Anyone with a platelet's worth of enthusiast blood running through their veins knows what a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is. Sporting blistered fenders, a hyperactive turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive, the "Evo" has fans as rabid as those of the Jonas Brothers. It's certainly a cool car and a stout rival to Subaru's equally popular STI.
But not everyone can afford the $35,000-plus needed to purchase a street-tamed rally car. For them, Subaru's WRX has been the lone budget buy. Not any longer. The 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart makes this a tight, two-horse race -- one so close it arguably comes down to tire selection.
Filling the huge gap between the slightly sporty Lancer GTS and the extreme Evo, the 2009 Lancer Ralliart has the requisite WRX-fighting hardware. A force-fed four-cylinder feeds 237 horsepower to all four wheels through something the Subie boys don't offer — a six-speed automated dual-clutch manual gearbox. Dubbed the Twin-Clutch Sequential Sportshift Transmission (TC-SST), this tranny allows automatic or manual operation and provides rapid-fire changes and rev-matching downshifts. It's so good that serious driving enthusiasts may make an exception to the "Thou shalt have three pedals" commandment. If they don't, they should forget the Ralliart, because the TC-SST is the only transmission available.
Spec-sheet junkies will note that the Ralliart is down on power compared to the pumped-up-for-'09 WRX, but there's more to a car than just the spec sheet. With the exception of some disappointing tires, the strong connection between driver, Mitsu and road is something that just won't show up in an Excel document. It's in that connection where the Ralliart truly shines.
Power for the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart comes from a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that pumps out 237 hp and 253 pound-feet of torque. Running through the aforementioned six-speed automated-clutch manual transmission, the power is apportioned out to all four wheels as traction dictates.
Nail it from a stop and the Ralliart is a bit slow out of the blocks (as the electronics do their thing to prevent driveline shock) but then scurries ahead in a smooth, linear rush. At the track our Ralliart test car sprinted to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and unreeled the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds. Those times are about a half-second off the WRX's, but anything that can hit 60 in under 6 and run the quarter in under 14.5 is still pretty darn quick.
Want to keep it on the boil? Just put the tranny in Sport mode and it rips off smooth and quick gearchanges, matching revs like an expert driver on downshifts and holding lower gears to keep the power on tap. It's just as cooperative when shifting it yourself via the column-mounted paddles or the console-mounted lever. The dual-clutch TC-SST even handles stop-and-go traffic in fine fashion, without any of the annoying herky-jerky action displayed by other single-clutch automated manual transmissions (such as in the Audi R8 and Smart Fortwo).
Stopping performance wasn't quite as good — the best stop from 60 mph took 127 feet, about 10 feet more than we'd expect. As pedal feel was excellent, we surmised that the tires were chiefly to blame due to a lack of outright grip. The Mitsu's wimpy rubber also let it down on our skid pad, slalom and desolate canyon road tests, despite an athletic chassis and communicative steering. The Yokohama Advan A10s would let go early, causing the car to slide prematurely and the stability control to kick in. Testing done with stickier tires proved they would make a significant handling and braking difference, although the downside is that tread life wouldn't be as lengthy as with these less capable stock tires.
Most of the time the Ralliart's ride quality is acceptable, if a bit firm. But on freeways with expansion joints, the Mitsu can feel stiff-legged, giving a washboard effect at higher speeds. This is certainly the price you pay for the Ralliart's buttoned-down feel in the corners.
The optional Recaro seats are great for performance driving -- provided you're not too broad of beam. Most staffers found them comfortable on long drives, while the hefty lateral bolstering held us in place when we were connecting the dots on our favorite driving roads. Although some of us could find an agreeable driving position, the minimal available adjustments (tilt-only wheel, lack of seat height adjustment) caused problems for those of above-average height.
Though rear passengers don't have it quite as good as front occupants, the backseat provides ample support and room for a pair of adults. Those over 6 feet tall may find headroom a bit tight.
As it's based on a compact economy car, the Ralliart has thankfully simple control layouts. The automatic climate controls are arrayed in the proven three-knob design -- one each for fan, mode and temperature. Audio controls are likewise intuitive, with two old-school knobs for volume and tuning, though we wished they stuck out farther. Our tester's optional Rockford Fosgate unit cranked out clean sound, regardless of our musical choice. Bluetooth and keyless ignition/entry are standard on the Ralliart.
Installing a front-facing child seat is straightforward, with enough room from the rear door opening to put in the seat, and installation is easy due to the flat cushioning and easy-to-find LATCH anchors. Since this is a compact car, the front seat must be pushed up far in order for a rear-facing seat to fit.
Testing the trunk's capacity, we found that two sets of golf clubs will fit, albeit tightly due to the subwoofer eating up some of the width. A large rolling suitcase fits with some room to spare for perhaps a duffel bag or backpack. Should you need more cargo space, the 60/40-split rear seat folds down.
Design/Fit and Finish
Though we understand that styling is subjective, there's no arguing the fact that the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart has attitude. Just look at that nose with the angry eyes and wide-open mouth. The grille reminded some of an Audi's, only inverted. The tail didn't generate the same reaction from some onlookers, though, who felt it looked rather high and narrow — an impression emphasized by the visibility-limiting rear spoiler.
The cabin is rather plain. Apart from the dual instrument nacelles and the Recaros, it's not that sporty. Perhaps some aluminum trim would brighten it up. And although there was too much hard plastic for a $30,000 car, the overall build quality was very good and we heard no rattles or buzzes, even when traversing pockmarked roads.
Who should consider this vehicle
Anyone spending between $25,000 and $30,000 who A) needs the functionality of a compact sedan, B) wants the exhilarating drive of a communicative sports car and C) is willing to accept a somewhat stiff ride quality in exchange for those admirable traits.
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