Station wagons have evolved into a highly specialized market that very few car companies feel comfortable tackling outside of the specialized confines of the compact segment. While European automakers such as Audi, Volvo and BMW have continued to produce mid-size wagons, Japanese manufacturers have largely abandoned the body style in favor of focusing instead on minivans and crossover sport-utility vehicles. By the turn of the new millennium, the only wagons being imported from the east not bearing the Subaru badge were small, hatchback-style vehicles serving entry-level consumers on a budget.
The differences in the way that European and most Japanese car companies have handled the evolution of the wagon is quite instructive when it comes to gleaning insight into the product planning strategies of the two different groups. While Germany and Swedish manufacturers have approached wagons as sporty extensions of their current sedan brands, for car companies in Japan wagons were more of a practical consideration designed to extend the utility of four-door cars so that the hauling needs of families could be serviced. With the advent of new high-capacity vehicles like minivans and SUVs, the majority of Asian companies decided that offering three separate solutions to essentially the same problem posed a duplication of effort that was too costly to maintain. This was never an issue in Europe, where larger vans and trucks were not a good fit for narrow streets and companies were less willing to develop entire product lines solely forÂ exporting them to North America.
The wagon market has also been difficult to break into for second-tier Japanese car companies without the resources of global giants like Honda and Toyota. It was with this in mind that Mitsubishi took the chance on developing a wagon version of their Lancer sedan. The compact Lancer rode on a platform that was relatively easy to extend into a long, flat-roofed wagon, a design not seen by compact shoppers since the demise of the Ford Escort wagon several years previous. Called the Lancer Sportback, the vehicle defied the current vogue of a rounded roof and a tall hatch, maintaining the same general lines as the Lancer sedan but offering greater cargo space.
This article focuses on the best used wagon option from Mitsubishi, the Lancer Sportback, and details its features, driving characteristics and family-friendly passenger room and cargo area.
2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback
Curiously, while the Mitsubishi Lancer sedan has been on sale in the United States since the year 2000, the wagon edition was made available for only one model year in 2004. While it continued to be sold in Canada, Mitsubishi declined to offer it in 2005 and it was not in the lineup for the remainder of that generation of Lancer's production.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the 2004 Lancer Sportback wagon has much in common with its sedan platform-mate. The vehicle can be equipped in one of two trim levels. The Sportback LS is a step above the standard base model Lancer, adding features like cruise control and a nicer stereo system to an equipment list that also includes air conditioning and power windows and door locks. The Ralliart edition bears a more aggressive exterior appearance highlighted by enhanced front and rear aerodynamics and fog lights. Disc brakes are found at all four wheels and a tighter suspension helps guide the Ralliart wagon through the corners with greater confidence. Both versions of the car are powered by the same engine and transmission setup: a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder that produces 162 horsepower, backed by a 4-speed automatic. The Sportback benefits from the use of this larger engine in comparison to the base sedan thanks to the extra heft that the cargo compartment adds to the equation.
Inside, the 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback has a higher level of finish than what is typically encountered in vehicles around this price range. Soft-touch materials are complimented by available wood-like trim, and the vehicle's knobs and dials for controlling the heater and stereo system are easy to grip and simple to figure out. Seats are supportive, and the rear row folds down to provide 60 cubic feet of cargo space, which is reduced to a still competitive 24 cubic feet when the wagon is carrying a full load of passengers.
The 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback stands alone in the field of used compact wagons with its flat, sedan-like roof and standard tailgate, making it good option for those who are turned off by the economy hatchback look.