The creation of a rally car is truly one of the great wonders of the automotive universe.
Take an everyday economy car, strip everything out of it that makes it economical, jam it full of all kinds of good stuff to make it go fast on any road surface in any kind of weather, then slap a bunch of wings and body panels on it to warn onlookers that you mean business before you powerslide past them.
If you want one to go rally racing for real, you pretty much have to build a car like that for yourself. But for enthusiasts who are looking for a taste of the sideways good life, Mitsubishi will be glad to sell you one off the rack.
The first option is the double black diamond-prepped Lancer Evolution, a 291 horsepower terror that is one of the fastest ways to get from one side of a mountain to the other, and just a few modifications away from competing in the World Rally Championship. This is the one to go for if you plan on spending a lot of time at the track, or in traffic court.
For those who are looking for the flavor and fun of a rally car without going all in, Mitsubishi also offers the aptly named Lancer Ralliart. It looks the part, and gets you about two-thirds of the way there, but is more like a set of skis endorsed by a pro: nice equipment, but not exactly the custom made items they actually use. They'll make you look pretty good on moguls, but won't be much help if Bode Miller slides up next to you and points towards the base lodge, just like the Ralliart won't do you a whole lot of good if Travis Pastrana pulls up next to you at a stoplight.
Without a point of reference like that one to make you feel inadequate, the Ralliart should satisfy most of your urges. The 2.0 liter turbocharged engine is basically the same as the one in the Evolution, minus a few parts and rated at 237 hp. The all-wheel drive system is also a hand-me-down, but from the last-generation Evo, which was no slouch itself. Connecting the two is a trick, twin-clutch gearbox, and it is quite a mechanical wonder to behold.
Like most transmissions of this type, it can operate either as an automatic or manual, and has paddles behind the steering wheel to shift with. They're big, magnesium units that are as handy to use as the ones found in sports cars much more expensive than the $26,185 Ralliart. Set to ‘normal’ it takes on a relaxed demeanor, aiming to maximize fuel economy, which is EPA rated at 17 mpg city/25 highway. Thumb the toggle behind the gear selector to ‘sport’ and you cross the threshold into a world of sensual delights that most drivers dare not dream of, or so a famous hipster doofus might say, if he was into this sort of thing.
Leave the transmission in automatic and you'll wonder why they bothered including a manual setting at all. Under acceleration, it holds onto each gear longer before changing up, and you'll never see 6th gear unless you are actually going fast enough to warrant it, which is a speed that is far north of posted limits, or so I hear. On the flip side, the moment you think about hitting the brakes, it starts executing rev-matched downshifts more perfectly than a Formula 1 driver named Baryshnikov could ever dream of.
Performance aside, just the way the transmission operates should be entertaining enough to win over die hard stick shifters. When you're dawdling through town in a 25 mph zone in 2nd gear, it actually feels like a car in 2nd gear, with the engine wound up and ready to go, and none of the numb sloppiness you get in a traditional automatic.
Start shifting on your own and you are literally on your own. The blessed device lets you take each gear all the way to redline without intervening with unwanted upshifts. I once left in 6th gear and slowed down as much as possible to see what it would do, and it waited until the engine was nearly about to stall before finally switching to 5th. Even then I could tell that it really didn't want to.
Regardless, it does a great job with the power provided by the engine, which feels like a lot more than the listed 237 hp, at least when it is operating above 3000 rpm. Below that mark you’re better off getting out and pushing, but when the revs hit that magic number - which is also the torque peak of 251 pound-feet — it feels like someone turned on a super magnet somewhere up ahead and you will soon be running into it with great force. I should mention the driver-side 5-star frontal crash test rating. Your co-pilot has to settle for four.
The sound the motor makes while doing this is as Hoover-esque as small displacement turbocharged engines tend to be, but it’s a meager price to pay for the rush. Outside the car, where people are treated to the exhaust note rather than engine resonance, they are slammed by the sound of a giant hummingbird tearing through the countryside in search of another feeder full of Red Bull.
And it conceivably could, too. Although in practice most Ralliarts will never leave the pavement, the all-wheel drive system makes dirt road excursions a distinct possibility, courtesy of a computer controlled center differential that has settings for tarmac, gravel and snow — the three surfaces used in rally racing. I subjected the car to all of them on some gorgeous two lanes and trails in the Skylands of northwestern New Jersey and, since I'm far from skilled in the art of rally, the fact that the car is in one piece and I'm around to write this review is testament to how surefooted it is.
The steering is a little slow and the wheel needs to be cranked further than you expect before your direction starts to change, but once it does the tires practically tear it out of your hands asking for more. The all-season Yokohamas that come from the factory could use a good deal more grip on plain old dry tarmac, but on salt-strewn roads, mud, snow, and even glare ice, they work wonders in conjunction with the rest of the car's traction control systems. Summer tires are an available option, but you wouldn't want to get them dirty like these.
Hardcore compact sports car-types bemoan the fact that the suspension on the Ralliart errs on the soft side and, compared to a tuned Evo, it does. I'll argue that makes it better suited to the light off-roading the car might be subjected to, and the extra comfort is certainly appreciated en route to the pediatri ... uh, speed shop.
The brakes are especially indicative of the car's dual personality, very progressive with no head-snapping initial bite, but plenty of stopping power once you get your foot into it. The left one, since there's no clutch pedal to keep it busy.
The interior plays both sides of the coin as well. The bolsters of the optional Recaro sport seats hanging on to you for dear life as you explore the car's limits, while the relatively soft cushions take care of your backside during long distance cruising, or while sitting in traffic on the way to work dreaming about such things. On the dash and doors there's not a soft piece of plastic to be found, but the design hides this fact well and its quite sharp-looking overall.
The trunk gets a ten. Unfortunately, that's cubic feet. This is due in part to the placement of the subwoofer for the Rosford Fosgate audio system that comes with a $2750 package that buys you the Recaros, and sounds best when you're listening to techno, the only kind of music that should ever be played in a car like this. As a consolation, the reasonably roomy rear seats fold down to expand the cargo space into the cabin. If that's not enough for you, and you are a patient soul - not likely given the target market of this car - a hatchback version of the Ralliart will be available this summer with a couple of extra cubes in back, but the same amount under the hood.
Since I expect to get a lot of mail regarding the car that this will be inevitably compared to, the 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX, let me make a few, broad observations since I have not driven that one yet.
The WRX has a lower base price and is quicker, but it is only available with a traditional 5-speed manual transmission.
The Mitsubishi has a better interior and, based on time spent in the WRX STi and base Imprezas, the Subarus are louder, in a bad road and wind noise kind of way.
The WRX will not provide a high-tech fix on the level of the Ralliart, which is a lot like the Nissan GT-R in that regard, just on a much slower and cheaper scale.
The WRX may have more rally street cred than the Ralliart, but the Mitsubishi is better-looking, giving it more curb appeal.
Done and done.
(Now why do I feel like I’ll be getting even more mail than if I hadn’t brought all of that up?)
2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Base Price: $26,490
As Tested: $30,065
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 cylinder
Power: 237 hp, 251 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
What do you think of the Ralliart?
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