History of the Mitsubishi Lancer

It’s been 40 years since Mitsubishi Motors added the Lancer model to its range. The very first generation,  launched in Japan in February 1973, was actually known as a ‘Colt Lancer’, the Colt name having been in use since 1962 but dropped as a prefix by the mid-1980s. Compared to the earlier Colt 1000 which had a boxy look, the 3-box Lancer was a sleek sedan available with two or four doors.

Its addition to the Mitsubishi line-up was in response to strong dealer requests for a model which would fill the gap between the 360 cc minicar and the larger 1600 cc/2000 cc Colt, and of course, a direct rival to the Toyota Corolla and Datsun 1200.

There were three  4-cylinder engine sizes – the 1200 cc Neptune OHV engine and the 1400 cc and 1600 cc  SOHC Saturn engines. The 1400 cc was a long-stroker and actually had a displacement of 1439 cc. With a single carburettor, its output was 92 bhp at 6300 rpm, which was quite impressive in 1973. The 1600 cc engine had twin carburettors and produced 110 bhp at 6700 rpm. Though not available in Malaysia, the first generation already had a 3-speed automatic transmission as an option.

With this first generation, the Lancer made its mark on the rallying world, the start of a legendary model line which would become the World Rally Championship (WRC)-winning Evo series.

Mitsubishi Motors entered Lancers in two famous rallies in the 1970s – the Safari Rally and the Southern Cross Rally – and won the events on many occasions, as well as other tough African rallies. With drivers like Joginder Singh (from Kenya)  and Scotsman Andrew Cowan behind the wheel, the Lancer’s toughness was proven again and again, an important selling point for the model at a time when the durability of Japanese cars was still questioned. In Africa, its rally successes led people to dub it ‘The King of Cars’. In the Lancer range, the ‘GSR’ versions were the most powerful, usually having twin carburettors that boosted power output.

The Lancer 1600 GSR won many rallies in Africa

Advertisement for the Lancer in Malaysia in 1976

For the second generation, which was launched in 1979, Mitsubishi Motors commissioned a European designer, Aldo Sessano,  to help style the Lancer (although this was never publicised in the press releases) which is probably why it looked rather different from most Japanese cars of that era. It had a chunky wedged profile and a larger body with 100 mm more wheelbase.

Second generation had very different styling which was the work of an Italian designer. A powerful 2-litre turbocharged version (right) was used by rally teams around the world

This second generation also lay claim to having the world’s fastest 2-litre sedan in 1981 with its Lancer 2000 Turbo variant. The model served as the basis of Mitsubishi Motors’ return to the international rally scene after an absence of 3 years. In competition form, the 4-cylinder 8-valve turbocharged engine with EFI developed 280 ps, 110 ps more than the production version that the public could buy. An 1800 cc engine was also available with a turbocharger included.

The early 1980s saw the introduction of a front-wheel drive sedan model called the Lancer F, with a hatchback variant that was known as the Mirage or Colt. This marked the beginning of the switch to FWD for the Lancer while the second generation continued with RWD.

The Lancer F became the new generation of the Lancer in 1983 and was also the model which Mitsubishi Motors provided to the Malaysian government for its National Car Project which would see the clone becoming the Proton Saga.

In 1988, there was a model change to the 5th generation and then in 1991 came the 6th generation which Malaysians got as the Proton Wira in 1992.

1983 Lancer F was used as the basis for the first Malaysian National Car in 1985
During the 1990s, the Lancer was a strong contender in international rallies, including the World Rally Championship

By then, the Lancer was 300 mm longer than the first generation and riding on a wheelbase that was 1600 mm more spacious. Apart from improved engines, this generation also got the INVECS transmission which had adaptive programming to ‘learn’ the driving style of each driver and then optimise shifting. By then, there were at least 5 engine sizes and, for the first time in its class, a 1600 cc V6 DOHC, 24-valve engine was also available.

The model launched in 1995 was designated the 7th generation of the Lancer. It was said to have been a major evolution of the model (drag coefficient was down to 0.30 Cd) and also served as the basis of the Evo 4 that was successful in the WRC. As before, there were hatchback and notchback variants, the former being known as the ‘Mirage’. It is this generation’s Mirage which USPD – the joint-venture between the DRB Group and Proton – cloned to become the Satria.

As the new millennium dawned, Mitsubishi Motors launched the 7th generation which also had the suffix ‘Cedia’ (Century DIAmond). It was a slightly larger model and incorporated many technological advances.

This generation was the one that marked the official return of the Lancer to Malaysia after Mitsubishi Motors voluntarily ceased officially selling cars below 2000 cc in the Malaysian market from 1985. The move was intended to show its commitment to the National Car project.

After being absent for 20 years, the Lancer returned to the Malaysian market in 2005 in 8th generation form; Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia also imported the Evo 9 (right) for enthusiasts

Tracking the lineage of the Lancer through the generations is a bit difficult because, during the 1990s, the model was produced in many different countries and in some places, a previous generation was kept in production while a newer one that was launched in Japan was not introduced. India, for example, got the Lancer Cedia only in 2006 and the earlier generation remained on sale as well.

Financial difficulties hampered product development in the first half of the 1990s and it was only in late 2004 that work could be started on the 9th generation of the Lancer. The world got the first glimpse of the car as the Concept X which was unveiled at the 2005 Tokyo Motorshow. The concept car was designed by Omer Halilhodzic, a Bosnian working at Mitsubishi Motors’ design centre in Europe. Two years later, the long-awaited production model was launched, followed with a sportback variant that had a 2.4-litre engine.

2005 Concept X was a preview of the 9th generation of the Lancer
Current generation of the Lancer includes a Sportback variant

The primary powerplant for the new Lancer was, for the first time, not entirely a Mitsubishi design. It was the GEMA engine jointly developed by Mitsubishi Motors, Chrysler and Hyundai. This engine was available with displacements of 1.8 litres, 2.0 litres and 2.4 litres. With this Lancer generation too was the first use of a CVT.

The same design was also used for the Evo X or Evo 10, the most powerful variant of the new generation. As with the earlier Evo models, it had all-wheel drive but was packed with a lot of sophisticated technology as well.

Evo X

In conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Lancer, Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia is giving RM500 of petrol to customers who purchase and register a new Lancer or Lancer Sportback from authorised dealers by August 31, 2013 (terms and conditions apply)

[Chips Yap]