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A Burst of News – Lexus LFA supercar revealed, new BMW 5-series spied, next-gen Mitsubishi Evo will be a hybrid, and more

Time for another burst of automotive news, everyone!

Our top story of this installment: after years and years and YEARS of teasing, Toyota has finally unveiled Lexus’s first supercar. Called the LFA, the supercar is a clean-sheet design with a front-mounted 4.8-liter V10 that spits out 552 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. With the help of a six-speed sequential manual gearbox, Toyota claims the car dashes from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds before topping out at 202 miles per hour.

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If it sounds to you like the LFA will line up pretty squarely against the Ferrari 458 Italia, congratulations, you know enough about sports cars to make up for your Archie comics collection. However, there’s a catch – the Ferrari is significantly cheaper than Toyota’s latest ride. (And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

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Yes, the LFA can be yours for not a Benjamin less than $375,000 – at least $100,000 than the 458 will likely cost here in the States. And while the Lexus is pretty cool, it’s hard to imagine many rich car enthusiasts would pick the uglier, more expensive LFA over the latest addition to Ferrari’s stable. Of course, most of them won’t have to – in this price range, if you can buy one, you can probably buy both.

But Toyota isn’t the only Japanese manufacturer with big performance news. According to AutoCar, the next-generation Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution will be powered by a plug-in hybrid powertrain similar to that of the company’s PX-MiEV concept from this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. The PX-MiEV, which sounds like a bad hand of Scrabble, has two electric motors powering all four wheels;  a 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine pulls double-duty, both generating power for the battery and powering the front driveshaft.

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The PX-MiEV. Not the Evo XI, thank God.

Now, we here at CCO aren’t quite sure how Mitsubishi intends to pull this off. Even if they can drastically cut the Evo’s weight (which would be difficult to do while adding all the new tech), the car will still need at least 250 horsepower in order to maintain its performance credentials. But that’s 250 horsepower all the time. Not, 250 horsepower until the battery runs out of initial charge, then 100 horsepower while the gas motor recharges it. Then again, the next-gen Evo isn’t due until 2013, so they have time to sort it out.

Speaking of potentially stupid ideas, Porsche recently announced they would be willing to share both the Panamera and, more frighteningly, the 911 architecture with their new corporate masters, the Volkswagen Group. We’re not sure if this is Volkswagen exacting punishment for Porsche’s earlier attempt to conquer the VW Group (super-short refresher: Porsche AG tried to take over the VW group in 2007, but it fell through – so the VW group proceeded to take over Porsche, instead), but using the 911 platform for anything other than Porsche 911s just seems blasphemous.

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Of course, it’s unlikely VW will ever use the 911’s underpinnings for anything else, since the demand for rear-engined sports cars is pretty slim. Porsche has only managed to perfect the form after 40-plus years of refinement; if it weren’t for the 911’s immense heritage, they likely would have dumped the car in favor of a bigger version of the mid-engined Boxster years ago. (That said, don’t be surprised to see the next-gen Boxster/Cayman sharing a platform with Audi’s R4 roadster…)

In other German car news, prototypes of BMW’s next-generation 5-series have been spotted prowling around Deutschland. Clad in BMW’s groovy camouflage designed to confuse camera lenses and attract aging hippies, the new 5 looks to us like a cross between the new 7-series and the most recent 3-series – which is probably what they were aiming for. Once the acid trip stickers wear off (hah!), expect a more conventionally attractive sedan than the current 5.

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Courtesy Autowereld.com

Expect the same inline six-cylinder engines from today’s lineup, but the 360-hp V8 of the current BMW 550i will be supplanted with the oh-so-sweet turbocharged 4.4-liter, 400-hp V8 from the 750i and X6. Rumor has it the next M5 will come with a similar turbocharged V8 pumping out around 550 horsepower, connected to a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox – and the line for that sonofabitch forms behind me, so stop cutting.

On the complete other end of the performance spectrum, Nissan pulled the wraps off the production version of their Leaf electric car last week at the Tokyo Auto Show. To dust off the old SAT-style analogy format, Leaf:Nissan::Volt:General Motors, and if you can’t figure that out, well, you probably shouldn’t be reading “College” Cars Online.

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Nissan claims the Leaf offers all the convenience and range necessary to wean the majority of automobile users (at least those in First-World Countries – sorry, anybody who’s name ends in -stan) off the internal combustion engine. With a 100-mile range, 107 horsepower, a top speed of 87 mph and a pricetag of around $25,000, we’ll probably be seeing quite a few Leafs (Leaves?) on our roads soon.

