Borrowed Time: Mitsubishi Lancer (2002)
C’mon, quick—name me a 1.6-liter sedan. Time's up—let me guess, you just thought about the Corolla—or the Civic? Exalta? Lynx? Does that round up the segment…wait, oh yes, we forgot the veteran of the group, the Lancer. Left to collect dust in a hidden corner of the Mitsubishi lineup, it has been ages since we’ve seen a new body-shell for their former mainstream challenger.
Be that as it may, it seems that some people still get duped by this stone-aged transport. So what’s the big deal with this metal tub? Could it be that the Lancer is so good that a loyal following ensued constant sales figures, or could it be that people just don’t know anything better?
Sadly—I have to say it’s the latter. Though indeed the Lancer MX does have some good points, it feels every bit as old and feeble as some people in politics. However, unlike middle-aged men who rely on tummy tucks and facelifts, Mitsubishi doesn’t see a fountain of youth in sight for this car.
However, there’s only one good point worth mentioning about the Lancer MX, and it’s the list of standard features. For an admission fee of P 790,000, potential saps get front fog lamps, an all leather interior, 2-DIN stereo cassette with CD player, dual airbags, keyless entry and some interior plastic trim that Mitsubishi calls carbon fiber (and then there’s the wood—but I’ll reserve that for later). Other aspects of the car fall under the ‘you wouldn’t care’ and ‘you wouldn’t want to know’ categories.
Since we got the ‘however’ out of the way, let’s get straight down to business. The bottom line with this car is that it’s old, and like the undying Audi A4 (the one being sold locally), this car requires carbon dating.
From the outside, the Lancer has this ‘you wouldn’t care’ look on it. Sure it’s got that toothy chrome grille and mutli-reflector lamps for both headlights and taillights, but doesn’t everybody nowadays? The proportions and the angularly chiseled body still look quite refreshing thanks hugely to Tommi Makinen’s run as the Lancer’s WRC rally driver (yes, kiddies, as a lesson in ancient history, he did drive a Lancer before).
The inside story is the same banana. For Mitsubishi owners like me, most of the switchgear are remarkably familiar except for their positions. At the same time, top management wanted to relieve the company’s stress problems by having the designers play a bit of Lego with the Lancer’s interior. The result is a car that digs deep into every conceivable parts bin era. At the same time, the surfaces don’t feel consistent—or convincingly put together for that matter. Some are exceptions like the logical ventilation controls, but the rest have as much feeling of genuine quality as Barney is a real dinosaur.
It’s surely not right to judge this car by the current era then, you may say. However, think about it. The era of the Honda Civic SiRs, Corolla GLis, Sentra Super Saloons and even the Mazda 323s saw interior with more pizzazz and emotion. Take note: a Corolla GLi interior having more emotion than the Lancer MX—that’s how it is inside here.
Things went from bad to worse with the addition of some odd-looking interior bits you’d swear came from a surplus shop somewhere. It starts out well as the MX is covered with good quality leather all over. At the same time, this Lancer iteration has enough plastic wood to win over Greenpeace activists. Everything from the steering wheel to the center console to the door trim is all covered in the stuff. If done correctly, it could have appeared downright respectable and decent, like in the Nissan Cefiro. However, with the case of the MX, it turns out as a cheesy exercise. In addition, the MX has faux carbon fiber trim thrown in as well—fully loaded it is, but it’s not done in a classy manner.
Ergonomics and seating position are standard Japanese fare: perfectly tuned for the Asian man. The seats are not overly sporty, but comfortable enough even for extended city driving. Although there are some gripes, they are severely minor and mentioning it here would make the MX hide itself in shame and lessen the already few friends that we have. However, I have to mention that the air conditioning is excellent and effective against the midday Manila heat.
Being six years old, the Lancer’s driving characteristics feel just as ancient. The engine has a healthy does of 124-bhp and does the 0-something stuff quite well. However, mated to the 4-speed slush box, acceleration doesn’t impress. Though there’s the Porsche style INVECS-II sports shift, it reacts just about faster than you could say Mississippi ten times backwards. Best to leave the automatic in ‘auto’ mode then.
Like every other sedan in its segment, the Lancer corners tidily and securely with controlled body roll. However, this car suffers from an unresponsive ‘dead zone’ near the center, so it would take more steering input to twist this car into action. In addition, the steering ratio isn’t that quick, so it hampers the car’s tight cornering and maneuverability.
The Lancer’s all-independent suspension set-up (MacPherson up front and Multi-Link at the back) are the right ingredients for a well-balanced ride and handling characteristics. Sadly, the Lancer lacks the former as the relatively sporty 195/55 VR 15 tires, stiffly set springs and small body size contribute to the car’s jittery ride, especially for the people at the back (and no, this one doesn’t come with sick bags as standard). The right stuff was chosen too for the MX’s brake system with four-wheel discs with 4-channel ABS as standard. Sadly, the pedal has a mushy feel that hampers a confidence-inspiring performance.
With credit to the folks at Mitsubishi Motors Philippines (MMPI), they did everything they could to hide all the facial wrinkles and beer gut that’s beginning to show. In fact, this latest iteration is the best looking and best sorted out of all the past generation Lancers put together. However, whatever they do—mechanically, the Lancer suffers hugely from underpinnings and a powerplant that perform like a blast from the past.
What makes matters worse is with enough rally credentials to make its other segment rivals quiver in fear; the company just can’t take advantage of this. Sure, the MX may look like the Evo V and VI, but in the end they’re miles apart. That’s a far cry from a company that used to originate the concept of factory-tuned cars in the Philippines, as well as cause people to think in awe with just three letters: GTi.
There’s no surprise then that the Lancer MX landed in the forgotten realm of the economy sedans. With more refinement and the better (or at least equal) specifications of its newer rivals, this car just doesn’t cut it. It may have been on the forefront half a decade ago, but as technology advances at an exponential rate, this car comes out as a lame duck.
I wouldn’t like to say that the Lancer is a bad car—but it just isn’t a good one. Mitsubishi should stop polishing their bayonet-tipped rifle. In order to survive this market, they need to bring out their latest laser-guided machine gun; else they might end up quacking headless all day long.
motioncars.com would like to thank
Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Incorporated for accommodating us for the Mitsubishi Lancer MX test drive.
By Ulysses Ang | Photos By Ulysses Ang and Jason Ang
Originally Published in the September 2002 Issue