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FIRST DRIVE

Lancer Ralliart eases into fire-breathing performance

October 22, 2003|Larry Printz | Morning Call

The latest recipe for luring young buyers is as old as the hills: Take an economy model, juice it up with power, handling and body modifications, and you can have a whole segment of vehicles such as the Ford Focus SVT, the Mazdaspeed Protege, the Subaru WRX and the Dodge Neon R/T.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. already has a model in this class, the Lancer EVO, produced by its in-house racing team, Ralliart.

So it's curious that for 2004, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart name isn't attached to the 271-horsepower EVO but to a new, midlevel model.

If a fire-breathing World Rally car is too much for you or your wallet, then the Lancer Ralliart may be the answer.

Where the EVO starts at just under $29,000, the Lancer Ralliart will come with a base price of about $18,000 when it goes on the market this year.

But in the trade-off for economy, rather than the EVO's in- tercooled turbocharged 2-liter, 271-horsepower inline-4 engine, the Ralliart gets the 2.4-liter, 162-horse four-cylinder that powers Mitsubishi's Galant and Eclipse. Still, that's better than the base Lancer's 120-horsepower engine and enough to make the Ralliart interesting.

Our test vehicle was a pre-production model. The Environmental Protection Agency mileage ratings haven't been released, but in my driving the car averaged 22.5 miles per gallon.

The Ralliart's power is smooth, and there's enough of it to squirt through rush-hour traffic or to make quick entries onto highways. Low-speed oomph is impressive.

Drivers can choose a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Mitsubishi uses the EVO's manual shifter in the Ralliart, and the clutch has been strengthened to handle the engine's extra torque.

With sports car handling and a stiff body structure, the Ralliart makes carving corners quite fun. Body lean is minimal.

Although the noise levels are typical of the pocket rocket league, most drivers won't mind the engine's pleasant notes.

Braking is strong, courtesy of discs at all four corners along with electronic brake force distribution (to ensure even braking in panic stops) and anti-lock brakes.

The Ralliart adds stiffer springs, a larger rear stabilizer bar and larger wheels and brakes over those in the standard Lancer. Of course, Mitsubishi adds the requisite body kit and spoilers.

The front of the vehicle incorporates a look first seen on the EVO.

Inside the Ralliart, sporty bolstered bucket seats, clad in black-and-red trim, add to the already excellent Lancer interior. The simple dashboard is easy to use. Plastics are typical for the class and appear well- assembled.

The Lancer has a spacious feel that belies this car's size. Trunk room is ample, and it is shaped usefully.

Although the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart may not have the EVO's performance capabilities, neither does it have its upper-range price. Yet it does have enough performance to satisfy an enthusiast with a champagne taste on a beer budget. Like yours truly.

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