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2007 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF.–The Evo is coming, the Evo is coming!

Published March 3, 2007
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SANTA BARBARA, CALIF.–The Evo is coming, the Evo is coming!

Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself here. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is the legendary little all-wheel-drive road rocket, arch-rival of the Subaru WRX STi, that's been denied us here for so long because its front end, designed around its turbocharger's intercooler, couldn't meet Canada's bumper standards.

We can expect to see Evo X (as in 10) for sale here in February 2008, and that's thanks to a complete overhaul of the Lancer lineup, nose and all, for model year 2008.

The Sportback and Ralliart versions will also take longer to arrive, but the entry-level Lancer sedan is here now – and it's a considerable improvement over its predecessor.

Where the old Lancer was boxy and boring, the new version's styling stands out; and while the old one got you from A to B, this one makes it fun to get there.

Prices rise slightly above the 2006 levels (due to the 2008's early debut, there technically is no model-year 2007 Lancer), ranging from $16,598 to $24,798; Mitsubishi representatives say the company's policy is to undercut its rivals by 5 to 10 per cent.

Appropriately enough, the company introduced Lancer to the press alongside its equally new Outlander crossover SUV: both ride on an all-new platform, dubbed the GS, the basic architecture of which also underpins the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass.

Overall, the new Lancer is wider and has a longer wheelbase than the old one, but it's slightly shorter. The body is also 50 per cent stiffer than the old Lancer, which contributes considerably to its better handling – it's even more rigid than the current Evolution.

Its 2.0-litre four-cylinder aluminum engine is also partially shared, coming from the World Engine collaboration of Mitsubishi, Hyundai and DaimlerChrysler. The block is used by the other manufacturers, but its MIVEC valvetrain (for Mitsubishi Innovative Valve Electronic lift Control, its version of variable valve timing) is unique to the company.

That engine now makes 152 hp, to the old version's 120 hp, and 146 lb.-ft. of torque to the previous 130. Those numbers are important because Lancer is aimed squarely at Mazda3, which has similar pricing and 148 hp in base form.

All models come with a five-speed manual or Mitsubishi's first optional continuously variable transmission (CVT); the top-line GTS includes Sportronic manual mode – six pre-selected points where the transmission "shifts" – with wheel-mounted magnesium paddles.

The five-speed's throws have been shortened from the previous model; it doesn't snick into each gate as precisely as Mazda3's does, but it's fine for this entry-level segment.

CVTs are becoming increasingly common, as they help the engine make the most of its power while conserving fuel. The Lancer's is smooth, with no rubber-band feel; it doesn't whine, and within a short time I'd forgotten it even was a CVT, since it works very well.

As with the shifter, handling falls somewhat shy of its Mazda3 goal, but it's still pretty impressive: it corners almost flat, and I had enough confidence in it to take it hard around a twisty mountain road that lacked shoulders or guardrail en route to the fast way down the cliff. The ride is sporty-car firm, but bumps don't protrude badly into the cabin, and only a couple of brutal potholes produced any wheel hop.

The brakes bring it to a halt with confidence, but even though all models have seven airbags, including a company-first driver's knee bag, only the top two of the three trim lines get anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. Adding it to the base model means a package that also includes air conditioning, power locks, driver's auto-up window and floor mats.

Other features on the base DE trim include 16-inch steel wheels, power mirrors, variable intermittent wipers and power windows. The mid-range ES adds 16-inch alloy wheels, folding rear seat (which doesn't have flip-up cushions, so it's not completely flat), cruise control and power locks, while the GTS adds sport-tuned suspension, a ridiculously tall rear spoiler, fog lamps, 18-inch rims, sport seats, and Bluetooth phone system.

For the first time, Mitsubishi Canada answers directly to Japan, instead of the U.S. head office, and since we're no longer the 51st state, Mitsu Canada can determine the best strategy for buyers. This should help to avoid situations such as when the U.S. office temporarily cancelled the Sportback, a model that sold fairly well in Canada, because of the traditional American hatred of hatchbacks and its poor sales there.

Inside, Lancer is roomy for its size, even in the rear seat, where I was comfortable with the front seat pushed all the way back.

The dash design is handsome, with large, simple controls; panel fit was poor in places, but the vehicles were all pre-production, so I'm expecting better when they come to market.

A short evening jaunt revealed that Mitsubishi has fixed the illumination: the previous Lancer's dash lights were so dim they were difficult to see.

For most buyers, the question with any car isn't just how good it is, but if it's worth the money. For the Lancer, I'd say the combination of performance, handling and features is right in line with the sticker: it isn't a benchmark, but it can compete on its merits at an intelligent price.

The company is expanding its previously spotty dealer network, and now has eight in the triangle from Oakville to Pickering, and up to Thornhill, which is good news for a company that, frankly, I figured was done in Canada a few years ago.

And it has an ace in the hole with its warranty: five years or 100,000 km basic, while the powertrain's covered for 10 years or 160,000 km.

This Lancer should be the entry-level shot-in-the-arm Mitsubishi needs to get back on track. Oh, and did I mention the Evo is coming?


wheels@thestar.ca; jil@ca.inter.net