By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There is some good news out there. Even as the stock market tanks, we’re living in exceptionally good times as far as new cars are concerned. Performance cars especially.
The “base” versions are getting to be as or even more powerful than the top-of-the-line versions were as recently as five or ten years ago. Standard issue V-6 Mustangs and Camaros give you 300-plus hp, more (in some cases, a lot more) than the V-8 versions once delivered.
And how about the Mitsubishi Lancer? In Ralliart trim, you get the same basic package now that used to comprise the top-of-the-line EVO: Turbo engine, adjustable AWD system, dual-clutch automated manual transmission — and zero to 60 in the mid-high five second range.
And unlike the current EVO — which starts at almost $38k in MR trim — you can drive home a Ralliart for less than $28k.
WHAT IT IS
The Ralliart is a (much) hopped-up version of the Lancer compact economy sedan. It offers almost-EVO performance and most of the functional enhancements that make the EVO what it is, including the same three-way adjustable (snow/gravel/tarmac) AWD system with center and rear diffs. The main differences between the Ralliart and the EVO are that you can’t get a driver-controlled clutch (i.e., a conventional manual transmission) in the Ralliart and that you can’t get an EVO in anything except sedan form while the Ralliart is available in both sedan and Sportback (wagon) bodystyles.
Also, of course, the price. A Ralliart sedan has an MSRP of $27,695 while an EVO sedan starts at $34,095 (for the GSR) and $37,295 for the MR.
The Ralliart’s main competition is the $25,495-$28,995 Subaru Impreza WRX.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The Lancer lineup is mostly unchanged for the new model year, except that — reportedly — AWD will be available in lower-priced SE Lancers. However, it won’t be the same system used in the Ralliart or the EVO.
An affordable EVO.
Probably also costs a lot less to insure than an EVO (the GSX-R 1000 of cars).
Racy dual-clutch automated manual transmission; super-sophisticated adjustable AWD.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Driver-controlled manual transmission not available.
Crack ho’ appetite (for gas) if you drive it all aggressively.
The very similar WRX Soobie starts out thousands less, is more powerful and quicker — and comes with a regular five-speed stick.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Lancer Ralliart has a little (2.0 liter) engine that makes big power (237 hp). It’s the same basic engine as in the EVO (291 hp) just not quite as freakishly powerful for its size.
Still, even 237 hp out of 2 liters is a feat worth reflecting on. As recently as the mid-’90s, 237 was a V-8 horsepower number and even today, a typical very high output V-8 – for example, the current Mustang GT’s 5.0 liter, 400 hp V-8 – doesn’t approach the power-per-liter output that the 2 liter Mitsubishi delivers. The GT’s V-8 would need to be making well over 500 hp to equal the 2.0′s power-per-liter benchmark.
Acceleration is — not surprisingly — excellent. The Ralliart gets to 60 in about 5.7 seconds, not at all far behind the current EVO (which gets there in about 5 flat).
Only two downsides. Wait, three.
One, the Subaru WRX is quicker; it gets to 60 in just 5.3 seconds.
Two, the Ralliart only comes with the dual-clutch six-speed automatic that’s (weirdly) also the same unit used in the top-of-the-line EVO MR. It’s a sophisticated piece of equipment with numerous virtues (more on this below) but the baldfaced truth is that it’s just more fun to work the clutch yourself. Unfortunately, if you want that third pedal, you have to step up $6,400 to the EVO GSR ($34,095).
Or buy the Subaru WRX instead.
The final thing is — feeding this thing. EPA rates the Ralliart at 17 city, 25 highway, which is actually worse mileage than a V-8 powered muscle car like the current Ford Mustang GT Boss 302 (17 city, 25 highway). And — trust me — if you drive the Ralliart as it was meant to be driven, you will be seeing your friends at the Exxon station very frequently.
The little turbo 2 is a hoot, but with mileage this poor (and given how decent the gas mileage of high-powered V-8 and V-6 performance cars has become) you might be asking yourself later on why you didn’t just go ahead and get a V-8.
ON THE ROAD
At first, you think something might be wrong.
The light goes green, you stomp the gas pedal and… nothing. There is a momentary delay before anything really happens, almost like an old muscle car with a bog-prone carburetor. But then the Ralliart comes alive — blitzing forward in a sudden rush of turbo boost and firecracker-fast gear changes through the dual-clutch automated manual. In the space of about 50 yards you are accumulating serious speed and if you keep it floored you’ll be over 120 and climbing before your brain can catch up to the reality of it all.
This thing is a fast mover.
And that initial lag? In a way, it’s kind of fun because of what comes next. The (momentary) calm before the storm. It’s a big part of what makes driving a high-pressure-boosted turbo car so special — and justifies buying one over a similarly quick car with a larger, non-turbo V-6 or even a V-8.
