Thursday, 23 August 2007

Full Road Test: Mitsubishi Lancer 2.0 GT

By Dr Long

Mitsubishi Lancer: a vehicle model that has been synonymous with Malaysia's first national car. The Proton Saga, derived from the Lancer F or Fiore (3rd/4th generation) model of 1983 sold like hot cakes then, given the obvious pricing/tax advantage. Thereafter, the 6th generation Lancer became the ever-popular Proton Wira in 1993.

Returning as Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia (MMM) after about 20years of absence, the 8th generation Lancer 1.6 GLX made its official appearance, and was soon followed by the absolutely wicked and manic sibling, the Lancer Evolution IX.

Now into its 9th generation, the all-new Lancer has grown up with a larger – much sleeker - body and a higher engine capacity of 2.0L. With a shape not unlike the Concept X unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show 2005, the tester unit in Red Mica Metallic had this writer awed the moment he encountered it in the metal. With a unique convex-concave (different from the Galant Sigmas) contour, the Lancer' headlamps are menacing with an intense ‘stare’. The A-pillars are less frontal based-pillared, rendering the Lancer GT a more laid-back balanced profile and stance (read: less cab-forward design).

With a large rear spoiler, gorgeous 18” alloys plus a well-made and fitted original bodykit, the new Lancer looked fast even when standing still. In fact, it looked like a junior-Evo X capable of say 7seconds to the century and perhaps a Vmax of 230km/h. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately (as the case may turned out to be) wearing that GT badge hiked up expectations of the motoring community to an even loftier level.

But make no mistake, this is a family sedan above all, with a normally aspirated all-aluminium 2.0L DOHC MIVEC powerplant that pushes out 155ps at 6000rpm and 199Nm of torque at 4250rpm. Decent output figures but hardly matching the sporty demeanour it portrays. I hold no grudge against the Lancer’s standard CVT (F1CJA) –with 6 virtual ‘gear’ ratios in manual mode - for its smooth operation as well as higher transmission efficiency. Having said that, initial take off was still sluggish with the CVT hunger for torque below 3000rpm quite glaring. I am saying this in comparison to my other CVT-driven cars namely, the City i-DSI as well as my wife’s Colt Turbo Ralliart with a similar tech INVECS-III CVT.

Strangely, the 2.0 GT’s CVT felt a bit vague upon initial drive from standstill and this may have been attributed to the high-ish rpm at which real grunt becomes palpable from the 4B11 engine. Heck, even Audi’s ‘multitronic’ is a CVT - so there must be some mismatch between the Lancer’s CVT programming control unit and torque curve of the engine, I reckoned. More often than not, I found myself using those lovely – steering-column mounted – paddle shifters in manual ‘gears’ of 3rd, 2nd or even 1st (going uphill); thereby keeping the 4-pot on the boil above 3500rpm, riding on its torque crest. Maybe a ‘DS’ mode for the CVT would improve the Lancer GT urgency on the move, Mitsubishi Motors?

The other point which may have the Lancer misunderstood as having a buzzy CVT is the somewhat unpleasant hollow groan from its mufflers from around 2000 to about 3250rpm. Sounded a bit like an automatic scooter during my medical school days! This has to be the biggest bugbear to the GT’s Evo X halo it carries and of course, the nameplate. The motor drone at revs above 5000rpm isn’t very inspiring either but it gets the job done of hurtling this Mitsu to high three digits speed, with ease. An average figure of 10.2secs was achieved for 0-100km/h runs, not bad at all. Brakes are adequately powerful to scrub off whatever speed you’re running with enough pedal feel and not too grabby at the rotors either.

High speed stability is good for a car of its class, with the chassis remaining planted mostly, unless you are regularly hitting higher triple digit speed on undulating road surfaces or lumpy tarmac during mid-sweeping-corners on highways. The rear multi-link suspension seems accurate in following the front axle, definitely better than those rear torsion beam arrangement in quite a few other makes. On hilly B-roads, the Lancer resisted understeer very well, with minimal body roll as well. The OE Yokohama Advan Neova (215/45 R18) were very grippy and provided good feedback through the steering. Despite its low profile sidewalls, most ruts, potholes and irregularities were soaked up with much aplomb.

