NEW ORLEANS — Mitsubishi Motors Corp. makes the Lancer a truly global small car with its forthcoming August introduction to the U.S. market. The Lancer, entering its sixth generation, is replacing the Mirage in the U.S., which is nearing the end of its production cycle.

Mitsubishi Motors Sales of America (MMSA) officials insist that despite that fact, the Lancer is not a Mirage replacement. In other words, the Lancer, the name long used around the globe by cars billed as Mirage in the U.S., has undergone some changes between this model and the last, in hopes of an image overhaul.

Whereas the Mirage was a subcompact car, the Lancer is a compact, prompting Mitsubishi to name as its competition vehicles including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and Mazda Protege.

The target market, Mitsubishi says, are people who are priced out by the Toyota Camry but shoot higher than the low end, dominated by the Korean automakers. Mitsubishi, which knows that the compact segment is a competitive one, hopes to double the 1.5% compact segment market share achieved by the Mirage, targeting 64,000 units in the first year.

Mitsubishi has tuned the new Lancer to bring the vehicle up a notch, from its powerplant to a beefier body structure to more standard features.

The Lancer is powered by a 2.0L, 16-valve inline 4-cyl. engine, which produces 120 hp and 130 ft.-lbs. (176 Nm) of torque at 4,250 rpm. The powerplant — although larger than many in the compact segment, including the Mirage's 1.8L engine — provides enough power for the car to be practical but falls short of the mark in the fun department. The Lancer comes in a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

The vehicle's length and wheelbase have grown by more than 10 cm (4 in.), and the cabin is roomier as well, boasting the most front and rear legroom in its class.

The body structure also received significant tuning, including new energy-absorbing crumple zones and a reinforced passenger safety cage, 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, is expected to take 20% of sales, and the O-Z Rally edition, slated to take the remaining 20%.

Mitsubishi may have done itself a disservice by offering up the O-Z Rally edition in the same year that Subaru debuted its Impreza WRX Turbo. The WRX comes with a significantly more powerful, turbocharged boxer engine, rally-tuned suspension, plus an eye-catching look that sets it apart from the more mainstream Impreza models. In comparison, the changes meant to differentiate the Lancer O-Z Rally are cosmetic, and inconsequential at that.

Mitsubishi has a long-running rally racing heritage, with its first-year Lancer winning races back to 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.

Mitsubishi officials say that during the Lancer's lifecycle, the automaker will look at upgrading the engine in the rally car.

Pricing has yet to be announced, although Mitsubishi says the three models will range from just under US$14,000 to just under US$18,000 for the O-Z Rally edition. Mitsubishi says it will put some marketing muscle behind the Lancer, with a multimillion-dollar campaign to launch in the fall.

MMSA just came off of its best first four months ever, with sales topping 100,000 units, a 5.4% increase over like-2000.