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Mitsubishi Lancer


There are some cars that you find yourself really wanting to like.

Cars that have an often indefinable something that strikes a chord. It may be the styling, the range of standard equipment, the car's touch of individuality or its level of performance.

Whatever it may be, you find yourself wanting to like the car; but often there's something that disappoints and leaves you stopping short of wholeheartedly falling in love with the car.

For me, Mitsubishi's $32,800 Lancer MR Coupe is such a car.

I think it looks great with nicely-balanced coupe styling, a purposeful-looking yet reasonably discreet body kit and a functional-looking yet stylish bootlid spoiler.

The lines have a harmony and balance about them that eludes the four-door sedan. Like the three-door Mirage's, the Coupe's lines make a promise of driving fun.

Either car looks good enough to form the basis for a Mitsubishi World Rally Car. The Coupe reinforces that. The body kit and the 14-inch diameter alloy wheels give a strong hint of performance and handling finesse.

Sadly, the latter just isn't there.

And no amount of Mitsubishi hyperbole can make us change our minds about the Lancer Coupe's disappointing dynamics.

The product information leaflet says that this is a "hot-blooded Lancer that's a close relative of the high-achieving Lancer Evo (winner of innumerable World Rally Championship events). You can see that heritage in the sports styling with rear spoiler, alloy wheels and side skirts. You can also feel it in the responsive performance of the 16-valve 1.8-litre MPI fuel-injected engine and the taut controlled handling."

Well, it is a relative of the Evo, its performance is good, but the handling is less than taut.

The car understeers strongly, and feels clumsy and unsettled when being pushed moderately hard on the sort of demanding, winding roads that its looks suggest it would revel in. It doesn't change direction well on constantly twisting and turning roads, and gives you the feeling that it's a nano-second or so behind your intentions.

And that's a great pity, because with a better-tuned chassis this handsome, good-performing two-door would be a very desirable vehicle.

The problem would seem to lie in the way the car's suspension has been specified. That sporting Lancer Coupes are available is indicated by the presence of innumerable GSR grade Japanese used import versions.

NZ market Mitsubishis have often disappointed because of their lack if handling tautness and finesse. The Mirage of 20 years ago was a case in point. I've covered more than 180,000 kilometres in early 1980s Mirages, finding them peppy, comfortable and easy to drive, but severely lacking in handling ability. Yet around the same time Australian motoring writers were extolling the handling of the Colt-badged Mirages sold across the Tasman. The Australian Mirages had uprated suspensions and that, apparently, made the difference.

The news about the Lancer Coupe, though, is not all bad.

We've already talked about it good looks. Add to them brisk, willing performance from the 86kW/161Nm four cylinder 1800cc motor and a nicely-matched set of ratios in the standard four-speed automatic gearbox (the manual gearbox version is no longer listed by Mitsubishi NZ).

The auto gearbox offers two driving options: set and forget, or clutchless manual shifts.

Putting the lever into Drive lets the car select its own gears which made for relaxing commuting (if there can be such a thing) in Auckland's nightmarish rush hour traffic.

Push the lever across the gearshift gate and the gearbox operates as a sequential, clutchless unit. And that's perfect for country road running. In fact the ability to shift down instantly makes a big difference in demanding going and means you're never caught a gear higher than you want to be.

This sort of gearshift is more normally found in bigger-engined more powerful cars than the Lancer Coupe. And sometimes it can seem like a mere marketing gimmick.

In the Lancer, where if the were a manual you'd be shifting gears more frequently to keep the car in the power band in spirited driving, the quick-shifting manual sequential mode makes a lot of sense, and enhances the car.

Steering is precise and weights-up nicely on the open road. The car is easy to manoeuvre in tight parking lots and has a good 10-metre turning circle. We found visibility to the rear was good despite the coupe styling.

Mitsubishi says that sporting as the Coupe is (and we take issue with that on handling grounds), it "sacrifices nothing in the way of modern motoring comforts."

They're right on the button with the latter. The sports-styled seats are comfortable and supportive, and the driver's seat and steering wheel can be adjusted to achieve the best possible seating position.

Side window glass is tinted, central door-locking is standard, and the windows and mirrors are electrically-operated.

An efficient manually-controlled air-conditioning system is standard which is a bonus in hot weather and an essential in the window-fogging humidity of a New Zealand winter. The good quality standard sound system is Compact Disc-compatible.

Safety equipment includes dual airbags and anti-intrusion beams in the doors.

The brakes are a ventilated disc front/drum rear set-up. We found them strong and fade-free

The cabin is nicely-trimmed and has a feel-good atmosphere. There's plenty of space in the luggage boot and the rear seatbacks can be folded forward to increase cargo capacity.

The Lancer Coupe is an appealing, tidy package that is let down by its chassis dynamics.

With some suspension tuning and maybe a move to 195 width tyres it could indeed become the sporting coupe its looks hint at.

In its current specification, the Lancer MR Coupe is an almost kind of car: almost sporty but not quite. It's a car we really wanted to like very much but which left us feeling disappointed when it failed to deliver the handling enjoyment that its looks and its specification suggested it might.

AutoPoint road test team.

Auto Trader New Zealand