Model: 2006 Mitsubishi CH Lancer ES 2.4 Wagon
Price as tested: $22,790 (Metallic paint $300)
Distance covered: 310km
Tester: Joe Kenwright
Date: April 2006
If you are a small car driver tired of being pushed into the kerb by big car bully boys at lane merges and don't need to waste your money hauling around a small block of flats with all-wheel drive, then Mitsubishi might have something for you.
The latest Lancer ES Wagon may wear the Lancer small car badge but it revives the popular medium-sized Toyota Camry/Mitsubishi Sigma/Holden Camira wagons with a 1990 price tag.
Mitsubishi slotted its 115kW/220Nm 2.4-litre engine, a size previously reserved for the Magna and Nimbus, into the CH MY06 Lancer in August 2005. Lancer dimensions (with the benchmark 1989 Camira wagon in brackets) highlight the value lurking in today's market. The base Lancer ES is 4475mm (4354) long, 1695mm (1668) wide, 1465mm (1338) high on a wheelbase of 2600mm (2577). That's right, it's bigger in every dimension than the most space-efficient medium family wagon of the late 1980s yet still costs about the same! For the record, the Camira weighed just 1100kg with only 85kW/176Nm to pull it. The Lancer's 1340kg is an indicator of how much extra safety structure is required in today's cars.
The Lancer does not drive like a small car in the old sense of the word when it isn't. It is quiet and composed when cruising as the engine never has to work hard yet it is also surprisingly quick as a manual. Humble pie is not on the menu when it can accelerate into gaps and overtake with safety even with a load on board.
Poke it in the eye and the 2.4 engine can soon find the limits of the front tyres yet the chassis is good enough to stop it from getting too ragged. With this much grunt and no slippery diff or traction control, caution is required in the wet. It probably needs even bigger wheels and tyres. It's a drawback that most drivers will be happy to live with when so many small cars are tame and soggy. It is also one of the few manuals driven recently where the accelerator pedal still obeys the driver and doesn't hang onto its revs long after the driver has lifted his or her foot.
For a base model, it is well-equipped with proper multi-link independent rear suspension, ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution, twin airbags, lap-sash centre rear seat belt, height adjustable front seatbelts, air-conditioning, rear centre armrest, cruise control, tilt but not reach adjustable steering column, tacho, front map lights, driver's left footrest, cargo blind and a generous 15-inch wheel and tyre combination. There are also plenty of hidden storage points under the rear floor.
The interior doesn't feel as cheap as expected with classy semi-suede seat fabric and black on white instruments. The back seat is quite generous and comfortable for a wagon. The front seats are also a pleasant surprise although a large and heavy driver might detect a seat frame section at the base of the back rest.
The load area has a low floor and is easy to access. The fold-down back seats create a level load platform that will easily hold a mountain bike without removing a wheel.
Handling is pleasantly neutral providing you don't allow the engine's strong torque to take over. The ride is controlled and smooth without being squishy. The low front spoiler, low profile tyres and passenger car ride height ensure it's happier on the bitumen than off it but it maintains some composure on choppy surfaces. It's a sensible middle of the road setup with a willing engine that lifts the boredom threshold. Mitsubishi is honest about the extra fuel consumption that the big engine brings with a fuel figure of 9.5litres/100km which I found could easily jump to 10.5-11litres/100km if you drive it as the rally car hiding within. At least you have the choice.
The Lancer wagon looks like a small Volvo sports wagon from the back with outstanding all round vision because it doesn't pander to the high-waist line and pinched-in rear of so many recent designs. Yet I couldn't live with the way it looks. Its neat, purposeful rear section ends with a face that looks like it was lifted from Mickey Mouse during a tonsil examination. Mitsubishi ditches the funny face on the pricier VR-X sports wagon version for a much more adult look. Even after a week, the comments about the mismatch between the Lancer ES front and me as a male of the species started to wear thin when it doesn't need to be this way. I would end up shopping elsewhere if I didn't want the VR-X extras that reduce its practicality.
The Lancer ES wagon could be the perfect solution for budget-conscious empty nesters with a getaway property or a young married couple's first decent car or outdoor recreation types who need a long roof or interior for bikes, boards or kayaks. You could also sleep in it at a pinch. Yet it looks too silly for such a quick and useful vehicle. A look of substance is critical if it is going to lure buyers from bigger cars and four wheel drives. Mitsubishi should know better when it pulled it off so well with the Sigma all those years ago. Even if the front styling works for certain Lancer sedan buyers, the wagon needs the VR-X grille at ES level immediately.