Pros: Engaging handling (especially in GT and Ralliart), edgy styling, adult-friendly back seat, plenty of available technology, wide range of trims and body styles.

Cons: Unimpressive fuel economy, undesirable base 2.0-liter engine, unpleasant continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), steering wheel doesn't telescope.

Introduction

Despite its advancing age, the 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer is generally hip to the latest fads. Compact cars are increasingly expected to be packed with technology these days, and the Lancer delivers with its available FUSE voice-recognition system for phones and portable media devices. Distinctive styling is trending in the compact class as well, but the current Lancer beat everyone to the punch-it's always been an aggressive-looking car. One thing that never goes out of style is value, and the Lancer's got plenty of that, too. It's like that perpetually cool teacher in high school: aging, yes, but still plenty appealing.

Ah, but Mitsubishi's bread-and-butter compact can't hide its mediocre fuel economy. When the current Lancer debuted four years ago, its EPA numbers weren't so bad, but even after some efficiency improvements for 2012, they're no longer up to snuff. The best the Lancer can do is 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway, and that's with the unpleasant base 2.0-liter inline-4 and CVT tandem. Step up to the more satisfying 2.4-liter engine and you're looking at 22/31 mpg as a high. For reference, the new Toyota Camry gets 25/35 mpg with its 2.5-liter inline-4.

In other words, you'll end up forking over a little more at the pump if you get a Lancer. But truth be told, we think that's a small price to pay. The Lancer's got plenty of character-you can even get a turbocharged 237-horsepower engine in the Ralliart models-and it's actually rewarding to drive. Never mind how long it's been around. The Mitsubishi Lancer still has its finger on the pulse.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer is offered in DE, ES, SE, GT and Ralliart trim levels. The DE is sedan only, while the others are available in both sedan and four-door hatchback body styles.

The DE sedan starts with the 2.0-liter engine, a five-speed manual transmission, 16-inch steel wheels, automatic headlamps, a tilt-only steering wheel, power accessories and a four-speaker audio system. Air-conditioning is an extra-cost option.

The ES steps up to an optional continuously variable automatic (CVT), air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver's seat, upgraded upholstery, cruise control, an auxiliary audio input and Bluetooth and satellite-radio preparation (additional accessories required). The largely similar SE gets a standard CVT, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats and a six-speaker audio system.

The GT upgrades to the 2.4-liter engine, a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a rear spoiler, keyless entry with push-button ignition, sportier seats and upholstery, a color LCD trip computer, automatic climate control and the FUSE voice-command system for phones and music devices (a USB port is included).

Optional on the GT is a pricey ($3,550) Touring package that brings a more subtle rear lip spoiler, xenon headlamps, a sunroof, leather upholstery, a rearview camera and a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with a six-CD changer. Also available on GT is a hard-drive-based navigation system with a touchscreen display and digital music storage.

The turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Ralliart boasts a dual-clutch automated manual transmission, summer performance tires, hood vents, an even sportier suspension tune and aluminum pedals. Otherwise, the Ralliart basically shares the GT's standard and optional equipment roster.

Some of the higher trims' standard features are offered on lower trims as options or dealer-installed accessories.

The Lancer's standard front seats are, well, standard front seats-they're firm and reasonably supportive, but we much prefer the GT and Ralliart's more contoured sport seats. The tilt-only steering wheel could be a deal-breaker for drivers with long legs. Also, shorter drivers will want to get the ES or higher, as the base DE doesn't have a height adjustment for the driver's seat.

The Lancer's deeply hooded tachometer and speedometer are crisp and attractive, and they bookend a great-looking color LCD trip computer on GT and Ralliart models. Ergonomics are good except for the optional touchscreen navigation system, which is surrounded by small, similar-looking buttons that aren't necessarily intuitive. Materials quality is not a Lancer strong point. Although the dashboard looks nice enough in a minimalist kind of way, the plastics used to construct it are uniformly hard and basic.

