For years, Mitsubishi sold the compact Lancer in two performance flavors: Run-of-the-mill (DE, ES and GTS) and run-like-your-butt-was-on-fire (Evolution). Buyers who wanted something in the middle had to go to Subaru for an Impreza WRX. For 2009, Mitsubishi has finally found a middle ground: The Lancer Ralliart, with a 237 horsepower turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive, and a twin-clutch automatic transmission. Is there fun to be found here? Read on. $27,185 base/as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 17 MPG city, 25 MPG highway.
First Glance: Evolution-in-training
Pickup owners argue Chevy vs. Ford; sport-compact owners argue Evo vs. STI. For the uninitiated, they mean the Mitsubishi Lancer Evoltion and the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, a pair of high-tech 300ish-horsepower all-wheel-drive four-doors. I've always been a Mitsubishi man, but it's really a matter of personal taste -- both are awesome cars.
Until now, buyers who wanted the technoriffic all-wheel-drive performance of an Evo or an STI but couldn't swing the $35k price tag had only one choice: Subaru's Impreza WRX. For 2009, Mitsubishi is getting into the game with the Lancer Ralliart. Just as the Subaru WRX is a scaled-down STI, the Ralliart is essentially a detuned Lancer Evolution. Under the hood is a version of the Evo's 4B11 turbocharged and intercooled two-liter four-cylinder engine (link goes to photo) that produces 237 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque (vs. 291 hp and 300 lb-ft in the Evo). The Ralliart shares the Evo's all-wheel-drive system and limited-slip differentials, but lacks the Evo's Active Yaw Control rear axle. The Ralliart gets a twin-clutch automatic transmission, just like the Lancer Evolution MR. The Ralliart even looks a lot like the Evo, with a blacked-out grille (chrome-ringed on the Ralliart), three-scoop hood, and big rear wing; it doesn't get the Evo's slightly-bulged fenders because it lacks the Evo's slightly-wider track and wheelbase (width and length between the wheels). The Ralliart is priced about $6,500 cheaper than the stick-shift Evolution GSR and almost $12k cheaper than the automatic Evo MR.
In the Driver's Seat: More of the same
All Lancers, from the cheap DE up to the road-eating Evo, have pretty much the same interior, so naturally there's little to distinguish the Ralliart. What can I say about the Ralliart's dashboard? It's dark, it's plasticky, and it's functional. I'm not crazy about the décor, but I do like the simplicity: Three-dial controls with "auto" detents for the climate control system and a stereo with good ol' fashioned volume and tuning knobs. (If only it had a good ol' fashioned auxiliary input jack -- the Ralliart uses RCA jacks for audio input, just like an old VCR, so you'll have to buy an adapter to plug in your MP3 player.) The deeply-contoured Recaro bucket seats from the Lancer Evolution are optional on the Ralliart, part of a $2,750 option package that also includes HID headlights and a Rockford-Fosgate stereo with a 6-disc changer and Sirius satellite radio. My test car had the regular height-adjustable seats found in lesser Lancers, which were comfortable and supportive enough for me. The Ralliart also offers a navigation system, though its $1,999 price tag makes one of those Garmin units seem mighty appealing.
Like the Evo, the Ralliart has four doors and a reasonably-sized back seat. Unlike the Evo, it has a decent-sized trunk and fold-down rear seatbacks. The Ralliart is being introduced as a sedan, and while Mitsi hasn't made any official announcement, the five-door Lancer Ralliart Sportback is listed on fueleconomy.gov, so it's a pretty safe bet that it's on the way.
On the Road: Evolutionesque
The Ralliart drives like an Evo with the difficulty level turned down to "medium". It doesn't bite into the turns quite as aggressively; the Ralliart lacks the Evo's quick-ratio steering, which means more steering-wheel movement in the curves, but it does have a similar pleasingly-heavy feel. Grip and balance are not in Evo territory but still quite good. The tires give a helpful howl as the Ralliart approach the limits of traction; keep pushing and it transitions to gentle understeer. All-wheel-drive and twin limited-slip differentials allow it to blast out of the corners like a rocket. All this translates to a car that's a hell of a lot of fun on a curvy road. And the ride is a fair bit more than comfortable, so the Ralliart won't make you miserable on your daily commute.
The twin-clutch automatic transmission lacks any sort of launch mode, and off-the-line acceleration isn't very impressive -- flooring the pedal yields a slow move-off and a good second's delay before the magic starts. A second may not seem like much, but it feels like an eternity in a car that requires only about 6.5 of them to get to 60 MPH. Once on the move, the transmission's Sport mode does an outstanding job of accessing all of the engine's power, plus it snaps off impressive-sounding matched-rev downshifts as you roll to a stop. The only time I had to reach for the manual-shift paddles was to downshift on the downhill sections of the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road -- while the Ralliart does get bigger brakes than lesser Lancers, it lacks the huge four-piston Brembos found on the Evo.
Journey's End: Brilliant!
The Lancer Ralliart is brilliant -- it offers near-Evo thrills for a lot less money. But how does it compare to the Subaru WRX? The WRX gets a round of improvements for 2009, including a more powerful (265 hp) engine, tighter suspension, and better tires. I drove them back-to-back, and while the WRX's handling isn't quite as sharp, the extra power makes a noticeable difference in the curves. The WRX is about $1,500 cheaper; investing the savings in upgraded shocks and springs would probably even out the handling issues. Frankly, I'd be hard-pressed to pick between them. For most people, the choice will come down to the transmission -- the Ralliart is automatic-only while the WRX comes exclusively with a manual. (Subaru also offers the 224 hp automatic Impreza 2.5GT, but it can't hold a candle to the WRX or the Ralliart.)
If you're willing to forgo all-wheel-drive, there are many good choices -- the Mazdaspeed 3, Honda Civic Si, and Volkswagen GTI are my faves; the latter offers a twin-clutch automatic like the Ralliart's. If you can make do with less performance, consider Mitsubishi's sub-$19k Lancer GTS -- it's way more fuel-efficient, and while it may not have the Ralliart's talents, it certainly has its spirit.
Bottom line: The Lancer Ralliart is reasonably practical, fairly priced, and a lot of fun. Although this is only my first test drive, I already count it among my favorite go-faster four-doors. If you're looking for a sports car that can pull family duty, I highly recommend it. -- Aaron Gold