The Mitsubishi Lancer lineup features a full range of sporty compact sedans. The Lancer ES and bare bones DE are oriented around economy. The Lancer GTS kicks it up a notch with a bigger engine. Enthusiasts will spring for the Ralliart for its sporty performance, while would-be racers will go for the Evo with its racecar levels of performance. The Lancers use four different four-cylinder engines, ranging from 152 to 291 horsepower.
The Lancer models were completely re-engineered and redesigned for the 2008 model year. They feature an aggressive front fascia and a wedgy profile. The GTS, Ralliart, and Evolution boast rally-inspired bodywork. The new Ralliart model joined the lineup for 2009.
All are four-door compact sedans. Inside, there's roomy seating for five. Instruments and dash are pleasing to the eye, and control knobs and switches for the various functions are easy to use.
The Lancer ES is a well-built and good-looking 2.0-liter economy car that gets a EPA combined fuel economy of 25 or 26 miles per gallon (30 mpg Highway with 2.0-liter engine and manual five-speed). The base Lancer ES lacks the visual flair of the others, but choose the optional Sport package and the ES offers much of the eye-catching appeal of the Evo at half the cost. A stripped-down model is available called the DE, but it's primarily intended as a fleet model with air conditioning optional.
The Lancer GTS features a new engine, slightly larger at 2.4 liters, and might be the best bang for the buck if you don't need the all-wheel-drive offered by the Ralliart.
The Lancer Ralliart is an all-new model for 2009. It's meant to provide a taste of the Evo's performance while making more compromises for the street. But since the Evo's comfort is fine on the street (easier on the bones than the Subaru WRX STi), the real compromise the Ralliart makes is handling and power, for the price, which may be more what it's about. It's not meant to be at home on the track like the Evo. If you don't do track days, and your ego or image doesn't need to be wrapped in an Evo on the street, you can save money with the Ralliart. The Ralliart is a showcase for a new six-speed twin-clutch automated manual transmission called the TC-SST, with Normal and Sport modes.
The legendary Evolution has evolved to a higher level with the Evo X, the 10th-generation in 16 years of Evolution models. We found the Evo X very easy to drive very hard. We were able to drive it right to the limit on the second lap of an unfamiliar racing circuit, this more a credit to the Evo's predictable handling than our driving prowess. It always seems to do exactly what the driver wants, a benefit of its all-wheel-drive system. It may be the best car on the track for under $40,000, and a solid track entry at any price.
Evolution X uses a racy suspension with forged aluminum control arms, and big brakes with four-piston front calipers. Its engine is a powerfully tuned version of that 2.0-liter intercooled turbo, and makes 291 horsepower. Its all-wheel-drive system is more sophisticated and capable than that in the Ralliart, and the SST transmission has a third mode called Sport Plus, for the track. A six-speed manual gearbox is also available.
The Mitsubishi Lancer is a lovely car, even with its fish face. Mitsubishi calls it shark-like, but it's more like a largemouth bass. The nose seems to copy Audi's oversize grille, although the body-colored front bumper perfectly splits it up and minimizes the gaping mouth. And if the angular headlights were human, they would be exotic eyes.
The GTS is cleaner than the Ralliart, which outlines that mouth with a chrome ring, like silver lipstick on a fish. But the Ralliart has a cool aluminum hood with an inset scoop for the turbocharger intercooler, and two functional vents that do resemble shark gills, ta-da. The Ralliart also has flared fenders that house low profile tires. The beautiful 18-inch alloy wheels, a 10-spoke wagon-wheel design, standard on the GTS and Ralliart, add an extra touch of class.
The angular taillamps have that same exotic-eye look as the headlights. They wrap around the rear edges of the car, and cling to yesterday's trend: clear with the actual round lights, red, white, and amber, visible inside. The rear deck is quite short, and both the GTS and Ralliart have a spoiler wing that's so big it nearly fills up the trunk lid. It's not unattractive, but it is overkill. The GTS has one chrome tailpipe, the Ralliart two.
The silhouette is sharp and tidy, and the overall lines are really nice, unlike the more edgy and boxy Subaru Impreza, main competitor for the Lancer. It's very handsome in Graphite Gray Pearl, and Octane Blue Pearl catches the eye. But Rotor Glow Metallic, a bright orangeish copper, is the prettiest color with the most creative name.
