We're up before first light to drive the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. We want some time with it on our favorite roads before Los Angeles commuters start short-cutting through the canyons to avoid the slog on the freeway.
If this was a 2006 Lancer Ralliart, with its normally aspirated 2.4-liter engine and soft suspension, we might still be in bed right now. But this 2009 Lancer Ralliart sedan feels like it's a world apart (maybe two) from that car, and so we scald our tongue on gas station coffee as the twin-clutch gearbox grabs 2nd gear. When the road opens before us, the Ralliart's turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is full of life, revving to its 6,500-rpm redline with a fervor that's as exciting as it is familiar.
Undoubtedly you've heard that the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is carrying all kinds of Evo-derived hardware. This turbo 2.0-liter is a medium-hot version of the engine in the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, while the automated manual gearbox, officially called the Twin Clutch-Sequential Sportshift Transmission (TC-SST), comes straight from the Evo X MR. The all-wheel-drive system, complete with Mitsu's Active Center Differential (ACD), is from the Evolution IX.
Driving a Ralliart probably won't stop you from wanting the full-on Evo X experience. But when the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart goes on sale at the beginning of September 2008, it will be the first direct challenge to the Subaru Impreza WRX. This car is good, and it should be priced right.
The Hallowed Middle Ground
For years, the regular-strength Subaru WRX has been the performance buy of choice if you want a brand-new car and simply cannot spend more than $30,000. The Mazdaspeed 3 has proven an interesting alternative, but a front-wheel-drive layout limits its hard-core appeal.
Unless you're looking at used Evos, Mitsubishi doesn't have anything in this price range. A loaded Lancer GTS tops out around $22K, and the cheapest Evolution X GSR starts north of $33K. This leaves a big opening for the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart.
Although this is a chunky sedan with the same exterior dimensions as the regular Mitsubishi Lancer (and consequently, a 0.6-inch-narrower track than the Evo), you don't have to spend much time with the Ralliart to understand how seriously it takes its performance mission. Yet, like it or not, superficial impressions also count for a lot on a car like this (just ask Subaru), and that's why the '09 Ralliart looks like an Evolution X to the casual viewer.
Its snarky grille and aluminum hood (complete with NACA duct and twin heat extraction vents) come direct from the elite Mitsu. Only the Ralliart badges and the 18-inch wheels from the Lancer GTS suggest the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart's lesser status. Not that much lesser, though, if you take the time to read the tire sidewalls and discover these are Yokohama Advan A10s, and these 215/45R18s are summer tires to boot. Inside, real Recaro seats swallow you up, provided you ante up for a package option that also includes HID headlights and Rockford Fosgate sound.
You open the hood, and everything is as it should be here, too. There's Mitsubishi's 4B11T ("T" for "turbo"), all-aluminum 2.0-liter inline-4 engine, there's the turbocharger behind it (with plenty of room to spare), and, up front, the air-to-air intercooler.
A Lot of Engine We're almost surprised to see Mitsu using a 2.0-liter engine in the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, as Subaru and Mazda have moved on to larger-displacement, four-cylinders for their more favorable torque characteristics. Yet, after five minutes in the Ralliart, it's obvious Mitsu's decision has been the right one.
The engine itself is identical to the one in the Evo, right down to the 86mm-by-86mm bore and stroke, semi-closed-deck block and forged crankshaft and pistons. A Mitsubishi product planner tells us that the engineers considered using less aggressive camshaft profiles for the Ralliart, but decided to keep them unchanged. Even the compression ratio is identical at 9.0:1.
The main difference on the 2009 Ralliart is its turbocharger, which is a smaller, single-scroll unit instead of the twin-scroll turbo in the Evolution X. The Ralliart also has its own intake system, while the exhaust system is shared. The result is 237 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 253 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. The torque band is amazingly flat, with close to 250 lb-ft available from 2,500-4,500 rpm. Redline is 6,500 rpm.
These totals fall well short of the Evo's 291 hp and 300 lb-ft, but they're squarely between the WRX (224 hp and 226 lb-ft) and Mazdaspeed 3 (263 hp and 280 lb-ft).
The Ralliart outweighs these rivals by a couple hundred pounds, though, so you expect it to feel slower. Yet it doesn't, and there's astonishingly little turbo lag besides. Mitsu product planners expect it to match the WRX and MS3 in the acceleration department, meaning 0-60 mph in 6 seconds and a quarter-mile time in the mid-14-second range.
