Pay to play

2008, Mitsubishi, Lancer GTS

Do you want to save the world? Or are you just trying to save some money? Suddenly, it seems, these are the issues that dominate our car-shopping sensibilities. Looking good, having fun, we've almost reached the point where these concerns are beside the point. To admit to a certain enjoyment of the automotive experience is, well, selfishly non-PC according to an ever-growing multitude of transportation Puritans.

And don't think the automakers haven't noticed. They're scrambling all over themselves to come up with the right message (to say nothing of the right product) that will appeal to a fussy and fickle, cynical and anxious auto-buying public. The three sedans featured here may well represent this circumstance in microcosm. What'll it be? High flash; high-tech; or high value? This much, at least, is certain: Price tags have a unique way of ordering one's priorities.

Forget everything you know about Mitsubishi's recent struggle to shed its reputation as the "limp noodle" of the automotive pantheon. The all-new Lancer is an attempt to begin afresh, and the fact that Lancer shares its architectural platform with the Dodge Caliber and Jeeps Compass and Patriot is a good step in the right direction.

With a punchy 152-horsepower inline-four, the Lancer is performance-oriented but no scintillating performer. It's also loud circumstance that the continuously variable transmission (CVT) does little to dispel. Aging boomers will deplore the CVT's "slipping clutch" sensation; but in fact, that's the way it's supposed to feel. The beauty of a CVT is that it instantly finds the powerband's "sweet spot" for the motor it's mated to and thereby maximizes engine efficiency. Still, it feels and sounds funny in practice.

Based on newer, more onerous mileage-testing protocols for 2008 models, the Lancer only manages 22 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway. (Using 2007 methods, those numbers would likely be two to three mpgs higher.) Even so, the Lancer's forte isn't frugality but flash. In GTS trim, it's all about wings and spoilers and 18-inch wheels and pizzazz. It handles reasonably well, and it looks plenty aggressive; but it's a ton-and-a-half of sedan with four doors and seating for five.

It's also a $14,000 car that's been dolled-up to an as-tested sticker of $20,615. The new Lancer GTS, refined as it is upon its new platform, is all about making a fashion statement at a time when a lot of folks now think that's a bit unfashionable.

Here's how much things have changed: What's fashionable today is starting off with a $15,000 car like Honda's Civic, dosing it up with $8,000 worth of sexy electric-motor technology and even adding a $2,200 GPS navigation system. Voila! A fashionable hybrid sedan that rates 49 mpg/city, 51 mpg/highway. (The base Civic DX gets 30 mpg/city, 38 mpg/highway.) No matter how you look at it, it's going to take a whole lotta drivin' to turn that $8,000 premium into a smart investment.

But, of course, that's not the point. Buying a hybrid isn't an investment; it's penance for the venal sin of needing to go places that are too far for walking or bicycling, too random for riding the bus. And then, there this devilish, little bonus: Hybrid's are very fun to drive. With its instant-on torque of 76 foot-pounds from an electric motor, combined with 123 foot-pounds from the 1.3-liter gas engine, there are almost 200 foot-pounds available for sprinting from stop to stop in a vehicle weighing only 2,900 pounds.

But it doesn't take long before sprinting becomes a mere memory, because eventually all drivers of all hybrids start using the "feedback screen" in the dash to monitor how much energy their driving styles are making as opposed to consuming. It's positively riveting to watch how the Civic Hybrid generates electricity while braking and gearing down, then gobbles it all up again when starting from a stop.

But when the novelty wears off, it's still a Civic that costs about $8,000 more than it needs to. So you're still paying to play; except, now, the game seems to have changed.

Ho, hum. That about sums up the Nissan Sentra's reputation. Unless you've actually driven the car, that is.

For $15,615, a basic 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 may not be the coolest looking compact sedan. It's certainly not bristling with high-tech. But for the money, it's easily the best value of the three cars featured here, and it'll give all other rivals in the compact sedan category a run for the money.

What's more, with a six-speed manual transmission (which is rare for this class of car), the new Sentra is quite fun to drive. It redlines promptly, and it shifts easily. On the freeway, its 140 horsepower feels adequate, unless the car's full with five occupants. And even if 28 mpg/city and 34 mpg/highway don't match Honda's numbers, Sentra is a larger and lighter sedan with a bigger trunk. It is, in other words, potentially more versatile.

What the Sentra is not, however, is gorgeous. Its silhouette is anonymous, and its base-model interior is a mixture of fuzzy felt and double-knit upholstery. But at least there's a decent, entry level audio system with CD and iPod jack. And for a car of this size and price range, the new Sentra does a remarkably good job of keeping the cockpit quiet from wind and road noise.

Buying an entry-level Sentra means not having to pay to look racy. It means not having to pay for exotic, hybrid technology whose economics are still questionable. It does, however, mean paying yourself dividends in terms of value and versatility that are surprisingly often underestimated.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Mitsubishi Lancer GTS

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS front view
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS front view
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS rear view
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS rear view
2007 Honda Civic Hybrid front shot
2007 Honda Civic Hybrid front shot
2007 Nissan Sentra front view
2007 Nissan Sentra front view