The front of the Evo borders on brutish, with a deep spoiler that does double duty, shoving the onrushing air out of the way to keep the front tires firmly planted while forcing cooling air past a sporty looking mesh through the intercooler and radiator. Shark eye-like headlamps curl around the fenders in a stylistic optical illusion masking the longish front overhang. Functional, NACA-like ducts in the hood, like the chin spoiler, serve dual purposes, vacuuming hot air out of the engine compartment, both cooling the powerplant and reducing front end lift.
There's nothing not to like about the interior of the Mitsubishi Lancer. The Lancer ES offers good rearward visibility. The big rear wing on the other models blocks a chunk of visibility out the rear window.
The sport bucket seats on the GTS are comfortable, afford an excellent seating position, and are made of a handsome rugged cloth. The steering wheel has one of the nicest leather wraps we've felt, and is the perfect size for sporty driving. The overall feel for the driver in the GTS is just right. This is another reason the GTS gets our bang for the buck nod.
The optional Recaro seats in the Ralliart seemed to us a bit too tight for everyday comfort. On the track they're terrific, however, so we liked having them on the Evo.
Cubbies and console compartments are good and plentiful, including cupholders between the front seats and in the front door pockets.
The interior is trimmed in faux carbon fiber, stylish and cleanly done. The gauges are tasteful, white-on-black with brushed aluminum rims. The tach and speedo have eaves, a double-hump visor on the dash, that provide shade for the rectangular digital readout that's between them, so you can read its red letters in the sun. It offers the usual information, miles traveled and distance to empty and such, but it's most immediately useful to show, clearly and always correctly (unlike some), the gear you're in, when you have the 6-speed SST transmission in the Ralliart. With that transmission you get butterfly paddles behind the steering wheel, excellent (and rare) because they're long enough to reach without moving your hands when you're holding the wheel in the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position.
Rear-seat room is adequate. There isn't much knee room in the otherwise comfortable rear seat. The fold-down, center armrest in the ES and GTS is more stable than it looks, meaning everyday driving isn't likely to spill the kids' soda pop. In terms of roominess, the Lancer is comparable to that of the other cars in its class. Trunk space is also mid-pack.
The Rockford Fosgate sound system sounds terrific, with crisp highs that let us hear the chuckle clearly in Pink Floyd's “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”
Driving impressions of the various models vary quite a bit due to their vastly different performance characteristics.
Fuel economy for the Lancer ES is an EPA-estimated City/Highway 22/30 mpg with its 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual. The automatic loses just one mile per gallon on the highway. The Lancer ES offers decent steering response and tracks well through corners, with no excessive body lean. It tends to lose some concentration when pointed straight ahead for long stretches. The Civic feels smoother, the Mazda 3 sportier. Brake pedal feel is solid in the Lancer ES.
We find the Lancer GTS a compelling value for its balance of enjoyable driving characteristics and affordable pricing. If you don't need all-wheel drive or turbocharged acceleration, the GTS has the style of the Ralliart for thousands of dollars less. It's smooth, spirited and sporty. Its handing is taut at speeds inside the box, and its ride is comfortable: softer than the Ralliart, but still firm enough for good handling.
And it gets good fuel economy. The GTS with its 2.4-liter engine and manual transmission gets an EPA-estimated 21/28 mpg City/Highway.
The GTS brakes are nicely sensitive, and the five-speed gearbox is positive, easy to shift with slick clutch action. There's enough power from Mitsubishi's new 2.4-liter engine that you can definitely feel the front-wheel torque steer under hard acceleration, something absent in the Ralliart despite its horsepower, thanks to its all-wheel drive.
The GTS is quiet and smooth on the freeway, where 80 mph feels like 70, and that's saying something for a small car with a four-cylinder engine. Those good-looking 18-inch alloy wheels are shod with 215/45 Dunlops, while the Ralliart gets the same size Yokohamas, rated for higher speeds.