While the overall ride quality may lean towards the firm side, the Lancer GT still got stamping approvals from my two young kids and even my wife. With my loved ones seated at the rear on a journey through some winding trunk roads (at sane speed of course), they were fast asleep with nary a motion sickness or vomiting. I had seated at the back on two other occasions and also found the body control good for a comfy and composed ride. Those front semi-bucket seats were great at hugging your flanks around corners while the rear bench was just as cosseting. The soft and upmarket Nappa-leather wrapped items were so fine that it reminded me much of the Audi A4’s (B7). Smells great too!

A lot of criticism has been leveled at the new Lancer’s plastic interiorly in many online automotive forums thus far. Honestly, I don’t really find hard plastic on the dashboard a matter of live-and-death. In this Japanese C-segment class of 1.8L and 2.0L capacities many other automakers are ‘culprits’ as well. Well, maybe we have been spoiled by the Wiras (and Perdanas too) of yesteryears but let’s not forget that it was a class-leader as far as soft touch dash-top is concerned. What is pertinent here is the texturing of the plastic that has motoring enthusiasts drawing their swords over. Looking at how Toyota and even Honda managed with their hard but nicely TEXTURED dashboard surface, there may be a thing or two for MMC to learn here. (Interestingly and ironically, the Colt has better textured dash-top plastic!)

However, the door trim plastic, at least the top border needs a soft-padded paneling, badly. No compromise here if the Lancer is to be taken as a long term contender to the Civic. Meanwhile, the audio headunit control knobs for volume and tuning/audio needs to shake off its toothpaste/water colour-tube cap quality and feel. While the CD player reproduces respectable audio quality the same cannot be said for its radio reception, which is prone to concrete surroundings disturbance and change of travel direction.

Conversely though, the leather wrapped steering is great too see and hold, with on-steering buttons offering great tactile feel to operate. The rack meanwhile, is accurate and well weighted. However, the steering mechanism doesn’t lock-up upon removing the ignition key or even with slight off-centre turn of the wheel which once again, is unlike the Colt. Of course, there is that solid large magnesium-alloy paddle shifters while the generously-sized left foot rest is ergonomically excellent. The lack of auto central-locking of all doors at say, speed of 20-30km/h can be a little less secure for those who have become dependent on such a function. At the centre console, the A/C controls are very cleverly made even though without a digital temp display. What we have are three big dials offering climate control with automatic settings for both blower vents combo and temperature setting. The centre switches of these dials execute with tactility as well as a reassuring beep when you activate the rear demister, A/C on or air-recirculation mode. Nice.

While the external door handles looked flush, neatly up-to-date and solidly placed just above a rising flank crease, tugging on them didn’t exude a solid firmness as anticipated. There were slight ripples of vibration felt in the door metal sheath. In all fairness, this is also experienced in the Lancer’s intended 1.8/2.0 closest competitor. On the other hand, having driven the new Lancer in the rain, the roof passed what I coined as still-quiet-in-the-rain test, beautifully. To be frank, quite a number of ASEAN sourced models (CKD) failed to make the grade here. Then again, this is Japan-CBU stuff and built quality is generally good, albeit some parts have visibly suffered due to cost cutting measures.

Testing the car with my family on a road trip, I had found the boot to be just sufficient at 400L capacity, with the rear wheel arches plus structural supporting arch intrusions very prominent. A slightly more capacious rump would be nicer and better appreciated by most of us, especially those with kids in tow.

Overall fuel consumption over the few days of testing ranged from 7.2 to 8.2 km/l which was pretty high for a 2.0L sub mid-sized sedan. This might be due to a heavy right foot, most of the time stretching the CVT as well as the 2.0L engine’s powerband!

Priced at RM115,980 (on-the-road with insurance) the new Lancer 2.0 GT is a hard to beat value buy despite it being a mixed bag of plus and minuses. (The 4 to 5 months waiting period at the time of writing is a testament to this.) In the end, I still find the new Lancer 2.0 GT a likeable package as a family sedan and more importantly a well priced, fully-imported and absolutely handsome one at that!

p.s. Dear MMM, is there a Lancer Turbo Ralliart coming up next year? :)

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