2002 Mitsubishi Lancer
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Mention Mirage and you're likely to get people talking about illusions or the Mirage casino in Las Vegas. Not many will automatically connect the word with a small entry-level car. This is how forgettable the entry-level Mitsubishi Mirage four door had become. For the 2002 model year, Mitsubishi replaces the Mirage sedan with a new car called Lancer.
But there's more change here than just the name.
The Lancer comes with more features and feels more modern than its predecessor. And the Lancer lineup includes an eye-catching, sporty-looking top model that wears some styling cues from customizers, such as side air dams and OZ Racing wheels.
A couple footnotes
The Mirage two door will serve as Mitsubishi's overall bargain price leader with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, that's nearly $2,000 less than the $14,400-plus for the base 2002 Lancer ES.
Also, don't confuse the 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer with the Lancer sold by Chrysler during the 1980s. Mitsubishi has used the Lancer name globally on winning World Rally Championship small cars for years.
About that Rally edition
The Lancer OZ Rally edition uses the same 120-horsepower 2.0-liter single-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine that's in all U.S.-bound Lancers this year. The 120 horsepower is a boost over the 111-horsepower from the 1.8-liter four that was in the Mirage sedan.
With 130 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm, the Lancer's bigger engine gets the car up and moving nicely in city traffic and feels well suited to daily duties, especially when mated to the 5-speed manual transmission.
But as in many four-cylinder cars, I had to plan ahead when passing other vehicles and found it best to downshift to get zippy performance, even in the OZ Rally edition.
Some competitors have more power
But the Mazda Protege, which also uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, has 140 horsepower and 142 lb-ft of torque. And Nissan this year adds a new, sporty version of Sentra, the SE-R, which offers up to 175 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque from a 2.5-liter double-overhead-cam four cylinder.
The Lancer's estimated fuel economy of 26 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway for a manual transmission model is mainstream for this segment.
Improved ride, but . . .
The front-wheel-drive Lancer feels like a modern car with reduced flex in the car's body. Front suspension is an independent MacPherson strut design with coil springs. A multi-link suspension works at the back.
For the OZ Rally edition, Mitsubishi added bigger cross-section front struts, and tires are 15 inchers on all but the base ES trim.
I felt some vibrations over road bumps and took hard hits a couple times. On some expansion joints the Lancer bobbed up and down gently.
Note that even the sporty-looking OZ Rally edition doesn't include a strut tower brace. But Nissan puts this race-car-like brace on its Sentra SE as well as new SE-R to improve handling.
And those 15-inch tires on the fancy OZ Racing wheels? They gripped strongly for the Lancer but produced noticeable road noise.
Most disconcerting to me was the vague response from the Lancer's power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering. Some recent Mazda Proteges I've driven had crisper steering response than this, and the ride overall in the Lancer was less refined than that of a new-model Honda Civic.
The Lancer interior doesn't convey an upscale feel, especially in the ES and LS trim. There's a lot of plastic and vinyl on high-touch areas, such as the tops of the door panels inside and the top of the center storage area between the two front seats. Still, everything is laid out well and within easy reach.
I preferred the interior of the OZ Rally edition. It comes only in black and, combined with the brushed metal-look accents on the dashboard and center console, conveys a fun personality. Gauges in the OZ are sportier, too, with black numbers on white backgrounds.
Trunk space is down a tad, from 11.5 cubic feet to 11.3 cubic feet; most of the extra length of the car went to improve back-seat legroom, which now is a noteworthy 36.6 inches.
Sitting in the Lancer's back seat was comfortable for someone my size, 5 feet 4 inches. My knees weren't jammed into the front seatbacks, and I neatly tucked my toes under the front seats, which sit up a bit from the floor.
Rear windows go down all the way. But three adults sit closely in back, and headroom, front and rear, is less than what was in the Mirage and what's in the Protege.
All five passengers in the Lancer have three-point safety belts, but only front-seat riders have adjustable head restraints. In the back seats, the head protection is built into the seatbacks and isn't as closely positioned to riders' heads as I would like.
Note that no sunroof is offered for the Lancer, even on the OZ edition.
This helps explain why starting prices for the Lancer are up over $14,000, which seems high when you look at base models of some small-car competitors such as Sentra and Protege.
But base Sentras and Proteges don't necessarily come with as much standard equipment.