Comparo: 2012 Subaru Impreza vs. 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE-AWC (Review)

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Though the competition seems much more fierce at the top end between the Subaru STi and the Mitsubishi EVO, much of their race-bred technology and hard-fought lessons trickle down to the more consumer-grade offerings, and these are the ones that make money. Why? Because they sell a crap-load of each of these for every STi and EVO they move. As much as we love to focus on the gladiatorial duel between the monsters at the top of the line, it’s these two that are the bread and butter for the manufacturers and the ones that you’ll see most often.

I hung out with each of these competitors for a week, and put them through their paces. I found remarkable similarities between the two, as well as some differences. I had sedans for both reviews – the Impreza is also available in the popular 5-door hatch configuration.

The Subaru Impreza starts at CDN $19,995 – the Touring trim level sedan I had will set you back CDN $24,690.

Mitsubishi Lancers start at a low CDN $17,598. Step up to the SE-AWC trim I was driving, and you’re looking at CDN $24,698 all in.

Hmmmm, looks like we’ve already hit a similarity – price-wise, they’re basically the same.

Subaru flew me out to Vancouver to spend some time with the new Impreza, and I dug a little deeper in a separate write-up here if you’re looking for details beyond what you’ll find in this comparo.

 

Exterior

Subaru made a big deal about the restyling of this generation of Impreza, hoping that it would please more people and offend less of them. Frankly, I’ve always liked the quirky styling of the Impreza and it never bothered me. But if you’re trying to move more vehicles, it often makes sense to move toward the middle. The new design is nice, and although the changes might seem subtle to some, they’re significant enough as a whole to make a difference.

The new grille and headlight clusters have an air of aggression about them, and the lines flow cleanly and smoothly. I like how the wheel arches are large and pronounced, and the hood has nice sculpting that makes its way to the grille. To be honest, there is less than ever to set the Impreza sedan apart from its competition, at least in terms of the exterior. The side profile will blend in with a lot of others. It’s not a bad thing, to be sure. I did appreciate that Subaru wasn’t afraid to set itself apart in the past, but I understand wanting to sell more cars and appeal to a broader audience. It’s a very … pleasant looking sedan. The highest trim level adds nice big wheels, which have a noticeable impact on its visual appeal.

The Lancer’s styling is now familiar – there are plenty of them driving around. It’s a pretty decent looking sedan as well.

Mitsubishi uses smooth styling here as well, and nothing will come across as offensive to anyone. Well, maybe one thing. I’ll get to that in a second. Fenders are gently flared, there’s nice sporty trim along the rocker panels and the grille is Mitsu’s corporate face, the semi-aggressive shark mouth that has made it onto every one of their vehicles. I prefer the way the Lancer’s roofline flows versus the Impreza’s.

Much like with the Impreza, I think bigger wheels would make a noticeable difference in how good this car looks – the ones on the SE-AWC trim are nothing to get excited about. The one thing I do take issue with is the big rear spoiler that comes as part of this package. It seems a bit silly because it’s purely for aesthetics – of course, you won’t be needing it to actually supply downforce because you’re not going to be approaching those kind of driving levels in this car. I think it’s goofy for that reason, and for another, which I’ll touch on in the driving section.

Advantage: Lancer – though they’re both pretty uninspiring to look at, the Impreza is new and the Lancer is starting to look dated, I still prefer the Lancer styling

 

Under the Hood

Subaru introduced a new engine for this generation of Impreza. Retaining their boxer architecture, they actually reduced displacement and output, which surprised a few folks. It’s a 2.0-Liter horizontally-opposed (boxer) 4-cylinder. It is rated at 148 HP at 6200 RPM, and 145 lb.ft at 4200 RPM. Though the numbers seem down, Subaru tuned this engine to be more responsive at lower and mid-range RPMs, and to be more fuel-efficient overall. Fuel economy is pegged at 7.5 L/100 km in the city and 5.5 L/100 km on the highway. That’s pretty impressive for an all-wheel drive car. My average ended up at 10.1 L/100 km (23.3 mpg) – typical city driving, a few stomps on the gas pedal and a couple of freeway cruises. The power is routed through a CVT transmission and the Impreza has a 55 Liter tank. Curb weight is 2954 pounds.