Because Not Even You Can Shift This Well We suspect the dual-clutch gearbox has much to do with how quick the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart feels. It's the best of the automated manual transmissions we've sampled to date, and its deft control over gear selection and shift timing ensures that the 2.0-liter engine is almost always in the meat of its power band.
If you want a regular five-speed manual transmission in your Ralliart, forget about it. We're told the U.S. product planning staff really wanted to offer one to appease the hard-core fringe, but was overruled by product planners in Japan. There's still a chance we might get one down the road, but for '09, all Ralliarts have the TC-SST.
Gearing for the dual-clutch transmission is identical to the version in the Evo X MR, with the exception of the 5th and 6th gear ratios, which are taller to allow more relaxed highway cruising and promote better fuel economy (likely an EPA rating of 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway). In addition, the most aggressive "Super Sport" shift program has been eliminated, leaving only Normal and Sport modes, with manual gear selection possible in both. In Sport mode, upshifts are firmer and downshifts are rev-matched.
The dual-clutch gearbox drives all four wheels through Mitsubishi's All Wheel Control (AWC) all-wheel-drive system, and just as on the Evo VIII, IX and X, there are Tarmac, Gravel and Snow modes, allowing the driver to exert some control over how the center differential behaves. Unlike the WRX, the 2009 Lancer Ralliart has mechanical front and rear limited-slip differentials, yet still offers stability control as standard. The Evo X's active yaw control is not part of the package. Further, different-length half-shafts on the narrower Ralliart will prevent owners from swapping components between the two.
More Playful Than Its Peers With all the Evo kit on the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, you might wonder where Mitsu engineers made some cuts to keep the price down. Brian Arnett, manager of product strategy, admits that they weren't able to use any aluminum for the Ralliart's suspension. In addition, the rear crossbrace that enhances structural rigidity has been eliminated to preserve a folding rear seat for more cargo capacity.
Essentially, then, this is the same front strut/rear multilink arrangement you'll find on the standard Lancer, though the rear has been modified to allow packaging of the AWD system and now includes semi-trailing arms. Spring and damper rates are unique to the Ralliart — meaning firmer than the Lancer GTS setup but less aggressive than the Evo X. The front strut-tower brace, already present on the GTS, is also stiffer.
Like many Mitsubishi employees, Arnett used to drive an Evo, but more interesting to us is that before he worked for Mitsu, he was a die-hard owner of an Eclipse GSX, a car more in keeping with the spirit of the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart.
Run through tight turns, the Ralliart isn't as sharp as the Evo X, but it turns in quicker than the Lancer GTS and has significantly less body roll. It also feels stiffer and more aggressive than the WRX. It has the same 15.2:1 steering ratio as the lesser Lancers, but Mitsubishi has added a variable-flow power steering pump, which greatly improves the weighting immediately off-center. A smaller steering wheel, shared with the Evo, adds to the impression (if not the reality) of heightened maneuverability.
The Lancer Ralliart also does something that the second-gen WRX just won't do. It plays like it's a rear-wheel-drive car. Switch off the stability control and the tail immediately comes alive. You might scoff at those skinny 215-series tires, but the fact is, they add a lot to the car's entertainment value when they break traction. Grippier rubber just wouldn't be as much fun.
Braking hardware is similarly mundane on the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, and we expect many owners will choose to make upgrades here. With the exception of dual-piston front calipers borrowed from the Outlander, this is the same ventilated front disc/solid rear disc setup found on other Lancers.
They Could Have Called It an Evo With all the Evolution-grade hardware on the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, we doubt anyone would get angry if the company appended "Evo" to its name. More important, the Ralliart is a nicely resolved machine in its own right. It's not as polished as the Evo X, but you can have nearly as much fun with it.
The Ralliart is also more entertaining than just about any of its direct competitors. Even so, we suspect its impressive plate of technology could make it significantly more expensive than a comparably equipped WRX or Mazdaspeed 3. Given the $38K price tag on an Evo MR with the twin-clutch box, we wouldn't be surprised if the 2009 Lancer Ralliart ends up with a price tag near $30,000.
And that might mean that some of you will still be looking at used Evos.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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