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The small price of progress
Mitsubishi's new Lancer mid-spec LX model. Supplied picture

Imagine it's 1997 and you're in a Mitsubishi showroom checking out the latest Lancer. The cheapest model has a $19,990 sticker.

Return to the showroom today and you'll find the 2012 model still starts at $19,990 while houses have quadrupled

Keep in mind, too, 1997's Lancer was spartan - no airbags, no ABS and no stability control to keep you safe.

Not even air-con to keep you cool.

The latest Lancers have all that gear, including seven airbags and a five-star crash rating.

Today's buyers are covered by a five-year warranty, with 10 on the engine and gearbox.

In 1997, peace of mind lasted just three years.

Despite such advances, Lancer sales are slipping. That's partly because buyers now have a bewildering choice of 28 similar-size models.

Also souring Lancer sales have been sweeteners from rivals, such as fixed-price servicing and low-interest loans.

So that's why Mitsubishi has dropped the entry ES price from $21,690 to $19,990 while adding voice-activated audio with phone and music streaming.

The ES also picks up steering wheel-mounted controls, hillstart assist on the auto model and fresh aesthetic touches.

While the $19,990 price will draw people into showrooms, the car most likely to win signatures is the $23,990 LX.

Its luxe items include heated leather seats and an electric driver's seat.

The audio is swish, with a 6.1-inch display and a reversing camera.

Operation is by touching the screen or issuing spoken orders.

Buyers also get smart-key entry, climate control and 16-inch alloys.

The previous mid-spec model sold for $2400 extra yet had less kit.

Still missing, though, is the availability of sat-nav at this level.

More zest is provided by the 2.4-litre VRX ($29,990, down $1000) and 2.0-litre turbo Ralliart.

The Ralliart is unchanged at $44,990 though I've heard whispers of a reduction.

Message: if you want one now, haggle.

The VRX and Ralliart have premium Rockford-Fosgate sound and the option to add sat-nav.

At the top, the hot Lancer Evo gets a short back and sides to better compete with the Subaru WRX STi.

It's now $56,990-$65,990 instead of $62,390-$74,890.

As well as the spec and price sweeteners, a Lancer is a comforting choice.

Not much goes wrong and, if it does, the warranty is second to none.