Updated at: 12/19/2012 11:36 AM
By ANN M. JOB
Often overshadowed by its showier Lancer Evolution rally car sibling, the Mitsubishi Lancer sedan is a nimble-handling, decently powered and competitive compact four door in its own right.
In fact, the 2013 Lancer SE, which many car shoppers don’t realize comes standard with all-wheel drive, is a worthy contender in snowy locations and is the second lowest-priced all-wheel drive sedan in the U.S. market, after the Subaru Impreza.
With a starting retail price of $21,090, this all-wheel drive Lancer with standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) is priced just $1,425 more than a comparable and similarly sized 2013 Impreza sedan, which starts at $19,665 with CVT.
And, buyers of the Lancer SE AWC _ for Mitsubishi’s all-wheel control moniker _ get a larger four-cylinder engine with 20 more horsepower and 22 more foot-pounds of torque than the Impreza.
Other pluses: The 2013 Lancer SE comes standard with heated seats and heated outside mirrors, good-sized, 16-inch wheels and tires, seven air bags, including one for the driver’s knee, and outside door handles and mirror covers that match body paint and are not cheap-looking black plastic.
One downside: The Lancer SE’s 168-horsepower, naturally aspirated four cylinder doesn’t provide the higher fuel mileage that the 148-horsepower Subaru Impreza sedan does.
But a test Lancer SE easily got a bit more than the 25-miles-per-gallon average in combined city/highway travel that the federal government estimates for this model.
Top competitors in the lower-priced, compact sedan segment include cars that come only as front-wheel drive models and compete in price more directly with the base, front-wheel drive, 148-horsepower, 2013 Lancer DE, which starts at $16,790 with manual transmission.
As an example, the front-wheel drive, 2013 Toyota Corolla with 132-horsepower four cylinder has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $17,025 with manual transmission. The 2013 Hyundai Elantra sedan with manual transmission and 148-horsepower four cylinder starts at $17,590.
Rally car enthusiasts know all about the high-performance, turbocharged Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and its World Rally Championships. The starting price tag for the Evolution is $35,490.
But the plainer, affordable Lancer sedan has trouble breaking through to American buyers’ shopping lists because, in part, it’s not as well known as other cars in the small sedan segment.
Pictures of the 2013 Lancer don’t do it justice, either. In real life, the exterior is stylishly upscale and unlike the more bland-looking Corolla and Honda Civic.
Inside, however, the Lancer can seem ho-hum, with plastics and other materials that come off as inexpensive.
Knobs and buttons in the test car worked fine but didn’t provide the kind of quality feel noticed in some other small cars.
The Lancer interior was straightforward and unadorned in the test model, save for an optional, colorful, multi-function display that was liquid crystal.
In comparison, the interior of the 2013 Hyundai Elantra, with its sweeping dashboard and well-placed accent pieces, looks fashionable.
Still, it’s worth noting that even the base 2013 Lancer comes with standard remote keyless entry, power windows and outside mirrors, including a driver window with one-touch up and down, as well as 140-watt AM/FM audio system with CD and MP3 players and volume control that is automatically adjusted as the car’s speed increases.
The test car’s optional, 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with a 10-inch subwoofer fitted into the side of the trunk had bass so deep it could shake the Lancer and be felt in nearby cars.
The test Lancer SE’s 2.4-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine had good power, and peak torque of 167 foot-pounds came on at a good point _ 4,100 rpm.
The Lancer SE test car wasn’t a sportster, but it moved with verve in city traffic and sought to get up to highway speed in short order.
Engine noise was noticed at the higher revs, and both road noise and sounds from passing vehicles came into the passenger compartment.
Notably, the CVT in the test car didn’t strangle the power and worked so competently, some drivers might not be aware it’s not a regular automatic transmission.
The government rates the all-wheel drive, 2013 Lancer SE, which comes only with the CVT, at 22 and 29 mpg in city and highway travel, respectively.
This is lower than the 27/36-mpg rating that the 2013 Impreza has with lower-powered engine and CVT. All Subarus come standard with all-wheel drive.
Still, the somewhat stiff-riding Lancer SE, with its well-controlled body motions and confident handling through slaloms and in mountain curves, impressively clung to the road and was enjoyable to drive.
Even in a heavy, unrelenting rainstorm, the car moved purposefully and never lost traction. All-wheel drive, which can be switched on via a button in the center console, was a comforting feature.
Note the Lancer’s all-wheel drive also can be manually set to direct up to 70 percent of the available power to the electronic control coupling that manages the rear wheels.
Front- and rear-seat headroom is within 0.1 or 0.2 inch of that in the Impreza sedan.
As in many compact sedans, three adults sit closely in the back seat. The Lancer SE’s trunk space is measured at 12.3 cubic feet, but with the subwoofer that was in the test car’s trunk, space shrunk to 11.8 cubic feet.
The material lining the trunk was pretty barebones stuff.
Besides the knee air bag that helps keep the driver properly positioned behind the steering wheel during a frontal crash, standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control.
The Lancer earned four out of five stars in overall crash tests by the federal government, with across-the-board four-out-of-five stars in frontal and side crash testing.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)