NEW ORLEANS — It's not a Mirage. That's the word Mitsubishi Motors Sales of America (MMSA) officials stress when talking about the new Lancer. It is by no means a Mirage replacement.

In other words, the Lancer — now entering its sixth generation in markets including Japan, Europe, Africa and Australia — has undergone some changes in frantic pursuit of an image overhaul.

The Lancer may be a new name to North American ears, but previous generations have been sold under the Mirage moniker in the U.S. Mirage sedans currently are being phased out — yes, to be replaced by the now-global Lancer — while coupes will exit North America in a year.

Granted, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has made some palpable changes between Lancer generations. Whereas the Mirage was a subcompact car, the Lancer is a compact, pitting it in direct competition with the likes of Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and Mazda Protege. The target market, Mitsubishi says, consists of people who are priced out by the Toyota Camry but shoot higher than the Korean-dominated low end. Mitsubishi, which knows that the compact segment is a competitive one, hopes to double its 1.5% compact segment market share achieved by the Mirage, targeting 64,000 units in the first year.

But the small sales targets downplay the little car's importance; the Lancer most likely will provide the platform for future generations of the Chrysler Neon. Mitsubishi and DaimlerChrysler AG, which purchased a controlling share in the Japanese automaker last year, have been increasingly eyeing platform sharing. The small-car platform is a good place to start, Mitsubishi officials say, because DaimlerChrysler had not begun working on the next Neon. (Chances are, DaimlerChrysler will lend its Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus platform to the Mitsubishi Galant in future generations.)

Mitsubishi has tuned the new Lancer to bring the vehicle up a notch, including powerplant, a beefier body structure and more standard features. The Lancer is powered by a 2L, 16-valve inline 4-cyl., which puts out 120 hp and 130 lb.-ft. (176 Nm) of torque at 4,250 rpm. The powerplant — although larger than many in the compact segment, including Mirage's 1.8L engine — provides enough power for the car to be practical but falls short in the fun department. The Lancer comes with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission

Vehicle length and wheelbase have grown by more than 4 ins. (10 cm), and the cabin has gotten roomier as well, boasting the most front and rear legroom in its class.

The body structure also receives significant tuning, including new energy-absorbing crumple zones and a reinforced passenger safety cage, all resulting in 50% more rigidity and 60% more bending rigidity than the previous generation.

The Lancer comes in three trim levels: the low-level ES, which is expected to take 60% of sales; the LS, equipped with more upscale standard features such as cruise control and two extra speakers, expected to take 20% of sales; and the O-Z Rally edition, which Mitsubishi hopes will take the remaining 20%.

Mitsubishi has done itself a great disservice by offering up the O-Z Rally edition — especially during the same year Subaru unleashed with much fanfare its Impreza WRX Turbo. While the WRX comes with a significantly more powerful, turbo-charged boxer engine, rally-tuned suspension, plus an eye-catching look that sets it apart from the more mainstream Impreza models, the changes meant to differentiate the Lancer O-Z Rally are cosmetic, and inconsequential at that.

The automaker actually has a long-running rally racing heritage, with its first-year Lancer winning races back in 1973. But this rally-inspired car, with skin-deep upgrades such as bumper extensions, black interior matched with white-faced gauges, side air dams and a spoiler offered only as an option, shows disrespect to its own rally roots. Whether Mitsubishi will “look at upgrading” the engine in the rally car before the end of its life cycle, as officials say, remains to be seen.

MMSA, which with sales of 100,000 units just came off of its best first four months ever, says the Lancer will represent its fourth core product in North America, joining the Galant, Eclipse sports car and the Montero Sport sport/utility vehicle.

Pricing has yet to be announced, although Mitsubishi says the three models will range from just under $14,000 to just under $18,000 for the O-Z Rally edition, due out in August.

2001 Mitsubishi Lancer

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 2L (1,999 cc) SOHC I-4
Power (SAE net): 120 hp @ 4,250 rpm
Torque: 130 lb.-ft. (176 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 81.5 × 95.8
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 102.4 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length: 177.6 ins. (451 cm)
Overall width: 66.7 ins. (169 cm)
Overall height: 54.1 ins. (137 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 2,646 lbs. (1,200 kg)
Market competition: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protege