Cohort Classic: 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback – Another One-Year Wonder

Americans and wagons are a combination that baffles the mind of product developers everywhere. From being the darling of families looking for a second car for the missus to drive the kids everywhere, to have those kids grow up and decide that rolling about on the back of a large wagon wasn’t such a hot idea and made them look like dorks. And now, an uncomfortable stalemate in which Americans seem to have decided they like a wagon as long as it is labeled as anything but a wagon.
And yet occasionally, manufacturers think that the wagon market is coming back.

You can see why. The main culprit is the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen (Or Jetta Sportwagen, if we go by their 2004 identities). Chiefly because it was actually accepted as a wagon. It was also priced within the reach of the common man, unlike the offerings from BMW and Mercedes. And finally, it had other uniquely selling point in the form of a diesel engine. Now granted that’s not really something that they can count on anymore, but nevertheless they succeeded at marketing a wagon to the masses. So much so that it made it more successful than any number of wagons which came after it.

There’s the Elantra Touring for one, the rebadged i30cw was a nice design, sensibly sized, made by a Hyundai that can build great cars and…was dropped from the lineup and replaced with the normal, non-wagon i30 when you can buy today as the Elantra GT.

There was also those offerings from BMW and Mercedes (and Cadillac, and Audi) themselves, which were such a monumental success that it made no sense to design/federalize them anymore. Or, in the case of Audi, continue to offer the models that do sell well thanks to the careful addition of plastic body cladding and the addition of a tiny little bit of ride height (a strategy which is apparently so good that Ford has decided to get some extra sales in their new strategy by using it). Finally, you have our subject for today. Mitsubishi and their one-year wonder for 2004, the Lancer Sportback.

Mitsubishi; The brand that makes you long for a Toyota. Now, I understand that this can be seen as very mean-spirited and just crapping on the poor brand for some cheap laugh points. But I have a personal stake in this one I’m afraid. I own an old Mitsubishi truck which I am very fond of despite its proclivity to cook ECU’s and the fact that it has tried to self-immolate a couple of times. For some reason (I blame Stockholm syndrome and the fact that we have managed to tame it) this hasn’t soured me take an interest on the brand. What has soured me on the brand is how often I find myself shouting expletives at them because of a boneheaded decision. Stay tuned for an article going to more detail about it. I am sure the Mitsubishi corporation executive committee will be sitting bolt-upright for that.

Things were slightly different in 2004. What with their ability to compete on the market thanks to a full lineup of sedans, a sports coupe, and no less than four options if you wanted an SUV. In the middle of this the Lancer was a decent, if not terribly exciting offering. We may mock Toyota for being uninteresting, but that in itself is a feature. Compare to that with the Lancer. Too unreliable to be noted for reliability, too cheap to be noted as premium, not cheap enough to carry value on its sleeve. It showed up on Need For Speed: Underground in plain-jane sedan form and lord knows how many other games on its hopped-up Evolution version. Which was ,incidentally, the final interesting product that Mitsubishi Motors was producing before they decided to take complete leave of their senses and become a complete shell of their forme-; Sorry, this happens to me on occasion. Where was I? Yes, 2004, when the Lancer received a mild facelift which resulted on a rather good-looking front end, revised tailights and yes, the Sportback.

I like the Sportback. Of course I like the sportback. It’s very hard to not like the wagon as a car guy. Compact size and that squared-off rear means that you can get loads of stuff on the back. With a maximum of 60.7 cubic feet of space, you’d be giving the current Mercedes GLE a run for its money on a much smaller footprint.  And Thanks to that updated front-end and those tasty-tasty full-height taillights it’s no slouch on the looks department either.

Okay, so the interior was a bit on the cheap side and thanks to the wonders of market research, it was only available with a four-speed automatic transmission. But who cares, it’s a cheap and cheerful wagon. And 2004 means we’re very much still on a slump when it comes to compact car interiors, which fell in quality ever since Toyota began cheapening out due to the increasing yen and wouldn’t bounce back until the 1-2 punch of the 2006 Civic and the Nissan Versa (nee Tiida).

To top it off, the Sportbacks could also be ordered on the Ralliart trim level, which meant an upgrade to a 2.4-liter engine with 160-horsepower and some suspension upgrades. Sadly, that automatic gearbox was still your only option unless you downgraded to the sedan version of the Ralliart. Unfortunately, the like pendulum didn’t swing in favor of this one, as not enough wagon lovers voted to keep the Lancer Sportback on US soul for more than a year. And the world sadly continued as it was, with little choice for wagons in America unless you liked Subarus or VW’s. Or, you know, bespoke wagon designs carrying different names and being somewhat modified for managing the rougher conditions that American infrastructure provides.

As for Mitsubishi, they tried the hatchback route like Hyundai and were marginally more successful. It also lasted about a year.

Special thanks to jwflynn for his Lancer Sportback images. They are really not easy to find.