Nissan claims recharging on a 200V outlet takes 8 hours, which is all kinds of helpful, considering pretty much every electrical appliance in the U.S. operates on either a 120V or 240V circuit. Figure around 8 hours on a heavy-duty 240V outlet, whereas if you’re plugging into the same 120V outlet your iPhone uses, you might as well just walk wherever you’re going.

I don’t really have any creative segue for this next story, since it sort of goes directly in opposition to the point of this site, so let’s just dive right in and avoid this awkward moment. According to the omnipresent J.D. Power and Associates, Generation Y doesn’t care as much about automobiles as they used to. After the Big Brother-ish group tracked thousands of conversations on Facebook and Twitter over an eight-month period (um, creepy), they determined teens and “early careerists” – 12-to-18-year-olds and  22-to-29-year-olds, respectively, because college students don’t matter – showed “shifts in perception regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars.”

The Power Co. goes on to posit that either the recession has left America’s youth with less cash to spend on cars, or that social media has replaced face-to-face interaction to such a degree we no longer feel the need to meet up in person as much. If number two is correct, then God help us all.

On a completely unrelated note, be sure to follow us on Twitter, @collegecars! Also, become a fan of us on Facebook!

However, the survey does go on to point out the two most popular automotive topics on social media during that time were NASCAR and “Transformers: Rise Of The Fallen.” Please excuse me while I slam my head into a brick wall.

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Optimus Prime never saw a dance-off he couldn't win.

Finally, a moment of silence, please, for the passing of a legend. Land Rover has announced that after six decades on the market, the Defender will be retired in 2013. While the Defender proved itself capable of conquering the worst nature could throw at it, there was one foe it proved unable to defeat: government regulations.

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Thanks to new European emissions and pedestrian-safety regulations, an all-new or heavily revised replacement will be required for the aging yet capable SUV. While the Defender hasn’t been sold in the U.S. for quite some time, your editor will always have fond memories of clambering up a seemingly impassible trail in the Vermont woods in a Defender 90.

However, Land Rover claims the replacement will be more versatile and more practical. If that means it’ll be just as capable and can come back to the States, well – the king is dead, long live the king!

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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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Quick View – Mitsubishi Lancer

The Mitsubishi Lancer is one of those cars that brings up very different connotations, depending on how old you are. If you’re old enough to have been paying attention to cars back in the mid-80s, the car probably brings up memories of the craptacular Dodge Colt or Lancer, cars so tiny and tinny that sitting in one for more than 30 minutes was illegal under the Geneva Convention. 

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However, for those who just received their licenses within the last few years (and let’s be honest, that’s probably most of the people reading this), the Lancer is actually a cool car – utterly unthinkable only a decade or so ago. Most automotive scholars chalk this sudden uptick in interest to a sole factor: Evolution.

No, not the process by which random mutations are selected for and spread throughout a species. I’m talking about the Mitsubishi Evolution, the hopped-up, tricked-out, manufacturer-pimped special version of the Lancer designed to Boldly Go Where No Mitsubishi Has Gone Before: pop cultural significance. Growing out of the company’s desire to compete in the World Rally Championship, the first Evo appeared in 1992. Since then, there have been nine more versions, each marked by a successive Roman numeral, making the current Evolution X the official car of Wolverine.

Indeed, the Evo packs enough punch to be a good ride for America’s favorite mutant. Every version of the car has come with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine, all wheel drive, and a slew of other speed-increasing options. The Evo I cranked out about 244 horsepower; today’s Evo X rips out 291 horses. (However, the Evo has put on about half a ton of weight in that time, so don’t expect those extra 45 horses to give you much of an edge.) And that was just to start with. The Evo proved one of the most popular rides among hot rodders around the turn of the century. Starting in Japan (the Evo wasn’t available stateside until a couple years ago) then continuing here, would-be Vin Diesels boosted, pumped and hopped up their rides with wild paint jobs, spoilers large enough to double as flatbeds, and ridiculous power levels. It’s not uncommon to see stories and videos all across the Web about Evos capable of 220 mile-per-hour top speeds or 9-second quarter-mile times.

