2013 Mitsubishi Lancer SE review: Four-wheel drive on the cheap

Pricing Unavailable
  • Available Engine Gas
  • Body style Sedan

Roadshow Editors' Rating

5.7 Overall
  • Cabin tech 5
  • Performance tech 7
  • Design 5

The Good The 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer SE features a four-wheel-drive system that can be switched through three modes. The Fuse option adds good device connectivity through Bluetooth and a USB port.

The Bad The cabin design falls below that of the competition; a CVT is the only transmission option; the navigation system looks a little rough for its price.

The Bottom Line Among the stiff economy car competition, the 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer SE sets itself apart only by its impressive all-wheel-drive system, a feature with limited appeal.

I figured it would be a slow week when Mitsubishi delivered to the CNET garage a 2013 Lancer with neither an Evo nor Ralliart badge. The rally star Lancer Evo is a glorious little street-fighter, while the Ralliart version is almost as good.

But this 2013 Lancer SE showed me a couple of tricks that ultimately made for some fun driving adventures.

Bargain four-wheel drive
Among Mitsubishi's limited line of vehicles, the Lancer is the stalwart -- an economy car offered in multiple trims, and with some tech options. The Lancer SE delivered to CNET was a midtrim model, above the DE and ES models, on par with the GT, but below the Ralliart and Evo.

The main feature setting the SE apart from the DE, ES, and GT Lancers is four-wheel drive, in the form of Mitsubishi's All-Wheel-Control (AWC) system. The SE includes a rocker switch on the console that allows the driver to select front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, or differential-lock mode, which maintains power at all four wheels.

At a base price of $20,295, the Lancer SE is not the cheapest all-wheel-drive car you can get, as the Subaru Impreza undercuts it. But nothing else in this price range offers a differential lock.

Before you think of the Lancer SE as a budget Evo, however, note that its version of AWC is not as advanced as even the Ralliart's. The Ralliart and Evo also get limited-slip front and rear differentials, which are not available on the SE model.

Tech not included
Mitsubishi's option list for the Lancer SE includes a navigation system with a 40GB hard drive and something called Fuse Hands-Free Link. That latter option is equivalent to Ford's early Sync system, combining a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and a USB port for plugging in iOS devices and USB drives, all controllable through voice command.

However, the Lancer SE we received included neither of these options. I previously reviewed a Lancer GTS with the Fuse system, and we covered the navigation system in an earlier Lancer Ralliart review, so see those reviews for more information.

2013 Mitsubishi Lancer
Without the navigation option, this basic stereo occupies the center dashboard. It is, however, upgraded to a six-CD changer with the Premium package option. Josh Miller/CNET

The best that this Lancer SE could do for cabin electronics was its thumping, 710-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system. Without even Bluetooth for audio streaming, I had to rely on the stereo's auxiliary, inexplicably separate left- and right-channel RCA inputs rather than the more common 1/8-inch stereo port.

I liked the big bass sound from the Rockford Fosgate system, which includes a 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk, with a separate equalizer level. I could feel the boom-boom of the bass in my chest. And I could also hear it rattle the Lancer's door panels, punctuating the landscape of plastic panels covering the cabin.

The stereo made vocals and instruments that were not drums sound hollow, lacking the rich tonal quality of high-end reproduction. This Rockford Fosgate system is a one-trick pony; strong on bass but nothing else.

Along with the auxiliary input, the stereo played satellite radio, and its CD player could handle MP3 CDs.

2013 Mitsubishi Lancer
Buttons on the steering-wheel hub show the car is ready for Bluetooth, although they don't do anything on this particular car. Josh Miller/CNET

Despite the fact that the Lancer SE did not have the $395 Fuse option, dead buttons for the hands-free phone system stuck out from the steering-wheel hub, hinting at what could be.

Rubber band transmission
The Lancer SE sports a more powerful engine than its lesser siblings, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder producing 168 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. Step up to the Ralliart version, and that engine becomes a 237-horsepower turbocharged 2-liter.

The only transmission available for the Lancer SE is continuously variable (CVT), which makes for smooth acceleration but also felt rubbery as it changed drive ratios to match engine speed.

2013 Mitsubishi Lancer
This shifter controls a continuously variable transmission, the only transmission available on the Lancer SE. Josh Miller/CNET

The combination of engine and CVT leads to fuel economy of 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway in EPA tests. I found mid-20s fuel economy was realistic, especially with plenty of freeway driving thrown in.

Anyone who learned to drive in the preceding millennium will find the feel of the steering familiar, as Mitsubishi still uses hydraulic power assist. The wheel showed more resistance than those in new cars that use electric power steering.

In typical circumstances, the CVT made the Lancer SE an easy car to drive, although the lack of a hill-hold feature led to rollback when stopped on San Francisco's inclined streets. The CVT gave the Lancer SE linear acceleration with no power dips for gear changes. The engine, while of middling power, moved the car around adequately.

The suspension gave the Lancer SE a smooth ride, but the grind of engine noise invading the cabin made the experience less than delightful.

I had only dry roads to work with during this review, but I have seen some impressive demonstrations of Mitsubishi's AWC system. Take, for example, a fast start with one side of the car on a slippery surface. The car still managed to take off evenly instead of letting its grippy side turn it around. That demonstration helps make the case for the Lancer SE, at least for drivers of economy cars in northerly climes

2013 Mitsubishi Lancer
This instrument cluster display shows a nice graphic image of the AWC setting. Josh Miller/CNET

Knowing that some Lancers grow up to be Evos, I resolved to get down and dirty with the SE. Finding a twisty road, I put the rocker switch in its four-wheel-drive auto mode, where it would shunt torque to the axle that needed it most. I pulled the shifter down to the CVT's Low mode to see what I could get out of the engine.

In Low, the CVT kept the engine wailing at 5,000rpm, with peak power going straight to the wheels. It wasn't doing anything for the fuel economy, but it turned the gas pedal into a tool of instant acceleration.

Taking turns at speed, I could feel the AWC system help the tires grab the pavement, helping the Lancer SE power through. Unlike its more capable siblings, this version of AWC does not vector torque across the rear wheels, but it still felt like it made a difference.

I began to wonder how the Lancer SE would do on an autocross course.

When I checked my speed in a turn, I saw the car was not going all that fast. Mark that down to its biggest drawback for this type of driving, the suspension. The body leaned out in the corners, ruining any chance for flat cornering and keeping the speed necessarily lower than a car with a more sport-tuned suspension could manage.

Few selling points
The highlight of the 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer SE's available tech would be the Fuse system, which brings in good device integration through Bluetooth and the USB port. Voice command included with that system works very well. The Rockford Fosgate stands out for its power and bass production, but it won't appeal to fans of classical music.

As for its performance gear, the AWC system is the Lancer SE's only real dog in the fight against other economy cars. The system's flexible modes might be the deciding factor for some, but that gives it only a slight edge over the Subaru Impreza, the Lancer's constant rival. The CVT is interesting as fuel-saving tech, but it did not feel as refined as some others on the market.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer
Trim SE
Power train 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 25.5 mpg
Navigation Optional hard-drive-based system with traffic data
Bluetooth phone support Optional
Digital audio sources Onboard hard drive, USB port, iOS integration, auxiliary input, satellite radio
Audio system Rockford Fosgate 710-watt system
Driver aids None
Base price $20,295
Price as tested $22,640