But — it’d be even better with a real stick to play with. Then you could wind up the little four, spooling the turbo, before dumping the clutch (yourself) and launching the car with appropriate ferocity. True, the clutch would likely not live long this way, but then a car like the Ralliart (and its even meaner EVO brother) were not designed to be 200,000 mile transportation appliances.
But what about the Subaru WRX? It is quicker (and probably can be expected to live a longer life, both because its larger engine is less stressed/strung out and also, frankly, because Subarus have a much better track record in that department) but it is less of a hellion and so — my opinion — not quite as fun to drive. It does not have the almost vicious sudden explosion of power that the Mitsubishi does — which reminds me, fondly, of ’70s-era two-stroke motorcycles. And — damn — those were fun!
Handling is outstanding.
The Ralliart has the same basic suspension layout as the race-ready EVO, including the three-mode (Tarmac/Gravel/Snow) driver-adjustable AWD. The tire package is not quite as aggressive as the EVO’s and you don’t get the huge Brembo brakes that are available with the EVO — but these are differences you’ll notice only at the track, driving all-out. On the street, the Ralliart is still a very formidable machine that will outcorner almost any comer. Especially comers in its price range — which excepting the Subaru WRX do not even offer a high-performance AWD system (and the Soobie’s is not driver-adjustable) or race-bred dual-clutch automated manual transmissions, either.
AT THE CURB
Here’s a plus — or a minus — depending on your age bracket: The Ralliart is not quite as, ah, extroverted as the EVO. No huge wing on the trunklid. No contrast-color powder-coated calipers peeking through the rims. In gun metal silver metallic like my tester, the Ralliart looks fairly ordinary from all angles except in the rearview (or when coming at you). Then you see the twin air vents and dummy pressed-in hood scoop (that could be made functional; Mitsubishi seems to have made doing so easy. It looks like all you’d have to do is unbolt that cover plate on the underside of the hood…).
The body kit is subtle — and other than the orange, almost BMW M-like badge in the grille and the “Ralliart” nameplate on the trunk, it is a car that can fly under the radar much more easily than the rock-star flashy EVO. If you are 22, you will probably prefer the EVO. But if you are 32, the Ralliart will likely be more appealing.
Some reviewers have criticized the EVO for having more or less the same interior as the base model econo-car Lancer — which is also true of the Ralliart — but the nut of the criticism is that this is not acceptable in the EVO because an EVO costs literally twice the price of a basic Lancer.
But the criticism is less valid when we’re talking about the Ralliart. It does not strike me as low-rent (for openers) and is certainly on par with other cars (like the WRX) in the mid-high $20k range. My tester had carbon fiber trim plates and some nice slate gray leather which gave it a serious look and and feel. I always appreciate simple, functional controls, too — like the large, rotary knobs for controlling the AC temperature and fan speeds. The dash pod is also right to the point. No extraneous business. Just a big speedo and tach with an LCD info center in the middle that (among other things) tells you what mode the AWD system is in and also what mode you’ve selected for the automated manual gearbox.
The car has good head and legroom up front, in part because the windshield angle and roofline are not as aggressively swept back as in some of the newer-design stuff.
It’s also nice that you can choose between either the conventional sedan layout or go with the wagon-esque Ralliart five-door hatchback bodystyle, which gives you a bit more usable cargo-carrying space.
You can also get a voice-activated Nav system (Fuse) with 30 GB music storage hard drive and uber-loud Rockfrod Fosgate premium stereo rig with two massive bass reflectors in the trunk.
Just two things would be issues for me as a potential buyer of this car.
The first is a minor thing — the strange (and loud) sound that the turn signals make when engaged. Tick-tok, Tick-tok. Maybe I am just noise sensitive. But the buzzer would be the first thing to go.
Second is more serious. Maybe. I would be a little paranoid about the future prospects of the 2.0 liter engine. Boosted hard and heavy to make the power that it does, it may not be doing so well by the time the odometer has say 80,000 miles or so showing.
I don’t see a lot of older EVOs running around.
On the other hand, these cars tend to live hard lives and you can’t fault the car for that. Also, Mitsubishi has really put some money where its mouth is to try and allay potential buyer fears by giving buyers a confidence-inspiring five-year/ 60,000 mile comprehensive warranty plus a ten year/100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain, which of course means the engine and transmission.
Subaru, meanwhile, only gives you three/36,000 on the WRX (and just five/60,000 on the powertrain).
What was it ABBA said?
If you change your mind, I’m the first in line… honey I’m still free… take a chance on me?
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a four-wheeled party popper there’s nothing else on the road quite like it.