NAPOLEONVILLE, La. -- Mitsubishi Motors Corp. is beginning to take the small-car market seriously. It is choosing value over economy and trying to put fun and excitement where none existed -- in its least-expensive automobiles.
The Koreans caused the shift. Since 1986, they've been harvesting small-car sales that once belonged to the Japanese, mostly by competing on price. The Koreans lately have been competing on quality, too.
Mitsubishi and other Japanese automakers, along with America's Ford Motor Co., decided to fight back with completely reworked lines of small cars. Nissan beefed up its Sentra. Mazda rolled out the Protege5 and Protege MP3. Subaru unveiled its Impreza WRX. Honda prepared to launch the Civic Si. Ford began developing its hot-rod Focus SVT, and Mitsubishi brought forth the U.S. version of the Lancer, including the base ES, the better-equipped LS and the sporty O-Z.
They are little cars packed with horsepower, though the U.S.-model Lancer is an impostor in that regard. My test car, an O-Z Rally, was equipped with the standard 120-horsepower, two-liter, four-cylinder engine. Compare that with 227 horsepower for the turbocharged Subaru WRX and 170 horsepower for the soon-to-be-introduced Focus SVT.
But though its engine was lackluster, the test car's chassis -- shared with the 280-horsepower Lancer Evolution VII sold in Japan -- was right. Louisiana's roads are as dippy as the state's politics. Small cars, with their short wheelbases and often workaday suspensions, get beaten up pretty badly here. But Mitsubishi outfitted all of its U.S. Lancers with much-improved four-wheel independent suspension systems (bigger front struts with multi-links in the rear). The test car moved nicely over the bumps, humps and gravel of Louisiana Highway 1.
It was comfortable and fun in other ways, too. Mitsubishi loaded its Lancers with standard amenities -- power windows, locks and side-view mirrors; high-quality interior materials; more sound insulation materials to reduce road noise. By making the Lancer four inches longer than the predecessor Mirage, the company also added more leg room, and it raised the roof a bit to give more room for heads.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.