When it hits New Zealand showrooms in a few weeks, Mitsubishi's new Lancer will have further duties than those in its traditional segment.
The new Lancer could well have been called a Galant and this is what Mitsubishi New Zealand originally wanted. However, it was put off by its parent company, who said that it would be confusing because the United States market already labels its version of the 380 sedan with that monicker.
Then after all that, the Japanese decided to call it Galant, on the home market anyway, leaving New Zealand and others with the Lancer name.
Whatever it is called, the Lancer has quite a job to do, and Mitsubishi's price comparisons show that the car is as likely to snare Civic sedan customers at one end of its catchment and Mazda6 customers at the other. Perhaps this is where the naming confusion comes from. The Lancer has been given Galant duties as well, as a kind of through-the- ranks promotion.
There is no doubt that the car's credentials are right. All three initial Lancer models will be powered by Mitsubishi's new lightweight 2-litre MIVEC engine, with a useful 115kW on tap, which lets the car compete with those in the segment using 2.3-litre engines.
The car will offer a five-speed manual shift or a six-stage CVT automatic, and is expected to deliver a combined city/country fuel consumption figure of about 7.7L/100km.
Three specification levels will be offered for the new car, but no owner need feel short-changed, for the SX entry model, the mid-market VR and the range-topping VR-X each come as standard with all-round disc brakes, active stability control, ABS and EBD.
They all have a high level of occupant protection, too, with seven dual-stage airbags, including one for the driver's knees, as well as Rise (reinforced impact safety evolution) body technology. Mitsubishi says it is confident that the car will score a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating when it is tested.
The new Lancers are all built on the same stiff platform as Mitsubishi's much-anticipated Evolution X performance car, which will form the basis for the company's return to international rallying.
A clue to the Lancer's new market positioning is that it is 35mm longer and 65mm wider than the current model, and this translates into a pleasingly airy cabin, and certainly one that straddles the model's double duties surprisingly well. That improved leg and headroom, and higher hip-point, can also be laid at the door of the car's wider track and longer wheelbase, which has the added function of providing its front MacPherson struts and new rear Multi-link suspension set-up with a more emphatic stance on the road. Mitsubishi says that every element of the Lancer has been designed for greater stability and increased chassis rigidity for better handling and general driving performance.
While the Lancer's styling offers hints of the previous Galant model, with the shark-like nose, albeit with a through-the-bumper goatee look, there are also subtle cues from the current Accord Euro, and dare I say it, the gorgeous Alfa 159.
I have to say the VR-X model's standard deck spoiler tends to ruin the flow of some of the car's lines, but if you can ignore its boot-mounted aerodynamic presence, it is easy to see why people call this car everything from "dynamic" to "pretty".
Although I won't be driving the car for a few weeks, I can give you its specification and sticker numbers.
The base SX model, priced at a sharp $30,990, nevertheless takes smart 16-inch alloys as standard, as well as cruise control and air- conditioning. The CVT automatic option asks another $2000. The slightly better-specified Lancer VR at $34,990 is a CVT automatic-only prospect and adds a leave-it-in-your- pocket keyless operating system.
The VR also throws in its own unique alloys, a more sporting interior trim level, privacy glass and a higher-end, six-disc, six-speaker stereo set-up.
The Lancer's flagship model, at least until the Evo X shows up a little later, will be the VR-X, which adds sports suspension, low-profiled 18-inch wheels and tyres, uprated brakes, and steering-wheel paddles for the CVT transmission. It also has automatic lamps and rain sensors, self-levelling discharge headlamps with "cornering" beams, and a bluetooth hands-free phone system. The VR-X asks $35,990 in manual form, with the paddle-shift CVT requiring another $2000. All the new Lancers will also have a three-year, 100,000km free scheduled servicing regime.
All told, you have to admire Mitsubishi's discernment since its 2004 divorce from DaimlerChrysler. Cut adrift without the capital it needed, the company looked in dire straits at the time.
However, a triumvirate formed from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Corporation, and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi was able to apply investment and sharpened management to the cause, and in three years, the company has introduced some sparkling new products to the market.
The Outlander its DNA is all through the new Lancer has proved a runaway success, while we are seeing more and more super- economical iCars about. The Colt is going well, and even towards the end of its long-lived career, the old Lancer has been holding its own tourists drive them everywhere in New Zealand to the extent that Mitsubishi New Zealand's chief executive, John Leighton, says, in the words of Roberto Benigni, "Life is Beautiful".
When I drive the Lancer in the near future, I'll let you know what he's grinning about.
- Fairfax Media