Matt Prior at Autocropley has wondered if cars are becoming less practical. I have another question…
Mr Prior is chiefly concerned about the practical impact of size. He thinks many cars are too wide for European conditions. Before I read the article I thought maybe he would write about the fact some large cars have surprisingly small loadbays, have hatches compromised by goofy lamp shapes or have cant rails that are angled so shallowly that you bang your head getting in to the car. He didn’t actually mention any of those things, or that rear-centre armrests are becoming a thing of the past. That’s why this Mitsubishi is here.
For me, a practical car is one that is also suitable for more than short journeys. Rear passengers require a comfortable seating posture during anything but a very short trip. It’s not so pleasant to have one arm dangling by your side while the other is resting like a king on the door-mounted armrest.
Put another way, being able to sit with both elbows at rest is one of the rather lovely aspects of sitting in the back of car. It makes one feel at ease and almost ministerial if the car is spacious enough. The centre arm-rest also allows you to brace yourself during cornering. That makes for a less tiring journey.
The photo above shows that Mitsubishi thought about this and felt a rear-centre armrest would be a necessary courtesy. In contrast, many similarly sized cars in the same period have abandoned them. The Opel Astra saloon didn’t have one in its last iteration or second last, which is perplexing as it’s otherwise a very fine compact saloon.
Over at Alfa Romeo, you can get a Giulia without the feature. Some say it’s available but I’ve yet to see an example with one fitted. It’s pretty much the same for all lower-medium cars though there might be a few exceptions I have not had a chance to look at yet.
The question is why manufacturers are choosing to leave out a feature which has been to all purposes standard in all medium-sized cars for about twenty years. Going further back, even large cars like the Granada and Rekord didn’t have them as standard and they became the norm. The feature migrated down the classes so that even buyers of quite modest cars could enjoy something which ought to be mandatory – after all, any decent sitting room has armchairs and not armless chairs. That’s how seated people feel most comfortable.
One argument is to do with 60:40 split seats. I don’t buy this as it is perfectly possible to fit an armrest into the larger portion of the seat back. Safety belts for the middle passenger can be roof mounted as I have seen in many recent cars. Peugeot managed to get the inertia reel into the seat back of the 406 as long ago as 1996. It can be done.
Which brings me back to the Mitsubishi. This version appeared in 2007 and only bowed out in 2017. Along with its old school fittings (the arm-rest) it had an old-school range of engines: 1.5., 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 litre petrols. You really know where you stand with this car. In some markets it even came with a 2.4 litre engine and four-wheel drive (the Evo version, I expect).
It didn’t get very positive reviews: Richard Bremer at Autcropley summed it up as “Despite quite a long list of things to carp about – lightly – this Lancer certainly isn’t without appeal. Buyers looking for excitement are advised to look elsewhere, but it’s certainly a better all-rounder than the Mazda 3 it’s aimed at. That said, the Focus, as ever, has got it licked.” No, the Focus didn’t have a rear centre arm-rest. Nor did the contemporary Astra or Megane.
Car magazine was more charitable: “The Lancer’s new platform, shared with the Outlander and co-developed with the former DaimlerChrysler corporation is well engineered, the standard kit is impressive and the styling has gone from oh dear to oh my! “
And they summed it up with this: “It’s by no-means a class-leading car, but Mitsubishi has been smart to proposition the Lancer between classes – it’s Vectra/Mondeo sized but its pricing is more Astra/Focus league. You need to try a Focus or a Civic before you commit yourself to the Mitsubishi, but if you want something just that little bit different, the Lancer is indeed worth a look.” That brings up, again, the topic of in-betweeny cars which we were discussing this week.
Just for being so resolutely practical, the Lancer comes across as a very charming kind of car, if you can see past the grey character it exudes. Therein lies also the problem for many consumers who, returning to Matt Prior’s article, prefer something more ostentatious and loaded with ever more kit rather than vehicles that get the basics right.