The Lancer SE-AWC gets an upgraded engine versus the other Lancers. Mitsubishi gives it the 2.4-Liter inline-4, rated at 168 HP at 6000 RPM and 167 lb.ft of torque at 4100 RPM. This engine has a bigger displacement gives the SE-AWC a higher power rating than the other 3 Lancer trim levels. Fuel economy numbers are estimated at 9.1 L/100 km in the city and 6.8 L/100 km on the highway. I averaged 9.5 L/100 km (24.8 mpg) during my time with it – I spend virtually all my time in the city, driving normally with a couple of aggressive squirts here and there. I was surprised by the better fuel economy, because this car is heavier and more powerful than the Impreza. Just like its competitor, this is an all-wheel drive car and it puts the power down through a CVT transmission. The Lancer weighs 3120 pounds and has a 55 Liter tank as well.

Advantage: Lancer – bigger displacement, more power, slightly less efficient

 

Interior

Subaru dressed up the interior of the new Impreza with a substantial upgrade in materials. There are plenty of soft-touch plastics where your hands might fall, including the entire dash, and the texture is great. Styling is clean and effective, if not exactly beautiful. Although the materials seem more upmarket, the Impreza’s cockpit is still a bit simple – almost everything is basically a shade of black with a couple of swatches of light work. It doesn’t feel low-rent, but I think more could be done to make things feel more luxurious.

The Impreza’s steering wheel is fantastic – the material feels a bit rubbery, but otherwise it’s well done – it has buttons for media, phone and cruise control. Behind it sit a couple of very easy to read gauges – I loved the red on black lighting on the instruments and switchgear.

The Impreza’s heated and manually adjustable seats are great. They are better bolstered than they appear, and they are quite comfortable.

The center stack starts with a hooded bin containing a ribbon display on top, a sound system below, and a manual climate control system using three rotary dials. The center console houses the gear selector and a parking brake lever. There is an armrest that sits quite far back.

I should note that I spent some time with a higher trim Impreza model that had a color display screen and it’s tough to come back to something as old-school as this lame ribbon display after something that nice.

The Lancer’s interior feels like it’s fallen behind a bit. Things are looking a bit dated and are very basic, and you won’t find a shred of soft-touch material anywhere except the padded door panels. You’ll find some nice textures, but it still feels pretty entry-level. Fit and finish is decent, but not fantastic.

The dash styling is very unremarkable – the only anomaly is the dual-hooded gauge bin. It contains two large easy to read gauges.

The Lancer’s steering wheel is great as well – it’s the right size for me, with a good rim thickness. Unfortunately it only adjusts for height, not reach. It has controls for media, cruise and phone on it.

The seats, which are also heated and manually adjustable, are very comfortable. Bolstering is reasonable, and better than in many other cars. Head room is very good in the front, and the car feels spacious for its size.

The center stack in the Lancer starts with a wide display ribbon at the top with hard buttons for the media system below, and underneath that is a manual climate control system using three rotary knobs. On the console, you’ll find the gear selector, a parking brake lever and a non-adjustable armrest that sits very far back. Does any of this sound familiar? Like you just read it about another car roughly a minute ago? I did notice a number of blank buttons/spaces in the Lancer interior, which leads me to think the one trim level up would include a number of niceties I didn’t find here.

Advantage: Impreza – better materials, better fit and finish

 

Tech/Convenience

This will be a blessedly short section, as both of these rides are quite short on tech AND convenience.

The Impreza has a basic ribbon display on the dash, which allows you to access fuel range, instant and average fuel economy, elapsed driving time and your average speed. It always displays a clock and the outside temperature. The stereo system is a very basic unit, with AM, FM, CD, auxiliary and USB sources – it sounds alright, but is nothing to write home about.

The Lancer has a driver information screen between the main gauges – it displays outside temperature, a digital fuel gauge, fuel range, average speed and fuel economy, 2 trip meters and coolant temperature. The stereo is also nothing great, and feeds from AM, FM, CD, USB (awkwardly located in the glove compartment) and Bluetooth streaming audio.

Both cars have power door locks, windows and mirrors. The Impreza adds automatic headlights. The Lancer has a little ECO indicator, which glows to tell you you’re driving economically.

Advantage: Neither – they’re both lacking in these departments

 

Rear Seats

Both cars have three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests in the back. And both cars offer pretty spartan spaces back there. Frankly, the notes I made for both cars are almost identical in terms of their rear seating.

