by Colin Mathews
Said Michele to Romy: “You look so good with blond hair and black roots, it’s like not even funny.” And so the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS looks fantastic; its low and menacing front end staring other cars down like a bull glowering at a matador. Huge 18” wheels and tires complete its Mitsu Lancer Evolution X facsimile. But this Lancer’s econo-car roots show through after a quick drive, revealing a car that does not have the Evo’s bespoke chassis, all-wheel drive, or ferocious turbocharged engine.
But then you look at the bottom line – $17,990 for a base Lancer GTS – and it starts to make more sense (the hi-po Evo X starts well north of $30,000). And the GTS is no stripper, with standard items like redundant buttons for audio and cruise-control functions mounted on the standard leather-wrapped wheel, Bluetooth handsfree phone interface, and handsome 18” aluminum wheels wrapped in serious 215/45 R18 tires.
The 2009 Lancer GTS’ biggest strength is its ability to cause serious neck strain (to passersby, that is). Everywhere we cruised, the Rally Red metallic paint, gaping trapezoidal grill flanked by squinting headlights, swept and wedgy profile, and taillights as elegant as an Alfa Romeo’s caused either looks of appreciation or outright jealousy. As we mentioned, this car is a dead-ringer for its big brother, the Evo X, and it seemed that all the drivers of hot hatches like the Subaru WRX, MazdaSPEED3, and Volkswagen GTI we encountered immediately felt inadequate. Indeed, stoplights in the GTS resulted a few times in neighboring engines being revved and competitive over-the-shoulder glances from drivers of those turbocharged sedans.
The GTS’ teasing visuals raised our pulses upon delivery, making its peppy but not blazing performance a bit of a letdown. Still, the GTS is not sluggish; the large 2.4-liter four steps off in sprightly fashion and has a stout midrange that results in a pleasing acceleration especially in second and third gears. And even though its 0-60 mph acceleration is nearly a second behind the Honda Civic Si and more than a second off the Nissan Sentra SE-R’s pace, the stout midrange torque due in large part to variable valve timing (MIVEC) make it feel more than capable in most situations.
The 5-speed stick is a good ally for acceleration, though its ropey feel and audible clunks on gear changes again reveal the GTS’ econocar roots. Fuel economy, at 21 city and 28 highway, is good for the GTS’ weight and level of performance.
Handling is fun, with relatively high absolute limits, lots of grip, and little body roll. But chassis responses stopped short of athletic; the steering wheel gave the driver rather vague feedback, and the big wheels and rudimentary front struts clomped and thudded over big bumps and rough roadways. Driving the GTS fast is not a precision operation, but more of a fly by the seat of the pants experience. You have to push the car until you learn where its limits are, and remember those for future reference as opposed to the car communicating them clearly from the start. As such, it can indeed be fun to blast around town, but it will never really inspire confidence.
Other areas where the 2009 Lancer GTS let us down were in interior fit and finish. The main surface to greet the driver’s hands is a glove-soft black leather steering wheel with redundant controls for the stereo and cruise control. Why, then, would Mitsubishi wrap most of the dash in cheap, hard plastic? Next to the steering wheel and highly legible, attractive analog gauges, the plastics are a big letdown and can be found on door panels and other surfaces in the Mitsubishi. And just ahead of that harsh plastic resides an engine that makes its unexciting drone heard more often than we’d like. Last but definitely not least is an ignition slot for a key…that doesn’t take a key. Put the proximity-sensing fob…wherever…and turn the strangely empty ignition slot to start. Strange.
Yet another Mitsubishi mixed bag is the optional Navigation package, which retails for $1,800. Why this touch-screen unit foregoes the standard auxiliary audio input jack for a video input jack is incomprehensible; how many people actually want video between the front seats as opposed to the ability to listen to an iPod? Such an oversight is unacceptable in a vehicle that positions itself as youthful and athletic; even the most basic Chevy Cobalt has an audio aux input jack. Sure, you can upload MP3 files into the GTS’ built-in memory, but who wants a fiddly computer project when everyone else has a simple plug-and-play aux input or even a slick USB interface?
Making matters worse is the confounding operation of the Nav unit, or Mitsubishi Multi-Communication System in the automaker’s parlance. There are a total of zero rotary knobs to control its functions; even the stereo’s volume is an up and down toggle, which is simply less intuitive and more time-consuming. Not to mention, said volume toggle is a slim button that blends in with all of the others. Want to adjust bass, treble, balance, or fade? Just hit the “audio” key, right? Nope. Hit the “settings” hard key, and then find your way through a series of touch screen menus to the audio settings, which then demand you take your eyes off the road to adjust. The whole affair is about as maddening as BMW’s much-maligned first generation iDrive setup. Same goes for programming destinations and routes into the Nav system, done through the same touch screen interface.
And yet once you’ve fiddled and fussed with that touch screen, the 650-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate Punch Premium Sound System, part of the $1,750 Sun & Sound Package, is fantastic. Its balance between thumping bass from the 10” mounted in the trunk, crisp treble, and a strong midrange for good vocals is impressive. But what a shame that the wonderful sound is so hard to access and that I was never once able to play my iPod. I don’t own CDs anymore, so it was just SIRIUS (free for 6 months after purchase) and AM/FM for me.
A good deal of frustration could be avoided by foregoing the Nav package, in which case you get a good ‘ole audio aux input jack, much more intuitive audio controls, and save nearly $1,800 in the process. But competitors like the Mazda3 s, Toyota Corolla XRS, and Subaru Impreza start at roughly the same price and offer far better ergonomics, higher quality in general, and similar performance. A few thousand more will get you a Honda Civic Si or a Nissan Sentra SE-R.
The Mitsubishi Lancer GTS would be just about perfect for Romy & Michele, who claimed that “fashion is, like, everything.” Alas, for the rest of us, the good parts of this vehicle are obscured by mediocre details, too much noise and harshness, and half-baked attempts at high-tech.
Mitsubishi is a gay-friendly company.