In a world of Civics and Corollas, the Mitsubishi Lancer often gets overlooked by the used car shopper. That’s a shame, because it is a nice compact car with a solid reputation for reliability. A rather anemic resale value is good for buyers, not so good for sellers. There are also many models, including a short-lived wagon and a sporty Ralliart trim, that straddle the line between economy car and the rally-inspired Mitsubishi Evolution. The Lancer is not as plentiful or easy to find as the Civic, Corolla or Focus, but sites such as AutoTrader.com make it easy to track down the model of your dreams. You just might have to travel a bit further than normal to obtain it.
Why you want it
The base ES model compares nicely with similarly equipped Civics and Corollas, while the LS adds a healthy dose of comfort and convenience features. The O-Z Rally trim adds a bit a flash, but not really much in the way of extra muscle or suspension tuning to back it up. For more zip and better handling, look to the 2004 and later Ralliart, which features a 162-horsepower 2.4-liter engine.
Apart from its respectable fuel economy and comfortable ride, the Lancer’s strongest secret is its generous passenger space, with good legroom for six-footers and plenty of shoulder room. A week’s worth of luggage will pose no challenge to the deep trunk. Those needing even more room can hunt down the elusive Sportback wagon version, which was only produced in 2004. One last benefit comes on all 2004 and newer models: a five-year/60,000-mile fully transferable basic warranty.
Notable features and options
In LS, ES and O-Z trim, a 120-p 2.0-liter engine is standard; ES and O-Z models feature a five-speed manual transmission, while the LS employs a four-speed automatic. The base ES includes auto-off headlamps, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, retained power (30 seconds of power for the windows after the engine is shut off), AM/FM stereo with CD player, rear defrost, air conditioning and 14-inch steel wheels.
LS trim adds a rear anti-roll bar, 15-inch alloy wheels, four-speed automatic transmission, 60/40 split bench seat, variable wipers and cruise control. O-Z trims feature unique paint, wheels and interior fabrics, and a rear wing. Anti-lock brakes (ABS), front side airbags and a power sunroof joined the LS and O-Z option’s list in 2003.
The Ralliart adds a more powerful 2.4-liter engine, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, sport suspension, front side airbags and specially tuned exhaust.
In model year 2006, the SE trim was introduced, featuring upgraded audio, a power sunroof and new wheels. The Sportback wagon is available in LS and Ralliart trim.
2003: Changes were minor. LS and O-Z models could be equipped with a power glass moonroof and upgraded audio options.
2004: The entire lineup receives fresh styling, including a new pointed nose borrowed from the Evo and revised rear tail lamps. The Ralliart trim is introduced and is offered in both sedan and wagon form.
2005: The short-lived Sportback wagon is dropped from the lineup, as is the LS sedan.
2006: The SE trim is introduced and features much of the former LS trim’s optional equipment.
Engines and performance
While most models come with the 120-hp 2.0-liter engine, the Ralliart’s 160-hp 2.4-liter engine is the powerplant of choice, turning an ordinary ride into a thrilling one. Not that the base engine is slow, coming within plus or minus 10 horsepower of most competitors and returning pretty decent fuel economy to boot.
The Lancer’s suspension is sufficiently taut for most driving situations, although the power steering is a bit on the light side. While the base car certainly stacks up well against the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla, the Ralliart moves the Lancer into the realm of driver’s machines like the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Sentra SE-R.
Along with its more powerful engine, the Ralliart gains a front strut tower brace, stiffer springs and shocks, sport front seats and a larger anti-roll bar. It also deploys sporty P205/50R16 all-season tires. The Ralliart comes in wagon form as well, although its short-lived production means that finding one requires a good deal of research. All but the luxury-oriented LS sedan and the Sportback wagons come standard with a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Recalls, safety ratings and warranties
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued the following recalls for the 2002 to 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer.
2002 to 2004: Recall issued for improperly sized bilingual airbag warning labels attached to the dash.
Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and, if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.
The NHTSA website can also be used to search for Technical Service Bulletins (TSB). These note fixes for common problems that do not usually rise to the level of a recall, but may require repair, should they occur.
Safety-wise, the government gives the Lancer four out of five stars in its front driver and passenger crash tests, and four out of five stars for the rear seat occupants in the side impact test. However, front occupant safety receives a rather poor two-star rating in the side crash test without the side airbag feature (the government did not test a Lancer with front side airbags). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reached the same conclusion.
The 2002 to 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer came with a three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. In 2004, coverage changed to five years/60,000 miles basic warranty and 10 years/100,000 miles of powertrain cover, but this is only for the original owner. Subsequent owners have their powertrain coverage reduced to the basic warranty (five years/60,000 miles). The longer warranty applies only to models sold on or after July 1, 2004.
Word on the web
We snooped around the internet, reading various posts on sites such as Consumer Reports, Carcomplaints.com and Mitsubishiforum.com. While most of the information posted refers to the Lancer’s high-performance big brother, the Evolution, we still found a few tidbits giving insight into the more pedestrian Lancer. For the most part, owners seem fairly content, with only a few complaints centered around the Ralliart’s so-so fuel economy and some early automatic transmission glitches. Consumer Reports also finds some problems with the transmission, climate control, brakes and paint on the 2002 and 2003 models, but rates the 2004 models as generally good to excellent in all categories.
Auto Trader recommendations
While we really like all the Lancers, there are two that stand out. If you’re not interested in rapid performance but like a compact car that feels like a mini-Cadillac, the LS trim offers all the features found in the ES, plus added safety items like available side airbags and ABS. However, for a little hustle to enliven the daily commute, it’s the Ralliart, hands down. Whether in sedan or Sportback configuration, the Ralliart turns this economy car into a pocket rocket and, thanks to lackluster resale values, can be picked up for a pretty good price.