Review – 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

The Good: Dual-clutch transmission more appliance than gimmick, good mid-range power, the badass looks of an Evolution for a discount.

The Bad: Economy car interior, a backseat only children could love, and it’s not that much of a discount.

The Verdict: The Coke Zero Evo.

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The trouble with jacks-of-all-trades is, as the aphorism points out, they don’t usually master any of them. This is just as true in the automotive world as anywhere else. For example, minivans promise the space of a van and the driving experience of a car, but end up giving you a top-heavy ride and room for only seven people. Same with sports sedans – they promise the comfort and convenience of a sedan with the performance of a sports car, but often end up compromising on one of those goals in favor of the other.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is a compound compromise. Not only is it a sports sedan, it’s the reduced-calorie version of Mitsubishi’s gonzo Lancer Evolution. The Evo gets a twin-turbo 291-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four; the Ralliart makes do with a single-turbo version making 237 horses. The Evo also receives some heftier go-fast parts – bigger brakes, tighter suspension, and so forth. In exchange for all this, the Ralliart shaves a few grand off the sticker price.

However, Mitsu deserves a lot of credit for not shaving off two handy performance bits during the cost-cutting: the Evo’s all-wheel-drive system and its dual-clutch automated manual transmission, known at Mitsubishi by the Air Force-grade acronym TC-SST. While the former feature is rather common these days (see our featurette on all-wheel-drive), the dual-clutch transmission has mostly remained the provenance of high-priced sports cars; the Ralliart is the cheapest car in America to offer it as standard equipment. (Seriously, who ever thought of Mitsubishi as leading the charge to bring racing technology to the people?)

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It doesn’t take much time behind the wheel to see why Mitsu felt confident plopping this tranny into every Ralliart. (Sorry, RuPaul, not you.) While the transmission’s automatic mode isn’t as consistently smooth as a traditional torque-converter automatic transmission, I never had any problems with it, even in New York City stop-and-go traffic. It’s good enough you could leave it in auto all the time without complaint…

…but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. No, this transmission shines brightest when you slide the gearshift over into the manual notch and let your fingers do the driving. Steering-column-mounted paddles behind the wheel let you flick through the gears without taking your hands off the leather-wrapped rim; slap the right paddle to upshift, pull the left to downshift. Suddenly, merging onto the freeway feels like coming out of the pit lane at Indy – floor the gas and flick your right fingers three times, and you’re ten over the limit by the time you hit your blinker.

And if you forget to uphift, don’t worry; the transmission is smart enough to know you’d rather bounce off the limiter and upshifts all by itself rather than introduce your forehead to the steering wheel. Should you prefer the forearm-strengthening motion of a regular manual transmission, you can also shift with the lever. Whether you use the paddles or the gearshift, it’s a logical, intuitive system. Porsche could learn a thing or two from Mitsubishi here.

Wait, did I just say Porsche could learn something…from Mitsubishi?

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding.)

Swiffering.

As a whole, the Ralliart performs impressively. Performance isn’t quite at the balls-to-the-wall level of the Evo, but the lesser Lancer grips turns like a 15-year-old grabbing second base for the first time and hurls itself down the road fast enough to put a devilish smile on your face. The sole turbo pumps the engine without significant turbo lag; unlike some cars, you won’t be constantly reminded of the engine’s forced induction by a sudden burst of whoa! halfway through the rev range. That said, strong midrange power is the engine’s best characteristic – you’ll never need to worry about whether you’ve got enough oomph for a (reasonably sane) passing maneuver.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your life driving switchbacks and idyllic back roads – and if you could, you’d buy a Lotus, not a sedan. And it’s when you start considering day-to-day life in the Ralliart that the luster starts to fade.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

For example, those optional Recaro front bucket seats that hold you so well in the turns start to get a little uncomfortable after a few hours in the saddle. It’s far from a dealbreaker – the seats are still awesome, and given that they come packaged with the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo and xenon headlights, I wouldn’t buy this car without them. But my gangly-assed legs were too long to fit comfortably under the steering wheel, so I had to kink my throttle leg out to the side – causing the bolster to render much of my quadriceps numb. Those seats are nice, but they’re not worth getting deep-vein thrombosis over.

But bolsters aside, the Recaros are the best thing about the interior. Sadly, that’s not so much praise for the front seats as it is unhappiness with the rest of the inside of the car. The back seats seem better suited for the 12-and-under set; for the rest of us, its tight quarters will likely turn games of shotgun into scrums as people claw for the only decent passenger seat.

