A short week spent in the Mitsubishi all wheel drive compact sedan
All wheel drive system
Mitsubishi has been producing Lancers since 1973 although the first one to grace our shores, a liftback coupe, didn’t show up until 1975, rebadged by its partner Chrysler as the Plymouth Arrow (the Dodge division got its own sedan variant two years later which was marketed as the Dodge Colt).
Finally, in 1982, the Mitsubishi brand itself was introduced into the American car market.
The current Lancer represents the ninth generation of the nameplate – matching that of the Honda Civic as well as equaling its Japanese rival in longevity. But as far as sales are concerned, the Lancer lurks in the shadows of the Civic; for even in a down year like 2011, the Honda model has outsold the Mitsubishi by over 10 to 1.
2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWC
Although the current generation Lancer has been around since early 2007 when it was introduced as a 2008 model, 2012 marks the first year for the SE AWC variant – packaging Mitsubishi’s sophisticated All Wheel Control (AWC) all-wheel drive system into a very affordable sedan.
But in order to bring this kind of technology to a sub-$21,000 compact sedan, the Japanese manufacturer had to cut a few corners here and there, as it were. The result is something of a mixed bag.
Outside, the Lancer SE AWC takes its design cues from its higher-performance brethren, the Ralliart and the Evolution. Similarities begin in front with the Lancer’s signature split trapezoidal grille.
A nicely-creased hood and headlamp enclosures that taper as they go forward complete the aggressive-looking front end, while a single crease below the door handles and mild sculpting near the bottom break up what is essentially a slab-sided look.
Although its hood is fabricated from steel and lacks those signature air ducts, standard equipment on the SE includes character-enhancing lower body side sill extensions as well as 16-inch alloy wheels shod with P205/60R16 Yokohama Avid S34 all-season tires.
Our particular SE was also fitted with the Exterior Package that includes a front air dam, fog lights, chrome exhaust finisher and, topping it all off, a mammoth rear wing.
Another nice touch is the outboard-mounted trunk hinges that allow you to pack to the top without having to worry about the hinges intruding into the trunk (like those found on the cost-is-the-objective 2012 Honda Civic).
Aside from the boy-racer rear wing – which we, quite frankly, could live without - the style of the SE, as a whole, is quite handsome in a Germanic sort of way and works to its advantage.
Lancer SE AWCs come equipped with an all-aluminum 2.4-liter normally aspirated 4-cylinder that produces 168 horsepower and 167 lb.-ft. of torque coupled to a continuously-variable transmission.
The drivetrain also features Mitsubishi’s All Wheel Control (AWC) system, the major components of which include a transfer case, electronic control coupling between the front and rear wheels, a stability control and ABS unit that works in conjunction with a 4WD controller as well as a driver-operated Drive Mode Switch located on the center console.
The Drive Mode Switch allows the driver to operate the SE in three distinct driving modes to maximize both fuel efficiency and vehicle traction.
2WD mode obviously offers the greatest fuel efficiency. Switching to 4WD AUTO balances the power between the front and rear wheels. The third mode, 4WD LOCK, is designed for the most adverse of road conditions. In 4WD LOCK, up to 70 percent of the engine’s available power can be sent to the electronic control coupling that controls the rear wheels.
On the road and in dry conditions, ride and handling in the Lancer SE comes to within a hair of our current favorite compact, the Mazda3. It also slightly outperforms the Ford Focus SE – due in no small measure to the fact that it eschews an electric power-assisted steering setup for old-fashioned hydraulic power assist.
This steering, plus all-wheel-drive coupled with stability and traction control systems will instill confidence in just about any driver – and that’s when it’s dry.
Fortunately for us, this is also the time of year when the weather can get downright nasty here in Michigan – and it just so happened that one of those cold, rainy days hit during our time with the Lancer.
Rain? Snow? Who cares? With the simple flip of the console switch, conditions that would normally bring on a case of white knuckles are brushed aside. Although there was no snow or ice (where we would assume 4WD LOCK would offer the greatest benefit), 4WD AUTO mode allowed the Lancer to handle in the wet as if there was no moisture whatsoever on the tarmac.
The only drawback seems to be less than stellar fuel economy. While the EPA rates the SE AWC at 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined, our observed fuel economy was just 18.2 mpg. But in all fairness, there was less than 1,000 miles on its odometer.
If you’re wondering if there’s a downside to our seven day affair with Mitsu’s latest compact, there is.
While its looks, equipment and performance put it at or near the top of the compact class, spending time inside a cabin swathed in hard black plastics brings an unwanted crasher to our fun party as we see the evidence of where Mitsubishi had to cut corners to bring the rest of this goodness in at under 21K.
Like the Evo, the dashboard is plain to the point of looking ordinary. A lower silvery-look trim strip that splits the upper and lower dash does little to breaks up the monotony.
Likewise, the door panels are also plain with a cloth trim panel, while better than hard plastic, just barely a step above it.
Another nit: outward visibility is generally excellent with the exception of the rear window, with the large rear spoiler blocking a portion of it.
Driver ergonomics, however, are spot on. All controls are within easy reach and the steering wheel (that only tilts) contains controls for the cruise control and entertainment system (and controls for voice-activated Bluetooth phone though it lacked the $395 FUSE option that supports this feature).
To the left of the leather-wrapped steering wheel is the headlamp and turn signal lever, while a dash button to the left of the driver buttons defeats the stability control.
All this is not to say that the interior is completely without luxury amenities. In addition to power windows, locks and mirrors, all Lancer SEs are equipped with heated front seats and door mirrors, 7 air bags, keyless entry and a 4 speaker 160-watt sound system – which was replaced on our example with the optional Navigation System Package that includes a 40GB hard disk drive music server and nav system with real-time traffic (which has an auxiliary port but no USB as that’s part of the aforementioned missing FUSE option).
2012 Lancer SE AWC new car prices, including a $795 destination charge, start at $20,990. Our Rally Red example was equipped with the Navigation System Package ($2,295), rear park assist sensors ($350) and the $850 exterior package making the as-tested price a still reasonable $24,485.
The Bottom Line
So what we have with the 2012 Mitsubishi SE AWC is a bit of a conundrum.
With its sporty looks and great handling, it should be at the top of the list for many compact car buyers – especially those who live in either the northern or wetter climes.
Unfortunately, many shoppers may be turned off by the hard plastic look of the interior and the lack of a tilt function for the steering wheel before they even get a chance to take one for a test drive.
But those driving enthusiasts out there looking for the most bang for their buck and willing to overlook the Lancer’s drawbacks will be rewarded with a real hidden gem in the compact car segment.