The Ralliart seems to run right down the middle of the road between the GTS and the Evo. It uses the newly introduced (for 2008) all-aluminum engine, 2.0 liters with intercooled turbocharging, like the Evo, but milder components keep the Ralliart at 237 horsepower, compared to the Evo's 291 hp. Its electronic all-wheel-drive system, which Mitsubishi calls All-Wheel Control (AWC), can be set for Gravel, Snow or Tarmac, but the system is not as encompassing as the Evo's Super All-Wheel Control (S-AWC, got it?).
The Ralliart lacks the Evo's track-ready suspension (with forged aluminum control arms, quick steering ratio, and big brakes with four-piston front calipers). Instead, the Ralliart's suspension and brakes, upgraded a bit from the GTS, come off the Outlander SUV. Surprisingly, the Ralliart's ride can sometimes feel too firm on the street and wear on you, especially when equipped like our test model, with the Recaro seat package. If you think you can drive your Ralliart like an Evo, you'll be disappointed. Not in the power, but in the handling. The difference is apparently in the simple All-Wheel Control versus Super All-Wheel control. When driven hard through the corners on back roads, the Ralliart will understeer and even lurch as its tires try to bite the asphalt. This happens before the stability control kicks in.
The Ralliart comes with a choice of five-speed manual transmission or six-speed Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission. The TC-SST as it's called is essentially a manual transmission without a clutch pedal. This twin clutch design now prevails as the method for shifting manual transmissions without a clutch pedal, either automatically or with paddles. Many are built by the German company Getrag, but Mitsubishi builds its own.
On the road with the Ralliart in Washington's Cascade Mountains, we found the Sport Manual mode worked exceptionally well, providing sharper downshifts and quicker upshifts; and Normal Drive works so smoothly you can scarcely feel the relaxed upshifts. But Sport Drive confuses the transmission; it upshifts and downshifts at inconvenient times, inconsistently. The fourth possible mode, Normal Manual, is pretty much a contradiction, unless you just like to play with the paddles. Which, by the way, are about the best in the business. They're graceful magnesium, and long enough that you can reach them with your fingers while your hands remain on the steering wheel at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. We preferred Sport Manual for sporty driving, Normal Drive for around town. We found that it takes couple blocks on cold mornings for the transmission to shake off some sluggishness.
As for the Evo, we think it's simply the best. You won't find a car that's more at home on the track than the Evo X, especially not for less than $40,000.
The Evo X is about 320 pounds heavier and has 14 less horsepower than its main rival, the Subaru WRX STi, but it feels more precise and more nimble, thanks to its 13:1 steering ratio compared to the STi's 15:1. The Super All-Wheel Control integrates all of the electronic dynamic controls, including Active Center Differential and Active Yaw Control in the rear differential. The TC-SST transmission has a third mode, called Sport Plus, for the track. You can turn the stability control entirely off, and it still feels balanced on the track. We found the SST Auto mode best for consistently quick runs through an autocross circuit.
We drove three models of Evo at Pacific Races. The Evo GSR, with the five-speed manual gearbox, was great. The Evo MR, with the paddle-shifting sequential manual six-speed, along with Bilstein shocks and lighter rotors ($5000 more), was greater; and the super Evo was the greatest. For another $2500 you get 70 more horsepower, a total of 360, thanks to a freer intake, exhaust, and chip. We hit 140 on the sweeping bend on the front straight, and the Evo tracked steady where a lot of race cars do a scary twitch.
The four-piston Brembos slowed it down to 70 for the turn at the end of the straight, quickly and without drama. A lot of laps were driving on the Evos that day, and the brakes never got soft or faded. Only three laps at a time, but that's more than could be said of most high-performance sedans.
Turbo lag is almost non-existent. Power delivery from the turbocharged 2.0-liter Evo engine is linear, more like a V6.
Mitsubishi has everyone covered in the compact class with the 152-hp Lancer ES for those with their minds on economy; the 168-hp Lancer GTS for those with spirit and an eye for value; the 237-hp Ralliart for those with a sense of adventure; and the 291-hp Evo for those with a need for speed. The best news is that these four look enough alike that maybe you can split your personalities.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove the Lancer Ralliart at Pacific Raceway near Seattle; Tom Lankard test drove the Lancer ES in Santa Monica and Evo in Phoenix; editor Mitch McCullough drove the Evo at Firebird Raceway near Phoenix.