Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart – satisfying the entire family

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Automotive choices have never been as extensive as they are in the 2009 model year. 
Despite the severe economic downturn there’s virtually something for every driving need and every budget.

We say this after spending the better part of two weeks behind the wheel of a 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart.

The Ralliart is a four-door compact hotrod that could easily serve as the only mode of transportation for a small family. It nicely provide the driving thrills that one might crave while offering up a very acceptable vehicle for schlepping kids to and from school and doing the weekly grocery shopping.

It’s not the Ralliart per se that has us proclaiming great automotive times for people in all stages of life and income, but an entire sub- segment of four-door compacts that have been endowed with exceptional horsepower and road-holding abilities at prices generally under 30 grand, prices most families can afford — together with the practicality and fuel economy most families demand — in our downturned economy.

The standard Lancer comes with 152 horsepower fairly well equipped for around $18,000 — certainly enough performance and creature comforts for the driving chores of life. But the Ralliart adds 85 enthusiastic ponies through the use of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a dual clutch Sportronic transmission, slot-car- like handling and an elevated fun factor for around $27,000.

It’s a great compromise between the generic Lancer and the exotic and expensive Lancer Evolution with its 291 horsepower, teeth-jarring suspension and $33,000 base price.

There are several other such fun-to-drive compact sedans to pick from including the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Mazdaspeed3, Subaru Impreza WRX, Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI.

These are what we call compromise vehicles.

There are some in today’s nuclear family that simply want more than basic transportation. But the realities of life such as the ability to pay the mortgage and buy the groceries, make two car payments, or compromise upscale with a BMW 3-Series in the garage is often unrealistic and in some cases irresponsible. So a compromise is struck between two reasonable adults, spending a little more for one very interesting car for under $30,000 that can effectively serve two purposes.

This Mitsubishi seems to provide the appropriate answer to the above quandary. We found the Ralliart comfortable, even with a stiffer suspension than found in the standard Lancer, with a good driving position, and excellent legroom for second-row adult passengers.

It’s the fun factor that sets it apart from its siblings.

Let’s start with the energetic turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that generates 237 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. It’s a detuned version of the Evo engine, but even with fewer horses it gives the small sedan a big kick. Zero to 60 has been measured in 5.5 seconds by two automotive publications and although the Ralliart seems to loose some of its steam at higher speeds it still completes a quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 97 miles per hour. That should satisfy most people.

The Ralliart’s quickness off the line translates into rapid and confident freeway merges, and we found it had slingshot quickness in the mid-range for those pesky 50 mph passing situations.

While not the world-class handling beast expected of pricier sports sedans including the Evolution, we found the car’s road-carving attributes very smile-inducing during a couple of hours on some of our favorite winding back roads. The standard all-wheel drive setup surely has something to do with the car’s road-holding mannerisms.

The suspension as noted is on the stiff side, but we found it compliant and comfortable during highway driving.
What we weren’t thrilled with is the six-speed twin-clutch manual automatic transmission. It’s nearly identical to the one found in the Evo with two large medal paddle shifters that make manual shifting a hoot. But it’s in automatic mode, the mode most people will use most of the time that we found the transmission less than smooth. Don’t expect seamless shift points especially under moderate to hard acceleration.

Also less than pleasing was gas mileage, which is rated at 17 mpg city and 25 highway. While the EPA rating is close to acceptable, we managed only between 19 and 20 mpg over 500 miles. And that’s on more expensive “required” premium fuel. Of course, our driving goal was not gas mileage, and most families would surely more closely approach the EPA projections.

Our front-seat comfort — and we were very comfortable — came in the standard driver’s seat. It worked for us. Some reviewers have raved about the optional Recaro seats, but at the same time it was pointed out that the bolstering on the optional seat is extremely tight and wide bodies should beware.

And here in lies a problem. While we would happily avoid the Recaros, we would opt for the 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate premium sound system with nine speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer that includes six months of free Sirius satellite radio, it has to be ordered as part of a $2,750 Recaro Sport Package that includes the seats and high intensity discharge headlights.
Mitsubishi is telling us no seats, no premium stereo. That’s not acceptable. Perhaps your dealer can provide a stand-alone alternative.

Standard is a 140-watt system with a single CD player.

The only other major option available is a navigation system for $1,999.
There are no other big options and none are needed. Standard equipment is abundant including fold-down rear seatbacks, which are not available on the Evo.

Safety is also generous including a full compliment of airbags, ABS with brakeforce distribution, all-wheel drive, stability control and traction control, and tire-pressure monitoring.

Base price of the Ralliart is $27,165 including destination charge. And that was the price of our test car.

We figure some people may complain that there is no manual gearbox, but we think the quick paddle shifter should keep virtually everyone happy.

However, taking all things into consideration — performance and handling together with family friendliness — the Ralliart comes in at a bargain price.