Interior quality needs some improving as well. The Ralliart’s hard plastics and fake-fur headliner would seem cheap in the $15,000 base Lancer; at twice that price, it just seems inexcusable. I’m glad Mitsubishi decided to spend the money on the performance bits, but it’s hard to justify a 30 grand car with this kind of interior.

The other major annoyance inside the Ralliart was the red, Atari-grade digital information cluster between the speedometer and the tach. It was perfectly legible, day or night – but the blocky low-fi graphics are so dated and cheesy, I half expected to find Pong in the trip computer functions.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that ALL secondary information (beyond speed and rpm) is displayed on this – including the gas gauge. Due to its pixellated nature, I was never sure how much gas I had left; the “miles to empty” feature on the trip computer would tell me I had used up three-quarters of the distance I’d started with, but the gauge seemed to be informing me I still had half a tank. Note to Mitsubishi: the gas gauge is probably not a good place to experiment with new ideas.

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Luckily, the outside of the car does a lot to restore the badass image Mitsubishi wants this car to have. Thankfully, they didn’t water down the Evo effect for the Ralliart; the two cars look similar enough to be easily confused (indeed, I overheard a few passersby who mistook it for the tougher model). The enormous grill is done right – it looks menacing and hungry, as opposed to some Audi models that sport the slack-jawed look of Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader dropped a certain paternity bombshell.

But the Ralliart’s similarity to the Evo just draws out the identity crisis this little Mitsubishi faces. It’s trying to be a cut-rate performance car, and to a large extent, it succeeds – it has all the performance anybody would ever need. Problem is, the people who buy cars like this want all the performance they can get; if they didn’t, they’d spend the money on a nice Camry instead. The people who would buy this car are probably gonna be people who aspire to an Evolution – but an Evo starts at $33,685, and my Ralliart cost $30,065. (All prices here and below include destination charges.) It’s hard to imagine people not trying to stretch into the Evo.

But intra-brand competition aside, it’s still hard to know where the Ralliart is trying to belong. At that price, it’s facing some pretty stiff competition on both the “sport” and the “sedan” ends of the spectrum. If someone were looking for a kickass performance car, a Ford Mustang GT with Track Pack runs $30,340, while a base Nissan 370Z goes for for $30,650. Sure, each gives up some back seat room, but they’ll both rip off 0-60 times at least half a second quicker than the Ralliart, and look much better doing it.

On the other hand, if someone’s looking for a sedan that happens to be fun to drive, an Acura TSX retails for $30,120. It’s not as fast as the Ralliart, but it’s tossable, fun-to-drive and comes with an interior that looks like it belongs in a car costing $50,000.

But of course, the Ralliart’s real foe lies in the Subaru dealerships. The Ralliart exists almost entirely due to the Subaru WRX; to put it in SAT terms, Ralliart:Evolution::WRX:STI. The STI and the Evo have been butting bumpers for half a decade, but until now, Mitsubishi hasn’t stacked up a challenger to the lesser WRX.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this first shot at the Rex will be the one to claim the prize. The WRX packs 265 horsepower, roughly 10 percent more than the Ralliart; Car and Driver ran one from 0 to 60 in a slightly ridiculous 4.7 seconds. In addition, assuming the WRX’s interior is like the Impreza I just drove (stay tuned for that review next week), it’s a far nicer place to spend time than the Ralliart. And the Subaru is cheaper to boot: the Premium model equivalant to my Ralliart goes out the door for $28,190, but a stripper model with all the go-fast bits can be bought for $25,690 – $1,475 less than the Ralliart. (Subaru also offers a choice between sedan and hatchback/miniwagon body styles).

So in the end, the Ralliart, in spite of its twin clutches and ripped shitless exterior, is all about compromise – between utility and performance, between econocar Lancer and bat-outta-hell Evolution. But in trying to compromise, it ends up looking like a perennial runner-up no matter what angle you’re looking at it from. To make this car a winner, Mitsubishi either needs to compromise a little less on the quality – or compromise a little more on price.

Base Price/Price as Tested (inc. destination): $27,165/$30,065

0-60: 5.4 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 17/25 miles per gallon

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One response to “Review – 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

  1. Pingback: Review – 2009 Audi TT-S « College Cars Online

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