Forget car design awards. Forget internet polls. The perfect automotive barometer is the filling station. And if barometers could wet their pants, this one would need its jeans urgently back in the washing machine, as our oranger-than-orange Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart (that’s a handful) pulled into the fuel station. The second time this hour, actually. Faster than you could say ‘Premium Unleaded’, the fuel attendant stormed our tester with cries of joy and wonder, proceeding to proudly recite its technical specification better than we could. After failing to receive a positive answer for his honest attempt for a ‘short spin’, he documented this automotive phenomenon with enough photos to create a 3D rendering and proclaimed that we should fill ‘er up with Regular Unleaded.
Just three weeks before, our equally brightly-colored Golf GTi tester crept into a gloomy Tel Aviv filling station literally on its last fumes. No envious glaring this time round; not even a discrete acknowledging nod. We were lucky enough to get a nasty gaze when we asked for five dollars’ worth of fuel.
This goes to show you what the Lancer Sportback Ralliart – we’ll just call it Ralliart – is all about. There’s nothing remotely reminiscent of discretion about this car, what with its spoiler, giant gray rims and that huge intercooler sticking out with absolutely no shame at all. Get it in bright colors – we know you will – and you have a car that even the blind couldn’t ignore.
They won’t, because you’re more likely to hear it before you see it, with a vocal soundtrack accompanied by vigorous pops and the unmistakable whistle of a furious turbo. All of this is not without coincidence, of course. The Ralliart is supposed to remind its driver of its ancestral roots – that is, the Mitsubishi Evolution X. It uses most of the components that make the Evo tick – a 2.0 liter turbocharged engine (295 in its original guise; 241 here) and a six-speed dual clutch gearbox bearing the SST namesake. All of this means it comfortably fits right between the Evolution and the basic Lancer.
Unlike the mighty Evo, the Ralliart is available both in sedan and Sportback (Mitsubishi-speak for hatchback) guises. Our tester is the latter, apparently designed with European consumers and their oddities in mind. The added convenience of the Sportback allows for easier access to the boot if you’re into family hauling, but there’s something fundamentally wrong about a hatchback Ninja – even if it’s only a baby-Ninja.
Inside, the Ralliart’s resemblance to its outlaw sibling is uncanny. It’s essentially the same cabin from the bone-stock Lancer, with added necessities such as imitation carbon trim, aluminum pedals, the obligatory SST shifter (as usual, clumsy and uncomfortable to use) and a Rockford Fosgate audio system. Thank the latter for the enticing array of vividly-colored woofers in the trunk.
Unfortunately, after you finish toying around with the few gadgets in the cockpit, you discover there’s not much more into it – the interior quality is mediocre at best. Low-rent plastics are scattered all around and the cabin’s layout leaves something to be desired. So do the ergonomics: the air conditioning unit is tough to reach unless you have mutant hands and the steering wheel is neither pleasing to look at nor to grip.
But the seats are good – both up front and back. They’re cushioning and fairly supportive and have that soft fake-suede upholstery that mutes any distant longings for leather. It’s also roomy: rear legroom is ample, but the passengers are treated to a fair dose of claustrophobia due to the massive front seats. Trunk space, at 12 cubic feet, is about average compared to rivals – and significantly smaller than the sedan’s. However, it’s a joy to use and much easier to load (and unload) than the four door. The back seats can be folded flat, and doing that will reveal a huge, 49 cubic feet trunk that can haul a huge amount of furniture come moving day.
With the practicality aside and the pedal to the metal, we pointed the Ralliart towards Israel’s finest roads. Despite its 240-plus-one horses, the Ralliart completes the sprint to 60 in a fairly disappointing 7.1 seconds, mostly due to its – gasp – 3,500-odd pound weight. That’s a smudge over the Evo’s weight, while the Big E has a much more impressive stable to carry around.
Specifications aside, the Ralliart feels faster than it is, mostly due to constant engine noise. It may be loud, but unless you measure an engine’s sound quality by the quantity of decibels it emits, it doesn’t stand a chance against the raspy boxer note of the Impreza WRX or the throaty over-engineered track of the Golf GTi. The constant drone of the engine becomes tiring – not to say annoying – almost instantly.
The gearbox works as advertised, meaning it shifts quickly and without any of that sequential-gearbox-feel. It feels like an automatic on steroids – as it should – but it doesn’t shift as smoothly as Volkswagen’s benchmark DSG gearbox. The shifting paddles are handy (pun unintended), but are uncomfortably mounted behind the wheel instead of on it, preventing gear changes in mid-turn. Fuel consumption was disappointing, with the trip computer indicating a likely optimistic 15 MPG for not-too-spirited cross-country driving – that’s Premium Unleaded, remember?
The ride, however, is excellent. In fact, almost too good for this kind of car, with the Ralliart cushioning even the harshest bumps and road imperfections. The reason for this civilized behavior bears a dual sword: the Ralliart carries the standard Lancer’s suspension, which is admittedly very good at absorbing bumps but pretty much useless when trying to tackle a twisty mountain road. It was disappointing to discover that Mitsubishi didn’t fit any electronic wizardry to the suspension – granted, there is a ‘Sport’ button but it does next to nothing and certainly doesn’t change the pampering nature of the car.
And indeed, already on the first hairpin it was apparent that the Ralliart wasn’t born to validate the limits of physics. Thanks to the soft, low-tech suspension, body roll is almost staggering and certainly doesn’t promote the driver’s confidence. Yes, it’s got an active central differential, limited slip diffs and four-wheel-drive, but you’d be hard pressed – literally – to get to the physical limits of the car chassis, in part because of the surprising understeer the diving nose provokes. You can get past it, but it’s not what you’d call a fun experience. Not that you’ll get anywhere close to these limits, thanks to the watchful eye of the electronic nannies – which cannot be fully disengaged.
Where the Evo breaks the laws of physics, amends them and proceeds to break them again, the Ralliart remains firmly within Newton’s grip.
The Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart is like the fruit of labor of two wacky Japanese engineers. One wanted a comfortable cruiser; the other a hot hatch capable of showing the Euros how to do it properly.
The result is a car which is neither; the Ralliart’s noisy manners and low-rent cabin prevent it from being a luxurious family hatch, and on the other hand its soft-sprung suspension prevents it from being a true Ninja. There’s no way of avoiding the thought that had Mitsubishi put in a little more effort, they could have had a real ace up their sleeves – but considering the existence of the Evo, would they really want to?
This test drive made possible by iCar.co.il