First Drive: 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

If you find the base Mitsubishi Lancer ($13,990) a little too poky and the Lancer Evolution ($32,990) too pricey, your ship has come in. Actually, two ships have come in: a Lancer GTS ($17,990) with a larger engine for 2009, and a turbocharged 2009 Lancer Ralliart (under $27,000, estimated ) to bridge the gap between the more pedestrian Lancer and the fire-breathing Evo. Mitsubishi characterizes the Ralliart as more of a tuned-up Lancer than a detuned Evolution.

That's a sensible description, because the Evolution has a wider track and different suspension components than the Ralliart — but then again, the drivetrain is very much a detuned version of the Evo's — basically the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a smaller, single-scroll turbocharger, smaller intercooler and smaller-diameter plumbing. The standard all-wheel drive, which isn't offered on lesser Lancers, is likewise nearly identical to the Evo's. I spent about an hour driving this Frankenstein's monster and found it to be a compelling compromise that should make any Subaru WRX shopper think twice.

The Ralliart also becomes the new price of entry for Mitsubishi's impressive dual-clutch automated-manual transmission that made its first appearance in the Evolution MR, which just hit dealerships. Comparable to VW's better-known Direct Shift Gearbox, the Twin-Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission uses a separate clutch for even and odd gears, enabling lightning-fast shifts. I'll give more details in my upcoming Evolution review, but suffice it to say this is probably my favorite of the new breed of dual-clutch auto-manuals. Some drivers would rather have a stick, which isn't available in the Ralliart, and I might be one of them. But if I were forced to take an automatic, the TC-SST would be on my short list. It's a far better option than the CVT offered on the regular Lancers, including the GTS.

Apart from its higher overall power, what I like most about the Ralliart's engine is its torque delivery, starting with a healthy amount of grunt at low rpm. The peak 253 pounds-feet of torque comes at 3,000 rpm, but my experience reflects Mitsubishi's power curves, which show a solid 250 pounds-feet from 2,500 to 4,700 rpm. Even though the power is modest up to 2,500 rpm, the transmission's lower-gear ratios keep the Ralliart from being too sluggish from a standing start. It might even be better than the Evolution GSR and its five-speed manual; at least it feels that way. Above 4,750 rpm, the torque tapers down more gradually as horsepower continues to rise to its 237 hp peak at 6,000 rpm. The redline is at 6,500 rpm.

Overall, the lineup offers a nice spread of output: The base Lancer has 152 hp/146 pounds-feet, the Lancer GTS is 168/167, the Ralliart is 237/253 and the Evolution rates 291/300.

The all-wheel drive uses mechanical front, rear and computer-controlled center differentials from the ninth-generation Evolution to route power to the appropriate wheel. It has Tarmac, Gravel and Snow settings and a standard electronic stability system, so all it really lacks is the 10th-generation Evo's ability to sense yaw motions and direct rear torque accordingly. The Ralliart would be a good choice for harsh winters, but the standard summer performance tires would have to be replaced with optional all-seasons.

The quick-reacting transmission seems to find the right gear most of the time, and you can always select the Sport mode to raise the upshift points by about 1,000 rpm. Unlike the Evolution, the Ralliart doesn't include the super-aggressive Super Sport mode intended for track use. If you prefer to shift for yourself, you can use the gear selector lever or magnesium shift paddles, which are mounted on the steering column where they belong. To improve fuel economy, the Ralliart's 5th and 6th gears are higher than those in the Evolution, for an EPA rating of 17/25 mpg city/highway.

The chassis is a similar story: different tunings for the entire lineup. The GTS has a firmer suspension than the base Lancer, and the Ralliart goes firmer still with a larger front stabilizer bar. The Ralliart's ride quality is more than livable, even compared to the Evolution, which itself has been tamed for better day-to-day comfort. My Ralliart had the optional low-riding Recaro front seats from the Evolution, which aren't my favorite. Buyers will find greater comfort and much-appreciated height adjustment in the standard driver's seat.

The Ralliart even boasts a brake upgrade, from single-piston to dual-piston front calipers, and larger-diameter single pistons in the rear. They might not look as good as the Evolution's Brembo hardware, but they are a performance upgrade. This is a Ralliart that never leaves you wondering what you get for the extra money and name. This wasn't the case in the past, where the difference was mostly cosmetic.

The look hasn't been forsaken in the process. The Ralliart has a larger mouth than the Lancer but a less radical style than the Evo, though it shares the Evo's vented aluminum hood with functional air vents. The rear treatment, including the taillights and bumper, is also unique among Lancer models. The dual exhaust also is borrowed, effectively unchanged, from the Evolution. Standard is a rear spoiler that is the smaller of two sizes — by no means subtle, but not as large as the one on the Evolution MR.

The opposite can be said of its trunk. The Lancer offers 12.3 cubic feet of cargo volume, and the Evolution has a paltry 6.9 cubic feet and loses the folding backseat to structural reinforcements. The Ralliart keeps the folding seats and grants 10.0 cubic feet. Pretty much across the board, the Ralliart is a smart compromise between the regular Lancer and the Evolution. Looks like Mitsubishi did this one right.


Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, leads the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE.  Email Joe