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March 25, 2003

Review: 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer MX

When a promised gift arrives later than it should, it can be frustrating and exciting at the same time.  The same sense of anxious anticipation pervaded our wait for the 2003 Lancer.   This was not helped by the sight of gray-market Evo VIIs burbling around Manila.  The Lancer's rivals had certainly advanced the 1.6 liter game, and, good or bad, we wanted to know how the Lancer would stand up to the challenge. As the New Year rolled in, Mitsubishi Motors eventually delivered.

What a package it is.  We would normally tear up the wrapper to get to the good parts but in this case, the covering itself warrants a good deal of attention.  Angular lines define the Lancer's new countenance.  A large honeycomb grille is flanked by large clusters containing four lamps.  That grille is now integrated into the hood, and bulges and a center crease flow rearward, a return to the muscular styling that we've sorely missed since the Lancer GTi.  The bumper houses a pair of standard fog lamps.

You won't mistake that front for an Evo, but squint at the rear and you'll see the family resemblance. The taillights are clear-and-red trapezoids, with a pronounced ridge that continues into the trunk.  A “bee-sting” antenna pops jauntily up from the rear portion of the roof.  The sheet metal, plastics and judicious use of chrome combine for a tidy, handsome appearance.

Immediately noticeable is the lengthened wheelbase.  Thanks to the 100 mm stretch, the Lancer's proportions look more like an E-class' than an Altis.'  Overall length and height have also grown—the Lancer now checks in at 4500 mm overall length, 1695 mm width and 1445 mm height.  It's still a nudge smaller than the Altis in all three dimensions.

The increased dimensions pay off in the greater leg and hip room for both front and rear passengers.  The rear seat offers adequate support in addition to generous legroom, even if a tall guy sits in front.  Width is spacious for two adults, a slight squeeze for three. There's still a center tunnel, though it's not very obtrusive. The Lancer sticks to a boxy profile, which optimizes cabin room and eases ingress and egress.

The cabin has a bright, airy feel, thanks to a large greenhouse and light-colored materials.  There's a good view out front, though the hood still tapers away out of sight.  The texture of the soft-touch plastics are first rate and the leather is suitably supple.  The wood trim on the gearshift surround still looks dubious, but the strips on the dashboard and doors add a welcome touch of warmth and style to the cabin.

Mitsubishi has returned to the ergonomic forefront, with a neat, symmetrical layout, straightforward gauges, and well-placed rotary aircon controls.  The center dash has been pushed up, to free up additional kneeroom.  Map lamps, adjustable armrest and a compartment for your shades have all been provided.

For “mobile” addicts, the Lancer has a built-in hands-free phone system, with a microphone on top of  the steering column.  Stereo systems have lately been a game of can-you-top-this, so the Lancer of course has a pop-up 165-mm VCD screen that, when not in use, folds neatly into the dashboard.  Where we think it should stay, for safety's sake.

So much for the wrapper—now for the heart of the matter.  The SOHC, 16-valve engine powers all variants of the Lancer lineup.  On paper it seems tepid, with only 110 bhp at 6200 and 138 Nm at 4200.  During our drive, we found the engine was torquey, with good grunt off the line.  Mid-range acceleration was also adequate, even with four adults on board.

The piece de resistance of this car is its unique automatic, the country's first Continuously Variable Transmission.  This gearbox actually does without the gears of varying sizes that alter the drive ratio in a conventional automatic.  Instead, it uses a steel belt wrapped around a pair of pulleys.  The belt slides up and down the cone-shaped pulleys, altering the ratios infinitely.

We clicked the lever into D, and found that the CVT operates smoothly and transparently.  Take off from standstill is quick and sprightly.  Most modern automatics have dampened shift shock to being nearly imperceptible.  The CVT does it better: shift shock is altogether absent, thanks to the absence of gears.  A novel experience is seeing the tach needle stay fixed at a certain rpm, while the car steadily accelerates.  An even stranger sensation is seeing the speedometer needle spin clockwise as the engine speed dips.

While in D, slide the lever left and you enter the Sportshift mode; this provides for six fixed ratios—a virtual six-speed automatic.  There's little point in the manual during ordinary city driving, but it can turn a lonely drive on the highway into a game of Gran Turismo—at least where the shifting is concerned.  A PRND indicator runs along the speedo, with a small LCD display for the virtual ratios.

One disappointing aspect is the Lancer's stopping gear.  The front discs and rear drums are certainly adequate for normal situations, but its rivals are already sporting discs on all four corners.  ABS is conspicuously absent from the Lancer equipment list, even on the top line MX.  With Manila's streets commonly infested with haphazard construction sites, buses, tricycles, jeepneys, potholes and all sorts of other hazards, having ABS is as imperative as a good insurance policy.  We usually find it useful in a true emergency about once a year.  On the passive safety checklist are dual SRS airbags, side impact beams, and anti-whiplash front seats.

We weren’t able to take this car onto our customary flyover handling course, so we can’t say much about its high-speed handling.  At low speeds, it absorbs mild bumps and potholes without much fuss.  The standard tires, 195/55 R 15, are on the sporty side for this class of car.

We realize that this is an era of globalization, but if counts for anything, the Lancer isn’t assembled here: it’s 100% made in Thailand.

The Lancer is a car that feels good to be in, and pleasant to drive.  Except for ABS, its features are nearly complete, and pricing is competitive.  If this car had been unveiled two years ago, when the Corolla still looked like a sardine tin on wheels, it would have flattened the opposition.  Here and now, it offers the sleekest interior in the 1.6 class, and a competent, refined driving package.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, I have that lancer mx unit, could you help me where I can buy accelerator cable, because most replacement that I found is too long need the exact length. Thank you


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