When the current Lancer arrived in the UK in early 2008 it was available only in saloon form. That made sense, given that saloons are popular in countries where Mitsubishi performs well, but it was never going to endear the car to British customers, whose fondness for hatchbacks is the stuff of legend.
Well, a Lancer hatch was subsequently added to the range, and here it is. I can't help feeling that Mitsubishi's designers felt pressed into creating it, since the front and back ends don't seem to match up (the sharply defined nose, almost identical to that of the high-performance Evo, is contradicted by the much softer hindquarters), and I dare to whisper the suggestion that someone in the styling department has a secret fondness for Mazdas. But hey, it's the practicality that counts.
At which point we encounter something rather curious, though not unprecedented. The boot of a Lancer saloon has a volume of 400 litres, but in the hatch all you get is 344 litres. Not so practical after all, then, and while there is at least the advantage of a much larger opening once you've lifted the tailgate, that figure is noticeably smaller than other C-segment cars such as the Ford Focus provide.
On the other hand, once you've folded down the rear seats, the Lancer offers 1349 litres, and that really is impressive. It puts the car into compact MPV territory, with the added advantage that the load volume is predominantly horizontal (so you don't have to pile your luggage high to make use of the space, as you frequently do in compact MPVs).
Folding each seat, incidentally, is a one-touch process which takes about a second and provides, if not exactly a flat load area, at least something very close to it. Still on the rear seats, they provide a lot of room for adult passengers, though anyone over six feet tall may find themselves cursing the sloping roofline.
There is no price difference between the saloon and the hatch, and the choice of engines and gearboxes is the same. In the case of the test car, that meant Volkswagen's fine two-litre turbo diesel, offered by Mitsubishi in 138bhp form. On paper, the performance is only moderate (0-62mph takes ten seconds dead, for example), but there is so much mid-range power that the Lancer can actually be made to scoot along pretty well. It's certainly every bit as quick as I ever needed it to be in a week of normal everyday driving.
The only problem with the engine is that Mitsubishi - like Dodge, which uses it in the Caliber - can't make it shut up. The noise it makes from a cold start is like something devised by Edgard Varese (the French-born American composer whose music was described in the 1920s as sounding like a train crash) and it never entirely stops being intrusive even when fully up to temperature. Similarly, the gearchange continues to feel as if the oil in the box is cold long after this can possibly still be the case.
I was impressed, though, by the Lancer's behaviour on the road. The mechanically identical saloon I tried last year (see road test) felt underdamped at the front, but the suspension on the hatch seems much better sorted; the only thing that harms ride quality now is the fitment of low-profile (45-section) tyres which, with their accompanying large wheels, certainly look good but are otherwise no help whatever. The handling, meanwhile, is very secure, though I still think that a little more power assistance for the steering would help.
A rethink of the rear window design would be even more welcome, since the Lancer has very little glass area around the rear pillars and is needlessly difficult to reverse as a result. Other causes for complaint - both of them very characteristic of Mitsubishi - include the interior design, which is dull beyond belief, and the fact that the steering wheel is, astonishingly, not adjustable for reach.
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