- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

You probably either “get” the 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart or you don’t. If you’re in the don’t-get-it camp, you’ll look at the $27,165 bottom line and say, “Hey, that’s a lot of dough for a compact car.”

But if you understand what the Lancer Ralliart’s really about, you’re thinking, “That’s a lot of performance sedan for the money.”

There’s a considerable automotive subculture out there that loves and appreciates the species of production cars that essentially are replicas of rugged, all-wheel-drive road-rally racers: cars like the Subaru WRX and the Ralliart’s better-known big brother, the Lancer Evolution, or EVO for short.

And that’s where the Ralliart comes in. Added to the Lancer lineup for 2009, it’s Mitsubishi’s slightly more civilized version of the EVO for buyers who covet most of the high-performance hardware these rally-car replicas wield, but don’t mind a little softer edge and a little softer price.

See, the Lancer Ralliart uses essentially the same turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine as the nastier EVO, but the Ralliart engine tuning derives 237 horsepower, compared with the EVO’s much-hotter 291 horses.

The other major difference: The Lancer Ralliart’s standard all-wheel-drive system is slightly less sophisticated than the EVO’s. And the Ralliart’s suspension is tuned more for everyday use, while the EVO’s suspension carries a hard-as-concrete racetrack orientation.

In exchange for that less-hard-core hardware, the Lancer Ralliart costs some $6,000 less than the base Lancer EVO. Unless you’re a weekend racer or just insist on the EVO’s performance superiority, choosing the Ralliart is the best $6,000 you’ll ever save.

That’s because snapping off a 0-to-60 sprint in, well, less than 7 seconds is plenty of performance for most of us, and the Lancer Ralliart’s all-wheel-drive grips like glue, laying down the power without a peep and offering the fun of a three-position selector to deal with different types of whatever’s covering the ground today.

But the real highlight of the Ralliart driveline, for me, is Mitsubishi’s marvelous new Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission, the most sophisticated gear-shifting technology currently available in the whole of the automotive universe.

Standard for the Ralliart, the TC-SST is at heart a six-speed manual transmission with high-tech electromechanicals that do the clutching for you. There is no clutch pedal.

You can drive the TC-SST like a conventional automatic and never know the difference: Just pull the shifter into drive, reverse, whatever. But the brilliance of the transmission is that it can be driven like a true manual whenever the spirit inspires, allowing rapid-fire manual shifting either via the shift lever or with the two large, crescent-shaped actuators on either side of the steering wheel. Pull back on the right-side paddle for an upshift; pull on the left-side crescent for downshifts.

Want to go from fourth gear to second? Bang-bang, quick as you can pull the left paddle twice, you’re in second before you can blink, the TC-SST doing all the clutching and shifting for you. Just for added euphoria, the engine software automatically “blips” the throttle to match the engine speed to the lower gear you’ve selected. Brilliant!

If there’s any downside to the Lancer Ralliart, it’s that if you ever get tired of all these shenanigans (and if you do, you’re probably not the target customer), at the end of the day, the Ralliart is pretty much like a pedestrian Lancer, particularly inside, where there’s a good bit of wind noise around the thin-feeling doors, and the dash is about as simple as it gets.

Oh, and a run-of-the-mill Lancer - a pretty decent compact car - runs about $17,000, so to pony up almost $10,000 more for the Ralliart version means you really, really need to appreciate that engine and transmission stuff.

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