The regular Lancer, however, is far more modest. Instead of attempting to tear open Ferrari-like holes in the atmosphere, the Lancer is content to be a solid small sedan. Excluding the superhuman Evo X, today’s car comes in four trim levels. Starting at the bottom of the list is the DE, which comes with a 152-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine routed through either a 5-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Should you decide to spring for this model, you’ll find your $14,340 gives you power windows and mirrors, 16″ wheels, a 140-watt 4-speaker CD stereo, adjustable rear headrests (fancy!) and a “multi-information display,” which sounds like something Commander Data would use but is probably just a tiny screen that tells you time and temperature. You also get no fewer than seven airbags, including one for the driver’s knee. It’s only a matter of time until, in a crash, every inch of you impacts an airbag.

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(This might be a good time to point out that, according to Mitsubishi’s website, opting for the CVT on the DE lifts the price a whopping $2250, or about 16 percent of the base price. For the other models, the difference is about $1000. Given the price jump between the stick-shift DE and the automatic is actually greater than the gap between the DE and the ES, I’d suggest learning how to work that clutch pedal and getting the added features, but that’s me.)

Step up to the ES, and you’ll also get cruise control, audio controls on the steering wheel, air conditioning, folding rear seats, keyless entry, and anti-lock brakes for $16,540. An uprated exterior, with body-colored trim and chrome, also gives the impression that you care at least a little about your car’s appearance. There’s also an ES Sport pack, which adds on a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lights, front and rear air dams and a spoiler, so you can brag to people without a lick of car knowledge that you drive the kind of car “from The Fast And The Furious” and they won’t immediately dismiss you as a dick. (The delayed dickage – er, ES Sport – package runs $17,340.)

The third trim level is the GTS, and here, things start to get interesting. Power is bumped up to a 168-horsepower 2.4 liter four, and the CVT receives magnesium paddle shifters and six fake “gears” to play around with. (And yes, making a gearless transmission for improved efficiency then programming it to think it has set gear ratios is as stupid as it sounds. But still fun.) In addition, the GTS comes with a bevy of additional standard features: sport bucket seats, Bluetooth, automatic climate control, two more stereo speakers, 18″ wheels, a sportier suspension and “high-contrast gauges” are among the cream of the crop. (However, low-contrast gauges provide a much better excuse for speeding if you get pulled over, so I guess that last one’s a toss-up.) Best of all, the GTS starts at $18,590, still low enough below 20 grand that you might feel like you’re getting a deal.

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The top of the range, the Ralliart, serves as a no-longer-missing link between the Evo and the regular Lancer. (This also marks the official starting place at which you can brag about your Lancer, just so you know.) Powered by a detuned version of the Evo’s boosted engine, the Ralliart cranks out 237 horses, put to the ground through its very own all-wheel-drive system (lesser Lancers are front-wheel-drive), just like its big brother. The Ralliart also gets its own paddle-shifting six-speed manual transmission, just like the Evo; however, the Ralliart’s is a single-clutch system, while the Evo gets the dual clutch version. Needless to say, the difference is far too complex for me to go into here in depth, but just assume that when it comes to clutches, two is better than one. (If you want more info on the subject, try this link and that link.)

The Ralliart also gets FAST-Key (a radio transmitter that unlocks the car when you’re within a couple feet), sportier controls, several traction control systems, and a more badass exterior, all for $26,490. This price jump, however, lifts it out of the econocar price classes and into the mix with some pretty impressive machinery, like the Honda Civic Si, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and its natural competitor, the Subaru Impreza WRX.

As for performance, as one might expect, the wide range of models provides an equally broad rangeof bragging rights. Base models do the naught-to-60 in 8.8 and 9.1 seconds with the manual and automatic transmissions, respectively, according to Edmunds.com; the GTS stick-shift, they found, did it in 7.7. The Ralliart, on the other hand, will rip off 5.5 second 0-to-60s if you do it right, according to Car and Driver. Gas mileage is about what you’d expect; 22 city/30 highway for the 2.0, 21/28 for the 2.4, and 17/24 for the Ralliart. 

So what’s the verdict? For me, I’d probably do some extensive shopping before buying a DE or an ES – the competition is pretty strong these days in the cheap-car market. The Ralliart is perfect for anyone who wants a bargain-priced Evo, and presents a strong case even against the other cars in the sports-compact class; however, the GTS seems like the best buy of the bunch. If you’re looking for a car for less than $20,000 that doesn’t feel like punishment, the GTS’s bigger engine and added features (for not too much cash) will probably make you very happy.

Grades: DE/ES: C+, GTS: A-, Ralliart: A-

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