Triple treat

2005, Mitsubishi, Lancer Ralliart

Looks like 2005 is the year for turning over a new leaf in the compact car category. Once derided as lowly "secretary cars," compacts from Mazda and Mitsubishi now combine high fashion with feisty performance. These aren't mere "wannabe" hot rods anymore; they're genuine sport sedans that will appeal to aficionados and commuters alike.

Whereas Mazda3 is petite and discreet, the new Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is an attention-craving showoff. Mitsu's Lancer first appeared on the scene two years ago as replacement for the lowly Galant. Instead of a dowdy demeanor and forgettable styling, Lancer slices through the rush-hour traffic-scape boasting racy lines, trick wheels and an attitude.

In Ralliart trim, the boy-racer persona is exploited to the max. A 2.4-liter four-banger makes 162 horsepower and an identical number of foot-pounds. A five-speed manual snatches gears like a mousetrap; and taut, almost skittish suspension and steering feel provide a driving experience that's almost hair-raising.

Lancer's interior is more Spartan than a Mazda3's, but it feels slightly roomier. Trunk storage is virtually identical at 11.3 cubic feet. Side airbags are a pricier option at $1,500, however, since they're packaged with a power sunroof and upgraded Infinity AM/FM/CD audio system. Although anti-lock brakes are standard, no head-curtain airbags are available. Price, as tested, chalks up to $20,405.

It's tempting to dismiss the Ralliart as nothing but a poseur. But if you look beyond the gaudy paint job and hokey trunk-lid spoiler, this is a very fun-to-drive compact sedan. It's fiercer than Mazda3's interpretation of sporty handling, and its cockpit chimes with more road noises. But these are ingredients for an invigorating stew.

For most folks, 160-hp is plenty for around-town driving. Not only that: it's what keeps Ralliart's fuel rating respectable at 23 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway. Lancer Ralliart is like the friends you have who are always trying slightly too hard to be popular. You might wince at their antics from time to time, but you like hangin' out with 'em just the same.

Let's say some fool handed you a loaded Smith & Wesson .357 revolver, barrel-first. All those little bullets in their chambers staring right at you, flanking that cyclops-eye of a muzzle with its big, black pupil in the center of the barrel.

Now you know what it's like to wedge into the racing saddle of a Lancer Evolution MR.

Holy-moley! Can this car really be street-legal? It feels instead like the race car it's derived from-the indomitable Lancer Evo rally car that slices and dices across continents on its way to world championships. There are scoops and snouts everywhere. There's a 2.0-liter, 276-hp turbo monster underhood. There's all-wheel-drive-plus, no fewer than three limited slip differentials (front, center and rear). There's a carbon-fiber rear wing that rivals the St. Louis arch.

Forget everything you know about the way cars are equipped and priced. In the Evo MR's case, what you have is a $35,594 window sticker from which all the amenities have been delisted: no power windows, no power door locks, no ABS brakes. Mitsubishi has even stripped away all the sound deadening material in the interest of saving weight.

Speaking of weight, there's an aluminum roof panel in place of a steel one to lower the MR's center of gravity. Speaking of sound, there's a deliciously un-civic-minded "variable valve dual-mode muffler" that slyly resembles open-exhaust "cut-outs" of the '60s and '70s. With a flip of the switch, in other words, you can forget about trying to hear yourself think.

In a nutshell, the Evo MR is a pure-bred thriller that makes no concession to creature comfort in its single-minded pursuit of speed. The car is a rocket; it corners like a maniac on methamphetamine; it stops on a dime while mashing your eyeballs into the back of your cranium.

MR Evo is no poseur, that's for sure. But would you mind pointing that barrel in another direction, please?

The new-for-2005 Madza3 is a genuine contender for Makeover of the Year. This stylish beauty has arisen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the dearly departed Protégé. This is not to say that Protégé was substandard. To the contrary: it was a sporty, dependable compact-commuter that enthusiasts enjoyed. Only in the style department did Protégé come up short.

Mazda3, by comparison, is a stunner. Its sweeping lines are simultaneously formal and thrilling. By its looks alone, Mazda3 appears to be a much bigger and more substantial car than it really is.

This is no backhanded compliment. Mazda3 is a perfect size for city commuting, and its 2.3-liter twin-cam underhood employs variable valve timing to deliver 160 zesty horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque. Although an automatic is available, the five-speed manual is a quick-shifting delight. Weighing in at only 2,762 pounds, Mazda3 is light on its feet; quick off the mark; and admirably conservative with its 25 miles-per-gallon/city and 32 miles-per-gallon/highway fuel ratings.

Seating is for five, but the backseat is only comfortable for two. Trunk space gets squeezed as well, measuring 11.4 cubic feet. The posh quality and clever layout of the interior belies Mazda3's affordability. For $19,340 as-tested, this car boasts a long list of standard features including HVAC, AM/FM/in-dash CD and Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility. And even though anti-lock brakes, front-side and head-curtain airbags are part of an $800 option package, the car still clocks in under $20-grand.

Driving feel is the Mazda3's strong suit. All-independent suspension is magically stable. Steering is solid yet nimble. Cornering dynamics are exhilarating. For 2005, this is the car for those lucky folks who know flair when they see it and a bargain when they smell it.

5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.4-liter SOHC inline-4 w/ vvt, 5-sp. manual; 162 hp/162 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/City, 29 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 11.3 cu. ft.; as-tested, $20,405

5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ turbo, 6-sp. manual; 276 hp/286 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/City, 26 mpg/Hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 10.2 cu. ft.; as-tested, $35,594

5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.3-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt, 5-sp. manual; 160 hp/150 ft.-lbs.; 25 mpg/City, 32 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 11.4 cu. ft.; as-tested, $19,340

By Marc Stengel

More Mitsubishi car reviews?

Images of the 2005, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
2005 Mazda3 S Sedan
2005 Mazda3 S Sedan