Turbocharged all-wheel-drive fun
At first glance, the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart does not look like anything special.
On the outside, Ralliart seems to be little more than a hatchback version of the company's entry-level sedan. Driven gently, it even feels like a run-of-the-mill midsize car. Just about the only things out of the ordinary are the small scoop and two vents on the hood.
But mash the gas and everything changes. Under the hood lurks a turbocharged 2.0-liter dual overhead cam inline four-cylinder engine that cranks out 237 horsepower. It is backed by a sophisticated automatic transmission that includes a self-activating internal manual clutch. And the standard all-wheel-drive system can be adjusted for pavement, dirt or snow.
Put is all together and the Ralliart can be driven faster than practically any other car for sale in the country today. The turbo kicks in quickly and the transmission shifts itself faster than humanly possible. The tire grip is phenomenal in corners. The steering is tight and precise, encouraging out-of-the-way trips along winding roads whenever possible.
There is no practical reason to own such a car, which helps explain why it is so much fun. Even under moderate acceleration, drivers can feel the clutch manually shifting through the gears. Downshifts also happen by themselves as the car slows, with the engine revving slightly each time, just like with manual downshifts.
For even more fun, the transmission can be shifted manually, too, both through the shift lever and by steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
And the Ralliart is not the most powerful and sophisticated version of the Lancer that Mitsubishi offers. That honor goes to the Evo, which includes a 291-horsepower engine and bigger front disc brakes.
Our test model came with a sports package that included well-bolstered Recaro seats that keep the driver and front seat passenger securely in place during fast cornering. Many drivers might consider the equally attractive base seats, however, since the bottoms and seatbacks of the Recaros are very narrow. On the other hand, the upgraded 710-watt stereo that comes with the package sounded great.
Despite all this technology, the pedigree of the Ralliart dates back to the Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-1970s.
Until the Middle East oil countries temporarily turned off the tap, most fast cars in this country were powered by big V8 engines. When gas was cheap and plentiful, it didn't matter that some cars got fewer miles per gallon than many motor homes - acceleration was all that counted.
But all that changed when gas prices soared and fuel rationing was imposed by the federal government. Economy was suddenly the top priority, spurring the sale of small, fuel-efficient cars, primarily from Japan.
But it wasn't long before performance started slipping back into the picture, resulting in the production and sale of relatively fast subcompact cars nicknamed 'pocket rockets.' Perhaps the most innovative early manufacture was Mitsubishi Motors, one of Japan's smaller car companies.
Mitsubishi first gained a foothold in this country by selling rebadged economy cars through Chrysler dealerships. Early models included the rear-wheel-drive Dodge Colt sedan and Plymouth Arrow hatchback, both powered by small four-cylinder engines.
But in the late 1970s, Mitsubishi used a tried-and-true hot rod trick to produce a few faster models. It dropped a 'big' 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine into the Arrow, upgraded the suspension, added some stripes and called it the Fire Arrow. The company applied the same trick to a new sedan sold as the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Sapporo from 1978 to 1983. Reviewers proclaimed them 'brisk.'
Then Mitsubishi introduced a small front-wheel-drive hatchback in 1979. Sold as the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ, it delivered good mileage and was surprisingly roomy for a subcompact car. But Mitsubishi also offered a few performance touches. One was an optional 'twin-stick' manual transmission that featured a sport and an economy setting. Another was an optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In fact, the turbocharged Colt GT was named one Car and Driver magazine's Ten Best for 1989. They were followed by two powerful turbocharged rear-wheel-drive sports cars, the Dodge Conquest and Mitsubishi Starion.
After that Mitsubishi upped the ante by producing a series of turbocharged all-wheel-drive cars sold though both Chrysler outlets and its own small chain of dealerships. They included the small Eagle Talon and Mitsubishi Eclipse, the larger Dodge Stealth and Mitsubishi 3000GT luxury sports cars, and the Mitsubishi Gallant VR-4 sedan. The Stealth and 3000GT were even available with twin turbocharged V6 engines, making them among the most sophisticated performance cars ever sold, even by today's standards.
But then a funny thing happened - Subaru stole Mitsubishi's thunder in 2001 with the introduction of the WRX, available in either sedan or wagon versions. Although Subaru had also experimented with turbocharged all-wheel-drive cars over the year, the company made an international name for itself in rally racing. Subaru then applied that technology to its Impreza line, producing one the fastest and best-handling pocket rockets ever.
In fact, Mitsubishi had been competing against Subaru in rally races for years with a similar car called the Evolution. And in 2004, Mitsubishi took the competition to the streets of America by introducing with the Evo, a high-performance version of its current Lancer sedan.
Since then both companies have competed to produced the most powerful and sophisticated turbocharged all-wheel-drive cars for sale in America. Today, the Ralliart competes against the WRX, while Subaru has introduced an even more impressive WRX STI to match the Evo.
Although it has lurked in the shadows of Chrysler and Subaru for many years, Mitsubishi is now coming into its own. The company overhauled most of its offerings this year, giving practically all vehicles huge front grills, sportier lines and adding a well-reviewed, performance-oriented version of its compact Outlander crossover to the line-up, complete with an Evo-derived all-wheel-drive system.
After breaking so much performance ground over the years, it's about time that Mitsubishi gets its due.
Facts and figures
• Model: 2010 Lancer Sportsback Ralliart.
• Manufacturer: Mitsubishi.
• Class: Mid-size passenger car.
• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive (as tested).
• Styles: For door, four passenger sedan; five-door, four passenger hatchback (as tested).
• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (168-hp); turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 (237 horsepower, as tested); 2.0-liter inline 4 (290-hp).
• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed twin-clucth automatic with manual shift mode (as tested).
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/25 (as tested); 22/30.
• Price: Beginning at approximately $27,590 ($31,060, as tested).