Now, we generally have a knee jerk and utterly responsible reaction to being asked what compact economy sedan would make the smartest buy even for someone who lives in a Snow Belt State. As we usually have the 2013 Honda Civic EX sedan on the brain thanks to its sure footed front wheel drive, agile handling, affordability and newfound “feel good factor” that was the first car whose name popped up. But sometimes, blizzard-like conditions require the sure footedness of full-time all-wheel drive. Get ready, it will be cold soon.
But, hey, winters in places like Colorado can be brutal as we very well recall from one year spent living in Boulder wondering why everyone there had a Subaru. For a native Californian, it was a bit of shell shock living there because I always was left wondering where all of the Hondas I was so used to had gone. Apparently they hit some black ice and spun out into a ditch as some blissed out ex-hippie in a hemp fiber overcoat safely scurried by in their ancient Loyale wagon—the spiritual precursor to the Impreza.
Now, if you live somewhere that doesn’t suffer from months of extreme weather I will begin this review with a caveat. Neither the 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD nor the 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Sport Premium AWD hatch are very much fun to drive, sexy to look at and their interiors feel like they were cost cut to make way for their expensive all-weather drive systems. Don’t expect soft touch plastics, chrome bedazzlement or design creativity when you get into the Mitsubishi or Subaru—apparently we only expect that from Honda.
Exterior Styling and Interior Functionality
First off, it wouldn’t take much of a fashion maven to realize that both the Impreza hatchback and Lancer sedan are probably two of the most style challenged compact economy cars on the market today. No, neither of them is ugly really in any way but neither does either one try very hard to look special or unique. Sort of like your cousin Phil who always seems to wear the same pair of worn out jean shorts and a Phish T-Shirt. It’s fine if that’s what you are into.
When it comes to the interior it really is a knock-down, drag out brawl between Subaru and the Lancer for which automaker has created the most sensibly laid out and idiot proof dashboard. Climate vents are up top, then the stereo then three knobs for ventilation controls. Interior plastics are durable, workaday affairs but we scoffed a bit when we noticed Mitsubishi actually charged us for “soft touch front door trim” as part of its $1,450 Premium Package.
Apologies, but how hard and sharp edged is the plastic used on the tops of the front doors of Lancer models without this option? At least this package added a moonroof, 6-disc CD player, Sirius/XM and a thumping 9-speaker 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio upgrade. The one downside is that the subwoofer took up a large part of the Lancer’s trunk meaning a relative’s walker wouldn’t fit properly. The Impreza with its 22.5 cubic foot cargo area hidden under the hatch is much better at handling whatever life may throw at you. Besides snow. (Advantage: 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i AWD)
Pricing, Value and Fuel Economy
Our test 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD had a starting price of $20,695 and came standard with the usual air conditioning, power windows and door locks, Bluetooth, 15-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats and unlike the Subaru which only comes with full time all-wheel drive, this Lancer SE’s system is switchable from two-wheel drive to on-demand all-wheel drive or can be locked into full time all-wheel drive. This feature is handy as it means that when you don’t need the extra traction of all-wheel drive you can switch it off thereby saving gas. The Lancer SE is EPA rated at 22 city/29 highway and we averaged a very respectable 27 miles per gallon over the course of a week.
Our test Lancer topped out at $22,940 with destination which isn’t a bad price for an all-weather capable sedan like this one. However, the 2014 Subaru Impreza Sport Premium model did have value on its side given its $20,795 base price but do take into account that this test vehicle had the standard no-cost 5-speed manual instead of the $1,000 CVT automatic gearbox. The Lancer SE comes with a CVT automatic as standard mated to a delightfully rev-happy MIVEC 2.4 liter 168 horsepower 4-cylinder.
Otherwise, the Subaru came equipped with 17-inch alloys, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, heated front seats, a 6-speaker AM/FM/CD with USB/i-Pod connectivity, Bluetooth, halogen headlamps and, of course, full-time Symmetrical all-wheel drive. The Impreza gets EPA fuel economy ratings of 27 city/36 highway with the CVT by the EPA but do take into account that this vehicle has a rather wheezy 2.0 liter 148 horsepower/145 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder that requires you really push it to get any performance. Our test average was 26.5 miles per gallon over the course of the week.
This is a close call to say the least but given the Mitsubishi’s more advanced all-wheel drive system and superior drivetrain it gets the nod. (Winner: 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD)
Driving Experience and Safety
As if their all-wheel drive systems weren’t enough, both the 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE and the Subaru Impreza are ranked as “Top Safety Picks” by the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). So if you do have an accident you can feel secure that both vehicles will keep you safe in a collision. Kudos to both Subaru and Mitsubishi for making crash safety so important as both automakers have many “Top Safety Picks” among the cars and SUVs they sell.
Now, it’s clear that both of these affordable compact cars are safe for whatever winter weather may throw at you but are they any fun to drive? Well, to be brutally honest there are other competitors out there that are more fun in our experience and those include the new 2014 VW Jetta 1.8T, the Honda Civic, Mazda3, Chevy Cruze as well as Mitsubishi’s front-wheel drive Lancer GT which we tested earlier with a terrific manual gearbox. But not everyone can drive a stick shift and we do admit that the Lancer’s CVT automatic lacked the annoying noisiness that kind of transmission so often suffers from even if it did detract a bit from our enjoyment.
Ride quality in the Mitsubishi was about average for the class and far superior to the jittery and noisy ride we experienced in the Impreza which felt like it had about as much sound deadening material as an Ox cart on freeway cruises. Wind and tire roar was so obtrusive in the Subaru that even the stereo was not sufficient to drown it out. Steering feel in the Subaru was nicely weighted but it was hard to pay attention to that when we were struggling with the gritty and harshly mechanical shift action from the 5-speed manual gearbox. If you want an Impreza by all means get it with the CVT automatic because it can’t be any worse.
Neither vehicle will win any stoplight drag races but the Mitsubishi’s 2.4 liter 4-cylinder was the more eager to accelerate when called upon and the noises it made more pleasing to the ear. The Subaru, well, we can’t remember what its engine sounded like because we were deafened by the cacophony of other noises and terrified that we would be run off the road by other traffic. (Winner: 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD)
And the Winner is…
Honestly, had the Subaru we tested been a bit more luxuriously equipped and not been saddled with its rather atrocious 5-speed manual gearbox it might have won this test. We still take issue with the one fact that the Lancer still does not have an easily accessible USB/i-Pod jack integration system especially considering the fact that its audio system was excellent. Yes, we actually had to pull out our CDs for the week which we suppose is a better alternative than having to find our old 8-tracks. Still, if we didn’t live in Southern California which has no weather or seasons to speak of our choice would be the Mitsubishi. As a bonus, the Lancer comes with an awesome 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty. Case closed. (Winner: 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE AWD)