SEATTLE – Only one automaker gets more out of a platform than Mitsubishi does with the chassis that is the foundation of its midsize Lancer sedan.
Based in Tokyo, Mitsubishi has offered up the Lancer GTS, a front-wheel-drive compact sedan that makes 168 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. The engine can be mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable gearbox which has no gears at all.
Then there's the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (Evo for short). It's a monstrous world class rally car with race wins to prove the point, yet it can be driven on regular streets. Powered by a four-cylinder engine with a twin scroll turbocharger, it makes 291 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.
The Evo can be mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or a twin clutch automatic gearbox with normal, sport and s-sport modes. It also has paddle shifters mounted on the steering column.
An Evo starts at about $33,000 while the Lancer GTS begins the price scale at about $13,000. The 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is slotted between the two vehicles. Starting at about $27,000, "it's for the person who wants heightened performance and sportiness in a vehicle that is still fuel efficient," a Mitsubishi official told me.
The Ralliart has a single scroll turbocharger that boosts its four cylinder engine up to 237 horsepower with 253 pound-feet of torque. The only gearbox is a twin clutch six speed setup with normal and sport modes, and steering column mounted shift paddles.
The all-wheel-drive system is rear wheel biased during normal driving but it has the ability to send up to seventy percent of its torque to the front or rear wheels as needed. Mitsubishi brought us to the Pacific Raceway track which is about 40 minutes south of here to test drive all three vehicles.
I concentrated on the Ralliart and spent much of my time either driving or riding along the road course and away from the track. Although it was a short route, the drive gave me some idea of how the Ralliart would account itself during every day driving in urban America.
In a phrase, the Ralliart wasn't bad. However, forget about the sport setting for the transmission. It makes the Ralliart shift quicker but holds gears longer which translates into higher revving. That means high engine noise and higher than normal fuel consumption.
With the normal setting, the Railliart felt tight in a good way, ran fast and the handling was phenomenal. The car seemed to anticipate where I wanted to go and pointed itself there with just the slightest turn of the wheel.
The RECARO(R) sports seats were comfortable and the suspension was firm without being too harsh. I thought the dual clutch transmission shifted quickly. Though I've been in a couple of cars with faster shifting dual clutch trannies, the Ralliart's shifting was quick enough.
The interior layout was spartan at best. There weren't a lot of bells and whistles. Instruments were easy to read and to the reach. Although the bucket seats did seem to be too deep for me, it might have been a matter of just getting used to them.
The Lancer Ralliart had aggressively styled front and rear bumpers and a dual exhaust. Its lightweight aluminum, ducted hood delivers cooling air to the turbocharger and vents engine heat. Our test vehicle had a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel with audio and cruise control switches.
In addition to RECARO(R) sport bucket front seats, our Ralliart had a hands-free entry and ignition system, Bluetooth® that turns compatible cell phones into hands free car phones, and an auxiliary MP3 input jack. A 40-gigabyte hard drive navigation system with music server and a 650-Watt premium with satellite radio are also available.
Mitsubishi has never had a problem building quality vehicles; the Lancer Ralliart is more evidence of that. But the automaker seems to be challenged when it comes to informing the public of the excellent vehicles that it has produced for years.