Lively Lancer makes debut

Friday, September 12, 2003

It looks better in real life than it does in pictures.

And it has a mouthful of a name -- 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart.

This new wagon from Japan is lively, versatile and affordable, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, that's likely to be just under $20,000. Final pricing is due to be announced later this month.

Ralliart is Mitsubishi's international performance brand. And for 2004, it's a new trim level on two compact Lancer models in the United States -- the new Sportback body style, which is really a station wagon, and a Lancer sedan.

You can think of Ralliart as a step below the strictly-for-racing-buffs, stiff-riding, pricey Lancer Evolution; it's a definite step up from Mitsubishi's more cosmetic-oriented Lancer OZ Rally model.

Certainly, the Sportback Ralliart comes with a sporty, customized look.

A standard lower body kit adds front, side and rear air dams. Other standard features are fog lights, unique grille, tinted headlamp lenses and Euro-flange alloy wheels.

But all this doesn't seem to show well in pictures. Besides, the Ralliart version of Sportback is more than looks.

The basic suspension is the same as in all Lancers. The front is independent MacPherson strut, while there's an independent multilink configuration with coil springs at the rear.

But in the Ralliart version, the suspension is specially tuned, with shock damping that's increased 150 percent in the front and 85 percent in the back for a more controlled ride.

Bushings are changed in the upper and lower control arms of the rear suspension, and there's a front strut tower brace under the hood, painted bright red, that helps keep the chassis stiff.

Tires, meanwhile, are upgraded to performance, grippy, 16-inch rubber, and brakes are larger.

So, the ride is sporty, though nowhere near as jarring as that found in the Lancer Evolution, and the handling is commendable.

In fact, the front-drive test wagon surprised me because it handled like a fun, hunkered-down car -- ready for mountain twisties and the uneven pavement on country roads -- but without being punishing.

I took curves at decent speeds and the car held its line and composure. In an emergency maneuver in city traffic, the Sportback Ralliart made its move and continued on, unperturbed.

At the fringes, understeer would begin to creep in, but it wasn't sudden or unexpected.

I did notice some of my body jiggling over uneven road surfaces, and the Sportback Ralliart ride couldn't be considered cushioned.

But it's not jolting or harsh. Rather, it's a firm ride with road bumps transmitted to passengers regularly but mostly mildly.

Steering, which has a decent response to driver inputs, is power-assisted rack-and-pinion.

The Ralliart wagon and Ralliart sedan have an improved, and larger, 2.4-liter, single over head cam, four-cylinder engine that's capable of developing 162 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

This is up from 120 horses and 130 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm from the 2-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder in the base and OZ Rally Lancer sedans.

The Sportback Ralliart numbers also compare with 130 horses and 135 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm in the 2003 Mazda Protege5 and 170 horsepower and 145 foot-pounds of torque at 5,500 rpm in the 2004 Ford SVT Focus five-door.

Note that both competitors are powered by 2-liter four-cylinders and offer five-speed manual transmissions.

The Sportback Ralliart, however, comes only with a four-speed automatic.

Still, I was surprised at how sprightly the Sportback felt. The tester seemed to find power easily, and while it didn't slingshot past other cars in passing maneuvers like a sports car might, it behaved with decent zip.

Best of all, the Sportback Ralliart's performance was comfortable and comforting, giving me confidence that it could merge onto freeways capably and climb mountain roads without feeling sluggish.

I did hear a bit of buzziness from the engine, though, as I traveled, and there was constant road noise from the tires.

Note the Ralliart engine gets its wide power range from a new, valve-timing system, which is called Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control (MIVEC).

There also are other engine improvements, such as larger valves, longer intake runners and dual-port exhaust manifold. The catalytic converter and muffler are designed to accommodate larger volumes, too, which helps reduce back-pressure on the engine.

Fuel economy is decent. The car is rated at 22 miles a gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway, according to Mitsubishi.

The Ralliart includes sport front bucket seats with good-sized, side bolsters and fabric that can hold a body snugly during aggressive driving.

Even though the Ralliart rode low and I had to drop down onto the side bolsters of the driver seat to get inside, it was not a difficult maneuver.

Sitting on the front seats feels like sitting on sturdy foam, and these sculpted seats are shaped well enough that I was neither fatigued nor achy after a 2.5-hour drive.

The Ralliart's back seat has no side cushion bolsters, so it's a rather flat resting spot for three, but a close fit for three adults.

All passengers in the Sportback have adjustable and lockable head restraints and three-point shoulder belts. I liked that the four outboard head restraints in the test car had centers cut out for a sportier look.

The Ralliart version gets extra safety equipment vis-a-vis the base Sportback. This equipment includes side airbags for the front seats, antilock brakes and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.

In the driver's seat, the top of the dashboard was easy to see over. But I couldn't, for the life of me, see around vans, trucks or SUVs ahead of me in traffic, because of the low ride height of the Sportback.

Thankfully, visibility out the rear wasn't obscured even with all those head restraints, and I found the large side windows in the cargo area were a great help when I backed out of parking spaces at the mall.

There's 24.9 cubic feet of room behind the rear seatbacks and 60.7 cubic feet if the rear seats are folded.

This compares with 11.3 cubic feet of space in the trunk of a Lancer sedan.

The Mazda Protigi5, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $17,415 for a 2003 model with five-speed manual transmission, and Ford Focus ZX5 SVT, which starts at $19,630 for a 2003 model with six-speed manual.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has no crash test report on the new Sportback, and there have been no safety recalls of this new model.

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