Go West: Mitsubishi Lancer (2003)
There’s something chic about Europe these days. People don’t go for ice cream, they’d prefer gelato. Tommy Hilfiger is passé, Mango is in. The Euro’s hot, while the Dollar’s like cold turkey playing in the winter snow. Yet, despite all of this trendy hipness towards the Big E, the most we can aspire to, at least when it comes to cars, are pictures on rip-off British magazines and a television show with a certain Jeremy Clarkson in them.
European has become the ‘it’ word when it comes to PR and ads—everyone of them seem to have it. They have Peugeot, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Seat and the entire lot. Sure, and we have ‘Euro-inspired’ British-tuned suspension of the Chevy (Daewoo) Optra. Wait just a darn minute here—if Koreans could claim that they could make a bonfire sound like an infernal blaze, what’s stopping the Japanese? They’ve been making utterly reliable, refined and comfortable cars since you were wearing diapers. With the countless Toyotas, Nissans, et.al. churned out by mechanized factory slaves, surely Nippon-san should have come out with one compact sedan that’s as good on the twisty bits as a Peugeot. Err…no. For all that talk about B-road munching ability, they most Corporate Japan could manage is a slight peek in the right direction—that is until an extended drive in the new Mitsubishi Lancer MX.
My expectations weren’t too high with the new Lancer, honestly. I’ve loathed the previous one, and I still do—I could name it as the worst compact sedan I’ve driven this side of a Volkswagen (Seat) Polo Classic. This is certainly not the case with the new one. The nicely chiseled masculine looks do help, but the bottom line is that this is a car that’s ten times—no a hundred times better than the one it replaces. If the Corolla were the consistent honorable mention, the Lancer finally got its dunce cap off. Despite the lack of emphasis towards its new-found handling prowess, I believe that this is the most sorted out in its class, balancing both comfort and downright mechanical grip.
The Lancer, despite being equipped with a new petrol 4G—whatever they call it engine, is not remarkably fast, refined or even frugal. Show it a highway or a drag strip, and it will probably piss in fright next to an Altis, Civic or Lynx. Point it towards Monaco, and the tides will turn. How Mitsubishi engineers did it is a mystery, but this can run circles around the Honda Civic. Whereas ‘the respected one’ will end up bottoming out during hard cornering, the Lancer will eat them without even blinking. There’s some flex, sure, but body roll is superbly controlled and shifting lateral loads are well balanced. If all of this sounds Greek, let me illustrate: Civic equals London bus; Lancer equals go-kart. You get the picture.
What’s better is that you can share the fun with three of your friends. Why three? Well, the Lancer’s so akin to being European that it has inherited the rather claustrophobic interior space. Then, there’s the case of lacking cubby holes except for the standard issue cup holders. Still, I don’t really mind. That’s a good excuse to use your girlfriend to hold up your favorite drink while you put on the mileage. Except for this fact, your friends will give nothing but thumbs up, as there’s nothing to fault with the interior bits: everything’s screwed the right way up (finally). The light tan plastics are a pain to clean, but what the hell, they uplift the cabin (and your spirits) quite well, making the Astra’s look even more like an undertaker’s office. This along with the huge greenhouse makes the Lancer feel airy and fresh—dainty, if you will. The switchgear’s all proper now, feeling as if they came from Mitsubishi rather than Mattel.
However, not everything’s all Japanese logic in here. The only gripe is the overly complicated in-car entertainment system. At first glance it looks easy: push the ‘Source” button to start the music or the movie, or whatever. Suddenly, after a few seconds of motorized whirl, an LCD screen is revealed. Eyebrows are raised. Changing CD tracks require careful manipulation of the ‘Control’ button. Push. It changes CD. Push. It changes CD again. Grrr…this requires more precision than a brain surgery. What’s worse is that you have a choice of two equally irritating screen savers: static dolphins or art deco cubes. Hide the screen, and you forfeit the ability to change radio stations when Justin Timberlake decides to pop-up. Oh dear. Still, you have to credit the folks at Mitsubishi for two things: giving the Lancer the best GPS navigation system imitation this side of Merc’s equally complicated COMAND system, and including a 40K stereo as standard.
Back to more important matters, the MX’s main entertainment is still the driving experience. Besides the class-leading handling, the addition of a standard CVT transmission with 6-speed mode deserves a salute from all petrol heads. Using belts and pulleys rather than gears, the MX has enough smoothness as a genuine Italian gelato. Of course, this ability gives the Lancer a very European trait: excellent touring comfort. Using the engine’s new-found low-end torque (another very European character, that useable pulling power), the CVT is responsive and perfectly matched. I’ve managed to put on the mileage, savoring every nook and cranny of Metro Manila and then some, and each time I climbed out, I felt as every bit as fresh as when I stepped in. There’s no sensation of having your innards all shaken and stirred. Not bad, not bad at all.
Nonetheless, I just couldn’t resist griping for a bit more power for the Lancer. The previous generation, with the Cyclone-series engine had more horses, though on the coarse side. Still, it could prove its mettle—imitating a scaled-down, old fashioned American muscle car. The new one does pretty well in single and double-digit speeds. Then it starts to struggle. Sliding the shifter to ‘Sport’ does little. You’ll see the revs climb up, but the one that counts, the speedo, rarely hits above 120 km/h. Brrr…push, push, push. Nada. It’s like trying to move a mountain with your bare hands. It just won’t go any farther—Scotty has already given you all of the warp engine’s reserve power.
Trying to brake at such speeds would require a good set of stopping power, which the Lancer luckily has. Despite the absence of ABS, EBD or any of those acronyms, the experience is sure-footed with well-weighted pedal feel and minimal brake fade. Of course, that’s on a dry surface. Things turn a complete 180-degrees on the wet though, as the lack of safety devices prove too much for the disc / drum brake combination of the range-topping MX, despite the rather grippy Goodyear 55-series tires. If there’s one thing I’d forego on the specs sheet, I’d trade in that darn in-car entertainment package for an ABS system. Sure the ABS will be of use only one percent of the time, while you can be delighted with watching Meteor Garden during everyday EDSA traffic, but that one percent can spell the difference between walking out of an accident and ending up in the morgue.
By Ulysses Ang | Photos by Ulysses Ang