The back seat, however, is an unequivocal plus. A number of compacts with cramped back seats have debuted lately-we're thinking of the Cruze and Focus in particular-so the Lancer's high rear bench and satisfactory head- and legroom are especially welcome.

As for cargo space, the Lancer sedan's trunk normally measures 12.3 cubic feet, but the Ralliart drops to 10 cubic feet. The Rockford Fosgate stereo's subwoofer cuts those figures to 11.8 and 9.1 cubic feet, respectively.

Trunk space in the Sportback is barely better at 15.3 cubic feet, but storage improves considerably to 52.7 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded. Note that these are the maximum numbers. The Sportback has an odd dual-level cargo floor that drops three inches via a one-touch release lever. Capacities are marginally smaller with the floor raised.

Technology

The Lancer may not be the newest kid on the block, but you wouldn't know it from the available technology features. First up is the new FUSE voice-recognition system, which lets you control your Bluetooth-compatible phone and portable music device via voice commands. Ford was here first with SYNC, and now Kia's in on the action with UVO, but most affordable cars-particularly compact ones-still don't offer this kind of technology. Then there's the hard-drive-based touchscreen navigation system with digital music storage, another rarity in the compact class. But even the basic ES model gets standard Bluetooth and auxiliary audio connectivity. The Lancer's definitely got its technological bases covered.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The DE, ES and SE models are powered by a 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on DE and ES, while a continuously variable automatic (CVT) is standard on SE and optional on ES.

The GT features a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque. Either the five-speed manual or the CVT can be specified on the sedan, while the GT Sportback is CVT-only.

The Ralliart is treated to a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that cranks out 237 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed dual-clutch automated manual is the only available transmission.

The base 2.0-liter engine's performance is adequate, but its noises are off-puttingly industrial, especially with the drone-producing CVT. We'd recommend stepping up to the GT if you can, as the 2.4-liter four is a whole new ball game. Refined and spirited, the 2.4 turns the Lancer into something much more satisfying. As for the Ralliart's turbocharged four, it puts the Lancer on level footing with the zesty Subaru WRX, and the dual-clutch transmission is a fine example of its breed, delivering shifts that are both quick and smooth.

Fuel economy for the sedan is 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the base 2.0-liter engine and the CVT (25/34 mpg with the manual) and 23/30 mpg with the 2.4 (22/31 mpg with the manual). The Sportbacks are rated at 24/32 mpg and 22/29 mpg, respectively. Both Ralliart body styles are pegged at 18/25 mpg. None of this is impressive by current standards.

Safety

The 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer comes with standard stability control, antilock brakes (four-wheel discs on GT and Ralliart; rear drums on the others) and seven airbags (front, front-side, driver knee, full-length side-curtain).

Both the sedan and Sportback received an overall score of four stars out of five in government crash-testing, including four stars each for frontal and side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Lancer its highest rating of "Good" in every category.

Driving Impressions

The Lancer is rather tall for a compact car, and you notice that extra height in fast corners. Still, the Lancer is sportier than the norm, especially with the GT's sport-tuned suspension-and especially with the all-wheel-drive Ralliart's setup. In ordinary driving, the Lancer is quite civilized, striking a nice balance between comfort and control, with less road noise than in some rival compacts. It's a well-sorted car all around, no matter which model you choose.

Other Cars to Consider

Hyundai Elantra - The Elantra isn't as sporty as the Lancer, but it's got standard four-wheel disc brakes, superior fuel economy and its own unique styling. If you want a hatchback, check out the Elantra GT

Mazda 3 - Still the sports car of this class, the 3 features a new "SkyActiv" 2.0-liter engine that gets great fuel economy without sacrificing driving enjoyment.

Volkswagen Golf - With a nicer interior than the Jetta sedan, the Golf is the pick of Volkswagen's compact litter. Like the Lancer, the Golf comes in a variety of strengths to suit individual tastes.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Lancer GT is an unusual proposition-sporty handling plus high technology in a reasonably priced compact car-and we're sold on it. But it's too bad you can't get a manual transmission with the Sportback GT to keep the cost down.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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