SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Up in Balboa Park on a mesa overlooking a blue Pacific harbor, a plaza at the San Diego Automotive Museum resembles a car park which caters exclusively to a single model.
lustered hodgepodge in various colors and several trim designations, the collection of shiny new compact-class sedans decorating the Pan American Plaza seems striking, with each vehicle scored by a swoopy prow where inspiration for the angular chin, wide-mouth grille and angry-eye headlamps came from the menacing muzzle of a shark.
Each vehicle wears the nameplate of Lancer in an all-new design for the 2008 model-year as a keen new entry to the compact class from Mitsubishi of Japan. What's happening here with multiple iterations of the new Lancer lining a plaza in Balboa Park?
It's the onset of driving tests for automotive media assembled in San Diego to inspect the 2008 Lancer. We select a vivid blue version -- the top-trim GTS model rigged with a sport-tuned suspension and manual gearbox -- and zip away for some driving tests in the mountains to the east of San Diego.
Lancer of 2008 amounts to a bumper-to-bumper re-do for Mitsubishi's small sedan, an economy car with sporty airs which landed in North America as a 2002 model although the Lancer name traces back to 1973 on Mitsubishi compacts marketed in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Since 1974, Lancer has also been the name applied to Mitsubishi's raucous rally race car. The Lancer Evolution, nicknamed 'Evo' in racing circles, is a high-performance version of the Lancer sedan but motivated by a souped-up turbo engine and rigged with all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
And the new front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform which underpins Lancer 2008 -- with a longer wheelbase and wider track -- will also support the next issue of the Evo, dubbed 'Evolution X'with that 'X' as the Roman number 10 for a tenth generation.
The body structure has been strengthened and stiffened to achieve more than 50 percent greater torsional rigidity than the last Lancer. This chassis reinforcement checks the car body's tendency to sway laterally when steered through a curve so Lancer's passenger compartment remains tight and relatively flat.
Aiding this agile attitude, the platform's wide-track stance in conjunction with an independent front suspension system biased toward a low longitudinal roll center contribute predictable stability for Lancer. Likewise, the independent multi-link rear suspension holds back wheels in line while also damping vertical movement prompted by pavement bumps.
The expanded structure -- with wheelbase running 1.4 inches longer, width increasing by almost three inches and the height registering a 2.3-inch gain -- translates into more space for passengers in Lancer's cabin with roomy seating for five.
And Lancer loads up on safety equipment. For instance, the four-wheel disc brakes connect to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) keyed to electronic brake force distribution (EBD). The ABS and EBD appear on the list of options for Lancer's entry-level trim, but they're stock equipment for the two uplevel trims.
A Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), which signals when a tire's air pressure drops below normal, is standard on all. Passengers are surrounded by air bags, including multi-stage frontal air bags and side air bags for the front seats along with curtain-style air bags tucked in the ceiling for all outboard seats. There's even an inflatable air bag positioned ahead of the driver's knees.
Front seatbelts employ load-limited and pretensioning apparatus, while backseat restraints include upper and lower anchors to mount a child's safety seat. There's only one body style -- a four-door notchback sedan -- but the three trim variations, each with the same engine and a choice of manual five-speed transmission or a CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic.
Mitsubishi discarded the previous Lancer's single-cam four-cylinder engine and replaced it with a twin-cam version using the Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control (MIVEC) equipment. Displacement remains the same at 2.0 liters, but the new in-line-four gains in power and torque. It produces 152 hp at 6000 rpm and 146 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.
Fuel economy figures tally to 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway with the manual transmission, or 20/29 mpg city/highway with the CVT. Crisp new sheetmetal shapes set Lancer apart from the bland sameness of other compact imports. Keep in mind that the inspiration for the body shape of Lancer is a sleek shark.
Lines look sharp and the overall style is aggressive, with wheels pinned at corners of the package to balance the stance. Body parts extend only briefly over front and back edges in the manner of racers as the pointed prow and windshield tip rearward to suggest swift movement.
On flanks there's a high beltline with flares around the circular wheelwells plus shoulder bulges above the forward wheels. Lancer's revamped cabin is an expansive space in a layout which shows two buckets in front of a bench for three.
A new design for the dash is clean and uncluttered with the instrument panel tucked below a double-bubble cowl and binnacles housing the analog tachometer and speedometer. Lancer DE is the price leader but comes with a lot of preferred equipment. Standards include power to operate all windows, auto-off headlamps with daytime running lights, a stereo audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3, and 16-inch steel wheels with wheel covers and P205/60R16 tires.
Lancer DE adds gear like air conditioning, power door locks, cruise control and a keyless remote entry device, upgraded seat upholstery and the rear seatback split 60-40, along with rear seat heater ducts and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel.
Lancer GTS brings a sport-tuned suspension, automatic climate control system, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, magnesium paddle shifters on the steering wheel to manage the CVT's six-step Sportronic manual mode, and 18-inch alloy wheels capped by P215/45R18 tires. MSRP figures range from $13,990 for Lancer DE with a manual shifter to $18,490 for Lancer GTS with the CVT.