small. To some traditionalists, the Chevy Cruze is small; to a Smart ForTwo driver, the Cruze is a perhaps large, wasteful near-midsize car masquerading as a small car. There are also now cheap small cars – like the base Nissan Versa, and small cars that are more premium – like the Buick Verano. The Mitsubishi Lancer GTS reviewed here kind of falls into the middle of the spectrum. It’s a cheap car with some premium features.
If you happen to look through your local newspaper’s auto section, and if you happen to have a Mitsubishi dealer in town, you might see a Lancer for as low as $15,955 including destination. But step up to the GTS trim level, add the GTS Touring Package, and your car is suddenly $8,550 (54 percent) more expensive.
The transition from Mitsubishi’s least-expensive US model to a quasi-luxury car is not exactly a thorough one. Sure, there are nice features like HID xenon headlamps, leather seats, a 9-speaker, 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate sound system, Bluetooth, rain sensing wipers, leather seat[ing surface]s, auto on/off headlamps, power glass sunroof, and multi-spoke 18 inch alloy wheels. Really, the only basic luxury-car option missing from the test vehicle was the $2,200 Navigation Package, which also includes a 40 GB hard drive for storing music.
But it’s hard to hide the Lancer’s economy-car roots. Despite the leather seating surfaces, the material on the seats is fairly low-grade leather, and the seats themselves are somewhat lacking in lateral support. Save the steering wheel, center armrest, and door armrests, nearly every surface in the interior that isn’t a window or seat is constructed of hard, unforgiving plastic. That being said, this car is $24,505 out the door without including any rebates or negotiation, and starts just over $20,000 if you skip the leather, HIDs, and Rockford-Fosgate audio, so please remember to keep your expectations in check.
I was pleased with the level of connectivity in the audio system; it features Bluetooth streaming audio, Sirius satellite radio, 6-disc CD changer, AM/FM, and an auxiliary input jack that can play an iPod. I spent most of my time in the car using either Sirius or Bluetooth audio with my iPhone. Pairing the phone was pretty easy, and the Mitsubishi-exclusive (at least, I think it’s an exclusive) “punch” function in the audio system continues to amuse. If you want to terrorize pedestrians and fellow motorists with over-emphasized bass coming from the huge subwoofer in the Lancer GTS’ trunk, crank up the punch. The more normal treble/bass settings, however, left a bit to be desired on the sound clarity front.
In the Lancer GTS’ favor, however, is that it drives pretty well, which is something of an accomplishment considering that its platform was co-developed with the Dodge Caliber’s. However, once DaimlerChrysler and Mitsubishi parted ways in 2004, Chrysler apparently made significant changes to the platform. Chrysler shouldn’t have, as our review of the Caliber found the the car did not particularly excel at anything dynamically. The Lancer, on the other hand, was somewhat fun to drive, with accurate steering that communicates the car’s relationship with the road fairly well, and a good ride/handling compromise.
I find the current Lancer’s looks to be conservatively handsome. Its shape is a bit more interesting than the Chevy Cruze’s, but less dynamic than the likes of the Mazda3 or Hyundai Elantra. The deep character line that cuts immediately below the door handles reminds one of the 2004-2008 Acura TL, and its grille design avoids the largemouth bass look of the Lancer Ralliart and Evo models by only having chrome around the border of the upper portion. Eighteen inch diameter wheels (shod with 215/45-18 tires) do a nice job of filling the wheel wells while not being low-profile enough to adversely impact ride or handling. My test vehicle’s Rotor Glow orange metallic paint certainly added to the excitement quotient as well. Mercifully, the 2011 Lancer GTS I tested did not have the giant decklid wing that many other Lancer GTSs do; instead, its Touring Package replaced it with a subtle lip spoiler instead.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I will: I didn’t realize that I was driving a CVT for the first few miles I was piloting the Lancer GTS. I just assumed it was a conventional automatic, but I was driving the car conservatively and not paying particular attention for shifting or engine sounds as I acclimated myself to the Lancer’s controls. After a while, the first time I gave it more than a conservative dose of throttle, the engine spooled up and stayed there as the car accelerated.
The Lancer GTS with the CVT has metal shift paddles behind the steering wheel (they’re fixed and do not move when the wheel is turned), and they’re in the easiest-to-use configuration of right-paddle-for-upshifts, left-paddle-for-downshifts. Of course, unless you need to hold a particular gear, paddle shifters and “fake” fixed gear ratios in a CVT-equipped car are somewhat ridiculous. Logically, it would seem that the car should accelerate faster just leaving it in “Drive” and letting the CVT keep the car in the thick of its powerband would yield faster acceleration than letting a “gear” change drop the engine out of its peak power band. However, if you must use the paddles, they do move from ratio to ratio very rapidly.
Coupled to the CVT is a 2.4 liter four cylinder rated at 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque. It’s not going to win any drag races (or rally races like its big brother, the Lancer Evolution might), but it does produce power adequate for moving the car. Stability control intervenes before you do anything dangerous. Long before you do anything dangerous.
In a week with the car, covering about 250 miles of mixed driving, I saw an overall fuel economy number of about 25 miles per gallon. The EPA rates the Lancer GTS 2.4 L CVT at 23 MPG in the city and 30 MPG on the highway. Though the rated numbers are better than the 2010 model’s by one MPG on both city and highway scores, they still lag the class leaders. A 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is rated at 24/36, and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is rated at 29/40. In the Lancer’s defense, though, it out-powers the Chevy and Hyundai by about 20 horsepower and has a significantly larger engine (a 1.4T from the Chevy and a 1.8 from the Hyundai).
Pricing for the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS is pretty straightforward. It starts at $20,295, and my test car had the $3,300 GTS Touring Package (710 watt audio system, Sirius, HID headlamps, rain sensing wipers, auto headlamps, heated front seats, power glass sunroof, and rear lip spoiler), plus $150 for the premium Rotor Glow (orange) paint. Add destination/handling for $760 and you get $24,505. For that price, you’re getting most of the Lancer Ralliart’s and Lancer Evolution’s comfort and luxury features (with the exception of the sport seats), but skipping the chassis and powertrain upgrades – including AWD – that make those other two Lancers special, and much more expensive.
For that kind of scratch, you can get a decent midsize sedan, and a segment-leading C-segment car. The Lancer GTS is fun to drive and reasonably powerful, but when you run the car through TrueDelta.com, I’m not sure that it’s worth $2,849 more than an Elantra Limited (which also looks better, in my opinion, and has a regular six-speed automatic in lieu of the Mitsu’s CVT). It is however, probably worthwhile when comparing against the Honda Civic EX-L, which comes in at $2,345 more expensive than the Lancer.
Thanks to a coming wave of new, better-equipped and safer C-segment cars, buyers will have more and better choices than they’ve ever had in the US. I certainly wouldn’t count out the Lancer from my consideration list if I were shopping in this segment, but a few more MPGs and a bit more pricing flexibility may help the Lancer stand out in a soon-to-be-crowded field.