Thursday, May 13, 2004

In case you’re not a big fan of SUVs or minivans, but still happen to need extra room for the gear that you use in supporting your lifestyle, you just might want to consider the sport wagon category of vehicles. Sport wagons go a step beyond the regular wagon genre in that they serve the driver who appreciates an elevated level of performance while driving.

Can’t afford a fancy European sport wagon you say? Well fret not — sport wagons are available in a variety of sizes with prices that cover a broad range depending upon equipment and capability.

The folks at Mitsubishi have joined the small sport wagon fray with their all-new, rally-inspired Lancer Sportback. The Sportback comes in two levels: the inexpensive Lancer Sportback LS, and the still inexpensive Lancer Sportback Ralliart. Both vehicles add five-door utility with power in a compact wagon format with the attitude of a sports car. Both are motivated via a 2.4-liter MIVEC (Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control) SOHC 16-valve engine.

The Sportback looks small on the outside while providing midsize interior space and accommodations. The overall look is long, low and lean. The LS trim level generates 160 horsepower and 161 foot-pounds of torque, while the Ralliart version kicks out an additional 2 horsepower and a foot-pound of torque, thanks to a more open, free-flowing sport exhaust system. Both trim levels mate the engine’s power to the front wheels through an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. The Ralliart also features a ground effect in the form of racier front and rear fascias and extended rockers, with a full sport-tuned suspension, unique spring rates, tighter bushings, a stiffer steering rack, beefed-up three-point front strut lower brace and larger wheels and tires on Euro-flange five-double-spoke alloy wheels.

Further supporting its sporty exterior appearance, the Ralliart Sportback provides a unique grille treatment, tinted headlamp lenses, an integrated rear spoiler and projector-beam fog lamps. Inside, the high-performance Ralliart touch continues with all-black materials, high-end sport seats, a cluster of white-faced sport gauges, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter and parking brake lever, with a carbon-fiber-look dash panel accent. Ralliart includes front and side-impact air bags as standard fare with a six-speaker sound system and cruise control thrown in for good measure.

The test Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart was sprayed outside in cool silver metallic with a basic black interior. Seating surfaces displayed a muted multicolor weave pattern. The base price was set at $19,997 which included the extensive equipment and feature inventory. The destination and handling charge of $595 bumped the final window sticker to $19,792 — still less than $20,000.

OK, the Sportback Ralliart is no Lancer Evolution, but it’s a practical and more reasonable alternative for the performance-oriented driver with the added responsibilities of family. Acceleration is spirited enough to provide some fun in piloting the agile little sport wagon, and the ride quality is just firm enough to enhance handling attributes and generate feedback to the driver.

The Sportback Ralliart falls into an ever-growing market segment and is a worthy contender for those who want to add a heightened level of enjoyment to what might otherwise be mundane trips to and from the grocery store.

Factor in the backing of a comprehensive warranty program, and it’s easy to avoid any guilty feeling emanating from popping for a little extra in its acquisition.

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