Both sets of seats are quite comfortable but suffer from a lack of bolstering/lateral support – they are nice for 2 adults, or 3 kids. The middle seats are narrow, raised and perched over an intrusive driveshaft tunnel on the floor, making that position a particularly uncomfortable one to be stuck in. Headroom was good in the Lancer, excellent in the Impreza. Leg and knee room was good in both. Door bins are small but decent, both cars have 1 seatback map pocket and you get 2 sets of LATCH anchors for kids’ seats.

Both cars will let you fold the rear middle seatback down to gain an armrest and 2 cupholders.

I found the seating position in the back of the Lancer to feel as though you’re sitting quite deep down in the car, as the beltline is high.

Advantage: Neither – they are eerily identical in space and lack of creature comforts

 

Storage

The Impreza has a nice big open bin underneath the center stack – it’s rubberized and has a 12V plug. The center console holds a couple of storage slots and two large cupholders. The armrest lid opens to a decent bin that has auxiliary, USB and 12V plugs. The glove compartment is reasonable, and front door bins are decent with built-in bottle holders.

The Impreza’s trunk, though not big, is well laid-out and useful. Cargo capacity is 340 Liters (12 cubic feet). Of course, you can increase that by folding the seats down.

The Lancer has a large glove compartment, and an inset area under the center stack with some small bins and a 12V plug. The armrest lid flips up to open a storage bin with a 12V plug in it and you’ll find a couple of useful door bins.

The trunk opening is decent, and the trunk is simple and mostly carpeted – there is an exposed metal crossbeam at the top. The trunk hinges sit on the outside of the trunk space, which is great – they never intrude on your cargo space or pinch your luggage in there when swung down. The cargo volume of the Mitsubishi trunk is 348 Liters (12.3 cubic feet). Not huge, but it is useful space, and can be increased by folding the seats down – they split 60/40.

The Impreza’s rear seats fold down flat, whereas the Lancers do not.

Advantage: Neither – differences in small storage spaces are a wash between these two, as is trunk capacity and convenience

 

The Drive

I was a bit surprised at how comfortable both these vehicles were to drive.

The Subaru has a very nice ride, and it soaks up hits well and isolates the cabin. Handling is very secure and predictable, although it is done with quite a bit of body roll. Driving this car hard won’t upset it – it grips tenaciously in the corners, and that doesn’t change in the wet. Very impressive. Subaru also did a great job with the steering feedback. It’s not hard to screw up electronic steering, but this wasn’t too numb and I liked the feel.

The CVT, performance-wise, is fine. For everyday driving, it does everything well, allowing you to get going quickly without any lag, get into and keep up with traffic and settle in nicely at highway speeds. I do hate the whiny groaning sounds it makes at times, and being a bit of a traditionalist, I’m having a tough time letting go of the notion that my engine will work its way through gears. There is a “manual” mode, which lets you use the paddle shifters to restrict the CVT’s ratio. Although it tries to replicate driving with gears, it’s definitely not the same. It does allow you to sit in the engine’s power band more effectively though, and once you learn how to do that, it is of use when driving aggressively. All things said, I’m OK with it and it does its job well.

The Impreza isn’t a fast car, but it will certainly hold its own. When you’re cruising, and you step on it to pass someone, it takes the CVT at least as long as an automatic transmission to slip down to the appropriate ratio before things get moving.

I noticed this in Vancouver and again in Edmonton – the visibility out of the Impreza is superb in all directions. Noise is very well controlled – engine, drivetrain and wind noise are all very low. I did notice some tire noise over a couple of strange road surfaces, but that was rare and not a knock against the car. The all-wheel drive system is completely transparent during normal driving, and the turning circle is really, really tight. Parking this car is not a problem under any circumstances.

First of all, the Lancer is noticeably quicker than the Impreza. It felt more powerful under all circumstances.

Much like with the Impreza, I found myself pleasantly surprised with how good the ride in the Lancer is. It is very comfortable, and will do well in cities with streets as crappy as ours here in Edmonton. The suspension is firm enough to have a touch of sportiness and keeps the car relatively flat around corners. The steering is dialed in very well, and encourages you to point and shoot this thing into corners with aplomb.

The CVT does its thing, just like every other CVT, but somehow I found myself liking it more than others. I found it made less strange noises than the Subaru CVT did – to be clear though, if you have your radio on, you won’t hear those noises anyway. For everyday driving, it was very smooth but more importantly, I thought it was very effective at knowing what I wanted it to do. I hate to admit it, but it does a great job. You can use the paddles, and they actually did somewhat replicate gear ratios, and I found it useful for engine braking at times too. Also, I was quite surprised at how quickly the paddle “shifts” took place – as fast as the best dual-clutch I’ve driven.

