By Derek Price
CNHI News Service
— Mitsubishi has long been known for its work in the World Rally Championship, the planet's most famous on- and off-road racing series. Most American racing fans are more focused on what happens at Daytona and Talladega than in New Zealand and Sweden, but that has not stopped Mitsubishi from spending boatloads of money and many years developing the fastest rally cars in the world.
The good news is some of that high-end racing technology has filtered down to Mitsubishi's performance cars, especially the Lancer Evolution series, some of the wildest street-legal cars on the market.
The bad news: All that performance comes at a price. A fully optioned 2013 Lancer Evolution has a $46,700 sticker on the window.
Budget-minded buyers will be happy to learn that the more affordable Lancer SE now comes with a high-tech, all-wheel-drive system that feels like it would be at home flying down the rocky, dusty roads of the Acropolis Rally.
Starting at $20,295, the Lancer SE marks the first time Mitsubishi's advanced All-Wheel Control system has been fitted to a budget-priced car. And while most Lancer buyers won't give a flip about racing performance, it can come in handy on wet or icy roads.
This new Lancer joins a growing chorus of small, affordable, all-wheel-drive cars that appeal to drivers in snowy, wet or mountainous regions.
People are trading in their big, gas-guzzling crossovers and 4x4s for smaller, more nimble cars like this. They cost less to purchase and burn less fuel, but they still won't leave you stuck in the snow or mud.
Even on dry roads, the traction this car generates can make it a blast to drive. It's the same chassis as the Lancer Evolution, so although it doesn't have the full-blown power and track-friendly suspension of the Evo, it's got a balanced, solid feel when pushed into corners.
Power comes from a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 168 horses. It's not an extremely powerful engine — Mitsubishi will be happy to sell you one of those if you've got the money — but it does have a heaping dollop of low-end torque that makes it accelerate quickly off the line. It feels like a healthy, meaty engine.
Fuel economy is rated at 29 mpg on the highway and 22 in town, or about the same as the all wheel-drive Suzuki SX4 I drove a few weeks ago.
The Mitsubishi, though, feels much more substantial. The subcompact Suzuki seemed dinky and lightweight in comparison, but it also came at a lower price.
Inside, the Lancer's cabin is better than average for this class. It feels solid and looks good, but it's not quite to the blow-your-mind level that Hyundai and General Motors have been achieving the past couple of years.
As a whole, I've always thought there was too big a gap between the grocery-getter Lancer models and the pricey, street-racing versions. This new version, the SE, does a good job filling the void.
It offers one of the best parts of the Evolution series — its ridiculously good traction — at a price a lot more people can afford.
Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.