In the world of cars, it is out of the ordinary to have only one true, direct competitor, but in the case of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Subaru Impreza WRX, that is reality. The current generation Subaru Impreza is available as a four-door sedan or five door hatch, but until now the Mitsubishi Lancer has only been offered as a four door. For 2010, Mitsubishi levels the playing field with the Sportback, available in GTS or Ralliart trim.
My week with the Sportback would be a busy one-in addition to the usual dropping off/picking up at day care, getting to work, etc, it would center around a weekend trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania with my wife and 3-1/2 year old son, and carpooling my in-laws to a wedding in Reading, PA.
Our tester was an Octane Blue Ralliart. This meant a 2.0L, turbo intercooled four producing 237hp. The only transmission available with the Ralliart is a 6-speed, twin clutch Sportronic shift transmission. I tend to balk at a performance car that doesn’t offer a true manual. so I was anxious to see how living with this transmission would make me feel about the car. Our tester also included the optional Recaro Sport Package, which included Recaro sports seats, HID headlamps, and a high-power Rockford Fosgate audio system.
In gearing up for our trip, I was a little disappointed that the Sportback couldn’t hold as much as my own Civic Si 4-door’s trunk, but it should be noted the Sportback offers double the space of the Evo 4-door. The standard all-wheel drive is a factor here, and if space is really a concern, the front-wheel drive GTS Sportback has a two-level cargo bay that adds a couple cubic feet. The seats also fold down for a total of 52 cubic feet, and the Sportback has standard plug-in Thule roof sockets for even more versatility.
Driving the Sportback Ralliart can only be described as fun. Not as intense as an Evo, but the Ralliart is definitely quick. Low-end punch is decent, but once the tach hits 3 grand there is a pleasant boost that reminds you this is a performance car. But more impressive than the engine was the chassis, and the enormous grip from the Yokohama Advan summer tires. Cornering was flat and sure-footed at all times, I swore I’d need a BMW M3 or Audi S4 to have this much fun when the road gets twisty.
But what about that Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift transmission? Note that I haven’t, and won’t call it an automatic. It isn’t. Having lived with it for a week, I will tell you this. Left to its own devices, it really behaves a like a manual-how it changes, and holds gears is not all that different from how you might shift yourself, with one exception. In Normal mode, I’d get up to speed on local streets at 35-40mph, but the tranny is holding 3rd or 4th gear, waiting for me to stomp in it, when I’ve reached cruising speed. You have the option of shifting when you want, but in full auto mode, the Sportback seems to take too long to figure out that I am cruising on local streets and won’t need the meat of its torque band in the immediate future.
As someone who prefers to shift for himself, I did have the Sportback in manual mode, but the feeling of flicking the magnesium paddles up and down just didn’t deliver the same pleasure as working a clutch, and rowing a shifter. Even in manual mode, the Mitsubishi will downshift for you, which caught me out at first-I’d come to a stop or slow corner only to realize the car was already in 1st gear, and I’d get a beep in response.
But as a long-distance travel partner, the Sportback shined. I initially thought the Recaro Sport Package excessive, and panned the limited adjustments. But the well-bolstered seats offered plenty of support in cornering, and proved to be extraordinarily comfortable over the drive to Pennsylvania. Just loads of support in all the right places, a long drive was easy work here. The Rockford Fosgate stereo with XM satellite radio included made this a worthwhile package.
Back to the rival Subaru Impreza, in my opinion there is no contest for looks. While the current generation Impreza five-door is a combination of goofy and frumpy, the Lancer Sportback cuts a handsome profile, and the car got compliments from people who didn’t even know what it was. A contemporary design to be sure, but the forward leaning nose recalls 1980’s BMW’s, in a good way. Inside, the design is clean and simple-controls are easy to find, and the materials felt of good quality. The fat, leather covered sport steering wheel was a joy to use.
In sum, the Lancer Sportback Ralliart was a hoot to live with, and I can honestly say I was sad to see the car go. But the 21mpg gas consumption made the four cylinder Lancer a thirsty girl, and she demands premium gas. The Ralliart also has a smaller gas tank than the more frugal GTS, so expect to spend some time at the pump. But for sheer performance, fun, and looks, the Sportback Ralliart one-ups its closest rival, and is a far more practical alternative to the more exotic Evo. And for that, I say job well done Mitsubishi.