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2013 Lancer Sportback GT: Hatchback adds versatility

by: MITSUBISHI MOTORS - The 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GT is a looker.You've got to give Mitsubishi credit for trying. Although the small Japanese car company has been unable to replace its aging Lancer compact for many years, it offers several different versions of the car. They include an entry-level coupe called the Lancer, a performance-oriented sedan called the Ralliart, two flavors of hatchback called the Sportback, and a high-performance version called the Evolution. The Lancer is available will all-wheel-drive, while the Ralliart and Evolution come with turborcharged engines, all-wheel-drive and an available six-speed twin-clutch transmission. The Sportback isn't available with a turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive or a twin-clutch transmission. Got that?

If so, you might conclude the Sportback is the least interesting version of the Lancer. And you'd be right. The hatchback design increases cargo space and practicality, but all-wheel-drive is a good option to have in the rainy Pacific Northwest. And the two performance versions — the 237 horsepower Ralliart and 291 horsepower Evolution — are just plain fun to drive, while the Sportback — the subject of this test — is less so.

But at least the Sportback comes in a GT version, which is the one we got. It is sportier looking and better equipped than the lower-priced ES version. And it definately looks more aggressive than the entry-level sedan, thanks to a bigger grill, lower air dam and rear wing on the top of the steeply angled hatch that replaces the trunk.

Our test Sportback GT was also equipped with every option, including a leather interior, sunroof and killer stereo system — all of which helped ease the stress of our daily commute. The all-black paint also played up the car's huge grill, low spoiler and hatched-mounted rear wing, making it look even sportier.

But the Sportback also lacks desirable features found on the Lancer sedans and Evolution. The sedan offers an all-wheel-drive system that can turned on with a switch on the center console, a genuine plus for the rainy Pacific Northwest. It should at least be offered on the Sportback, although maybe then people would have no reason to buy the sedan.

The base engine in the Lancer is a 2.0-liter inline four cylinder rated at 148 horsepower. Our test car was delivered with the optional 2.4-liter four banger rated at a more respectable 168 horsepower. It tried hard to please but was ultimately the unresponsive Continuously Variable Transmission that came with our test car. Although two manual shift modes are available — shift lever or paddles — the performance still did not quite live up to the car's looks or GT designation. The base five-speed manual transmission is probably a better choice for those looking to maximize the entertainment value.

Despite that, the Sportback GT was pleasant enough to drive on a daily basis. The suspension is sport tuned and the steering is precise, giving it a nimble feel on the road. The interior is reasonably roomy and the dash is refreshingly simple, even in our test model, which was equipped with the optional navigation system. Although the screen was smaller than some competitors, the back up camera was a welcome addition. And the hatchback did open to reveal an impressive amount of cargo space, especially when the rear seats were folded down.

The bigger problem is, all the various Lancers are based on an aging model that has fallen far behind many competitors. For example, they are challenged by the newer Hyundai Elantra, which also offers a hatchback GT version. Over at Subaru, both the sedan and hatchback versions of the Impreza come standard with all-wheel-drive, while the high performance WRX version is also available. Such newer vehicles are more refined than the Lancer and also get better mileage, thanks to fuel-saving technologies like those found on the similarly-sized Mazda3.

In some respects, the Lancer is like the under-appreciated Dodge Caliber, which was recently discontinued. The Caliber, a crossover, replaced the subcompact Neon. Its boxy hatchback styling was intentionally provocative and also offered more interior room than the Neon. It was also available in several versions, including one with all-wheel-drive and another with a turbocharged engine. The Caliber initially sold well enough, but it did not get especially good mileage. When gas price started climbing a few years ago, consumers chose newer and more fuel efficient competitors instead. There are still many Calibers on the road today, however, proving that they met a lot of people's needs at the time.

Mitsubishi's struggles are well known in the automotive world. It is a small manufacturer that simply cannot generate new products as fast as its competitors. The same situation forced Suzuki to pull out of the U.S. market last years. Mitsubishi deserves credit for hanging in there, and some of its products, like the Evolution and crossover Outlander GT are very competitive. Others, however, like the Lancer and Galant sedan, are desperately in need of cash infusions. Let's hope the company finds a way to modernize all of its offerings. The more choices, the better.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 Lancer Sportback GT.

• Manufacturer: Mitsubishi.

• Class: Compact hatchback.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive - as tested; front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door car; five-door car.

• Engines: 2.0-liter inline 4 cylinder (148 hp, 145 lb-ft); 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder (168 hp, 167 lb-ft - as tested); 2.0-liter inline 4 cylinder (237 hp, 254 lb-ft). 2.0-liter inline 4 cylinder (291 hp, 300 lb-ft).

• Transmissions: Five-speed manual; six-speed twin-clutch automatic; Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT); Sportronic CVT with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters - as tested.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 24/32/27; 22/29/25.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $18,459 ($27,840 as tested).