Normally, I’m a fan of the sound that 4-cylinder engines make. But the Lancer was an exception. It gets noisy and sounds tinny and buzzy at higher revs, but thankfully it remained quite quiet at lower RPMs during normal driving. I did notice some road noise coming through during cruising on the freeway as well.

Visibility out of the Lancer is great – out of the front and sides. Unfortunately the rear view is restricted by the large C-pillars and the rear headrests, and then bisected by the goofy rear spoiler. It completely slices your view in half. Honestly, I felt as though someone was always looking over my shoulder with that silly spoiler. Ugh.

Advantage: Lancer – both were fun to drive, but the Lancer is quicker and felt more playful to me

 

Details

I simply love the fact that the Lancer allows me to choose my drive mode – there’s a little rocker switch which lets me choose two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive or a locked differential mode for extreme situations. Theoretically, driving in front-wheel drive should save some fuel, and you can easily pop it into all-wheel drive for any conditions where you want or need it. I don’t know of another car with that option, and it’s fantastic. I love it in trucks and I loved it here. The Lancer also allows you to defeat the traction control.

I liked that the Impreza’s trunk lid hinges are shrouded. You give up a little space, but they’ll never come down and pinch your luggage – no surprises. It’s a nice touch.

The Lancer has a bang-up dead pedal – it was nearly perfect for me. Thank you Mitsubishi! I really liked that the Lancer’s paddle shifters stay stationary on the steering column, instead of being mounted to the steering wheel. They are also very tall, and can be reached from many positions around the wheel as you are turning it.

 

Nitpicks

I really hate when manufacturers don’t adopt the “tap for 3 blinks” signal light function. It’s a useful feature, and there’s no good reason to leave it out, yet Subaru does just that in the Impreza.

The Impreza has a well-placed dead pedal, but it’s suited for a person with roughly size 7 feet. Mine are size 13, and that rendered a great dead pedal useless.

The Impreza’s bluetooth phone system would not keep my phone paired. I followed all the directions and it worked well when I paired it, but I had to re-pair it every time I got in the car. Very irritating.

The Lancer’s trunk lid has no interior pull handle, meaning you’ll need to put your hand on the top of the trunk lid to close it. So you’ll either get your pawprints on your clean trunk lid, or you’ll get your trunk lid dirt on your clean hands. Both of those options suck.

 

The Verdict

After having spent a solid week with each of these cars, I came away realizing just how similar they are in so many ways.

Both are decent upgraded entry-level vehicles. Both have all-wheel drive, which matters a lot in our part of the world where we could have snow on the ground for half the year. Both offer a decent amount of amenities, but fall far short of feeling luxurious. Both ride well and both handle well. Both get pretty good fuel economy, all things considered.

I give the Subaru Impreza a solid 7 out of 10. I loved that it felt very solid and well put-together. Subarus are known to be built well and reliable, and the Impreza would be a solid investment. The materials are a nice upgrade, but the interior could still warm up a bit. I have a feeling that score would be higher if it came with a real automatic transmission instead of the CVT, or better yet the manual transmission that’s available for it.

I give the Mitsubishi Lancer a 7.5 out of 10. I really liked having the ability to choose what drive mode I’m in and I liked the additional power, and the steering that makes for a sporty driving experience. I was impressed by the utility and rear seat space it offered. I appreciate the security of a 10 year warranty on the drivetrain. The interior was a bit of an uninspired turd, I wish they’d offer a manual transmission and I just want to punch that rear spoiler in the neck.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was middling for both of these cars. She was OK with the exterior on both models, but felt the interiors looked dated and “rental-car”. She was as surprised as I was at how comfortable they both were to drive in, and she said she would prefer a hatchback to a sedan for easier access and more room for shopping. She also agreed with my assessment of the center armrests in both, saying they were badly placed. These things matter, and we’re here for you, people, if nothing else.

In the end, if you’re looking for a basic, great handling, smooth driving, fun, all-wheel drive sedan in this price range, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either of these cars. Take them both for a spin and pick the one that suits you best.

Disclosure:  Vehicles were provided by Subaru and Mitsubishi.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

 

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