When it comes to car manufacturers, there is one thing that seems to indicate the beginning of the end: the production of a ridiculous amount of vehicles. Take, for example, Toyota. Brought to the United States with a tiny vehicle lineup spanning just one or two models, the Japanese giant blossomed. Leveraging all their engineering prowess behind just a few models, they created cars that will forever stand as exemplars for the brand’s reputation for reliability. Fast forward a few decades, and Toyota’s reputation, once the strongest in the industry, is now a mere shadow of its former self. Numerous safety recalls and internal scandals have brought the brand’s image to its knees, and even the most faithful Toyota buyers have been forced to reconsider their favourite automaker. And what preceded all this? A product explosion: while the company once offered a vehicle known simply at the Toyota truck and 4Runner, they now offer the Tundra, Tacoma, FJ Cruiser, 4Runner, RAV4, Sequoia and Highlander.
But no such explosion has happened down the street at your local Mitsubishi dealer. Taking a page from a very old book, Mitsubishi has followed in the grand Japanese tradition of altering existing models to better suit their buyers needs. Reference the existing Lancer lineup, which includes no less than four distinct models: the sedan, Sportback, Ralliart, and Evolution. With something to offer everyone from the thrifty commuter to the weekend track warrior, where does this, the latest Lancer offering, fit?
Well, pretty much everywhere the other ones do. Unlike the station wagon variants of old, this Sportback occupies no more room upon the Earth’s crust than does a standard Lancer sedan, which comes in handy in tight parking spaces. Forward of the C-pillar, there is absolutely nothing to remind you of the Sportback’s bulkier derriere, and this is a good thing. Having already waxed poetically about the Lancer’s good looks, there’s no need to repeat my sentiments here, but suffice it to say that when parked next to the snub-nosed Civic, even the Sportback looks elegant. However, I did notice a small problem with the Lancer’s beefy A-Pillars insofar as they can completely swallow up pedestrians on the passenger side, where the pillar extends into the cabin and obscures more of the front ¾ view than on the driver’s side, where the pillar is viewed head-on.
But out back is where the real news lies. Replacing the handsome trunk and taillights of the much-loved sedan variant, the Sportback sees the addition of a few more yards of sheetmetal and a fifth door, making this an honest-to-goodness hatchback. Sadly, the conversion isn’t quite flawless. While the remainder of the vehicle retains the sedan’s creases and angles, the Sportback grafts on a series of Hyundai-esque compound curves that, to be honest, make it look like its melting in reverse. But the problem isn’t just stylistic; the curvaceous booty is bisected by a nearly horizontal pane of glass that limits storage capacity to nearly that found under the sedan’s trunk. Thankfully, the standard Lancer boasts an impressive cargo capacity and the Sportback does improve upon that by a tiny practical margin, but it hardly seems worthy of the extensive development costs associated with the production of another model.
Driving-wise, the Sportback was an absolute pressure. On a daylong road trip to Seattle for some Mother’s Day shopping (iPads are A) hard to find, and B) only available for purchase with a credit or debit card bearing your name), the Sportback returned just 8.3 litres per hundred kilometres with the cruise control set at roughly 120 kilometres per hour. Interestingly, at those speeds the Sportback seemed the quell some of the wind noise that dominated the sedan’s high-speed antics, although an untoward amount of road noise still filtered up through the wheelwells; most likely the result of the complete intrusion of the rear wheelwells. Also, that problematic rear glass sits directly at the height of most SUV headlights and almost seems to brighten them, which led to a few more flicks of the rear view mirror’s dimming toggle than has been required in nearly every other car I’ve driven. Then again, it might just be that the roof-mounted spoiler doesn’t have the same propensity for headlight blocking as the sedan’s trunk-mounted wing. Great for visibility, the big spoiler extends way out over the rear glass, and protects most of it from rainfall when at a standstill, but causes substantial amounts of road spray to suck up against the rear window. Granted, it’s a situation that’s easily remedied by a simple flip of the rear wiper, but it’s just another example of an engineering oddity as you’d think Mitsubishi’s engineers would have used the spoiler to direct some airflow at the rear glass in order to keep it as clear as possible. However, all that said, all that weight over the rear axle seemed to help Mitsubishi’s suspension engineers work out a few bugs as the Sportback handled larger road irregularities and speed bumps with an unshakeable confidence that few cars can match, with not a whisper of any excessive movement.
In summation, it’s hard to make any comprehensive declaration about the Lancer Sportback. Is it useful? Indeed. Its cargo compartment swallowed five cases of soda pop, two shopping bags’ worth of clothes, 180 clay pigeons, 25 rifle targets, an iPad, and a gym bag without an ounce of cargo spilling forward into the passenger compartment. Then again, there’s little doubt in my mind that I could fit that same load into a standard Lancer’s trunk, but that’s not even the worst news. With a starting price that’s roughly $9,000 more than a base Lancer, the Sportback draws within $1,400 dollars of the even-more-useful Endeavour. Granted, the "base" Sportback actually boasts the top-end Lancer GTS trim spec, and comes within a whisker of the Lancer GTS' price point, but its hatchback shape and the practicality expected thereof creates a car that straddles the line between Lancer and Endeavour. Boasting excellent fuel economy, the capacity to seat seven, and a downright huge cargo area (I managed to squeeze every last one of a friend’s personal belongings into the back on a 2010 Endeavour when he and his family moved back to Vancouver from Japan), the Endeavour simply crushes the Lancer Sportback on many of the areas that the Sportback was purpose-built to excel at. Interestingly, opting for the Sportback Ralliart pictured here seems to be a vastly better deal, costing just a few hundred more dollars than the standard sedan Ralliart. Then again, for many drivers it will be the Sportback’s diminutive size and ease of manoeuvring that will engender it to its buyers... but for my money? I’ll take the Endeavour, thanks.