Back in 1997 if you wanted a fast but cheap road car you had a huge number of choices. Subaru Legacy RS, GT, and WRX; Nissan Skyline GTS-t and GT-Four; Nissan Pulsar GTi-R; Honda Integra Type R; and Mitsubishi Galant VR4, and Evo I, II and III. You could also get a version of the Evo with a 1.8-litre engine: the Lancer GSR.
The GSR looked very similar to an Evo I. In fact, many people put Evo I and Evo II body kits on their GSRs, and worked the engines up to well over 300kW. The GSR was much cheaper than an Evo, and you still see them around today (more so than older Subarus, which is a testament to how strong the 4G93 engine is).
17 years on, while I look back at my time owning performance cars with affection, I’m sitting in what could (or should) be the spiritual successor to those point-and-shoot turbo sedans of my youth. Except I’m not. The Lancer GSR might have the huge spoiler and the sharp body kit, but that’s where it stops.
It’s now a family car with sporty pretentions. It’s got a CVT gearbox and that’s not very sporty, although it does help with fuel economy around town. Quoted fuel economy is 7.3l/100km combined. I couldn’t get anywhere near this, hovering around in the high 9s. This isn’t particularly flash from a car that’s only pumping out 115kW and 201Nm. Acceleration off the line isn’t brisk, but overtaking performance is OK.
As well as general motorway and around town driving I tested it on the winding Waitakere roads out to Piha and it handles predictably. It’s a little soft in the corners – 16-inch wheels are built for comfort, not g-forces – and this means it soaks up the bumps well. It’s an uneventful ride with benign handling, even though it looks like it could be a gravel-bashing rally contender.
I never look at car prices before I pick a car up because I want to get an impression of where I think it will be, unclouded by knowledge of the actual price. My guess was $37,000. How wrong was I? Mitsubishi’s RRP is $32,990, but they’re currently advertising the Lancer GSR at $25,990. That is ridiculously good value for money. Purchasers must be grinning their way around the supermarket carparks of the nation knowing that they scored what is possibly the best bang-for-buck sedan on the market.
But it’s not all roses. There are compromises when you pay that kind of price. Few of the more modern technical features are included – no automatic lights or wipers, no paddle-shift gears, no push-button start or keyless entry and not much in the way of electric adjustment of anything (not even the driver’s seat). It also feels quite cheap on the inside and the air conditioning seemed a little noisy.
You do get Bluetooth, cruise control and a reversing camera, albeit clumsily stuck onto the boot. And you get a pretty awesome looking body kit with side skirts, fog lamps, chrome grille surround, rear privacy glass and some menacing-looking rear lights. Granted, it could do with some 17- or 18-inch wheels rather than the 16-inch alloys with 205/60R16 tyres it rolls on as standard, but you really can’t complain at this price.
An immobiliser is standard, plus all the safety features you’d expect from a 5-star crash-tested vehicle: ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, automatic stability control, traction control and hill start assist.
The entertainment system is controlled through a 6.1-inch touchscreen (which doubles as the reversing camera display). You can connect your device via USB, and there’s Bluetooth audio streaming – excellent features for a car this price.
Driver and passenger seating is cloth trim and was comfortable enough. The boot is a good size for a sedan – 400 litres – and the rear seats are split folding if you need the capacity for longer loads.
While I reminisce about my early 20s driving high-power turbo Japanese cars, I can see how the Lancer GSR has moved on. It might be disappointing to me that you can no longer easily purchase cars like that, but at this price and with these looks the Lancer GSR is unlikely to disappoint purchasers.
Price: $32,990 (but currently advertised at a ridiculous $25,990)
- Huge 10-year warranty
- Looks more expensive than it is
- An absolute bargain at the price
- Performance doesn’t live up to the looks, and it feels cheap
Words and photos: Darren Cottingham