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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 06 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Page 1

Evolution... or Intelligent Design?

Mitsubishi offers the Lancer compact in a bewilderingly wide number of models. Richard Truesdell and Sam Fiorani get behind the wheel of three of them: the entry-level ES, the Sportback Ralliart, and the scary-fast Evolution MR-Touring.

This may be our most ambitious Automotive Traveler Behind the Wheel review yet! We're taking a look at three models in the extensive 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer series: the second-level ES (the DE is the true base version), the mid-level Sportback Ralliart, and the top-of-the-line Evolution MR-Touring.

Prices for these vehicles range from $17,155 for the ES to $41,735 for the Evolution MR-Touring--which had us wondering: How can the Evolution MR-Touring cost more than twice as much as the ES? And among the huge range of models offered, does the Sportback Ralliart version offer the best combination of value, performance, and versatility?

After an earlier collaboration that involved supplying Chrysler with small cars and trucks, Mitsubishi entered the U.S. market in 1986 under its own brand. Initially quite successful, the company was best known for its sporty Eclipse.

More recently, however, the Japanese automaker has been overshadowed by other companies, especially Hyundai (to whom it supplied the basic platform for its original Excel subcompact). Yet as Mitsubishi lost its way in a crowded, exceptionally competitive small-car marketplace, the one constant has been the Lancer, now in its ninth generation worldwide.

While automotive editor Sam Fiorani drove the versatile Sportback Ralliart model (see his review in the sidebar starting on this page), I evaluated the mainstream ES model and the Evolution MR-Touring.

With a price that clearly places it among some premium C-segment competition --the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, the Mercedes C-Class--would the Evolution MR-Touring's advanced all-wheel-drive and rally heritage give it an edge to compete?

Having driven several Mitsubishi Lancer Evo models over the years, I was first struck by the almost stealthy appearance of the MR-Touring. Gone is the huge, boy-racer rear spoiler, replaced by a clean deck that does little to draw attention to the car. In the absence of the rear wing, the car's most distinguishing visual characteristics are the red Brembo brakes that poke through the forged alloy 18-inch BBS wheels.

Slipping into the tightly bolstered Recaro driver's seat with its luxurious leather seating surfaces (another premium component that helps explain the price differential from the ES), I was struck by the upgraded trim that tries to set the Evolution MR-Touring apart from its more plebian cousin.

Still, I had driven the ES first, and I had a difficult time divorcing myself from the car's humble origins. The interior is built on a foundation of low-rent plastics that scratch easily, as you would expect.

Hitting the start button and igniting the 291-horsepower twin-scroll turbocharged four, then slipping the gear selector to D, and I knew I was strapped into a road rocket that had little in common with the ES.

Mitsubishi's marketing folks go to great lengths to explain that the Evolution isn't simply a sporty version of the Lancer--that it is a completely re-engineered high-performance vehicle.

Probably the most important component, other than the engine, is the Evolution's Twin-Clutch Sporttronic Shift Transmission: an automated manual that uses two clutches to combine the efficiency of a manual transmission while allowing quick shifts via the console mounted shifter or the paddle shifters. It features three modes, Normal, Sport, and S-Sport, selected via a toggle next to the shifter.

Normal works fine for most conditions. Sport changes the parameters, keeping the revs higher before up shifting, with more abrupt shifts. S-Sport takes things to the extreme, with revs above 5,000 r.p.m. most of the time, resulting in harsh, almost abusive shifts.

Most drivers would find it too much for all but the track, where its abilities would be better appreciated. Among all the twin-clutch transmissions I've sampled, the Mitsubishi certainly ranks among the best and most flexible currently available.

"Super All-Wheel Control" is how Mitsubishi describes its rally-inspired all-wheel-drive system. It combines a suite of technologies that work in harmony, allowing you to push the Evolution to its limits. This includes "Active Yaw Control" to distribute engine torque between the left and right rear wheels as the "Active Center Differential" distributes engine torque between the front and rear axles. "Active Stability Control" provides increased grip when cornering, while "Sport ABS" with "Electronic Brakeforce Distribution" improves brake feel during hard braking.

I put the system to the test on a drive up to Big Bear Lake in the mountains east of Los Angeles in search of more marginal conditions. While encountering some wet roads, my quest for some lingering spring snow to challenge the system was fruitless.

On the winding route down the mountain from Big Bear Lake on California 38, I was able to take advantage of almost traffic-free conditions to sample its capabilities. The sense of precision--the feedback through the leather-wrapped steering wheel--had me grabbing the paddle shifters to extract every last ounce of enjoyment from the drive.

An afternoon playing with friends on their autocross course confirmed my road-trip impressions. Not only was the car almost effortless in its apex-cutting abilities, but when the time slips were compared, I was not the only one who was surprised.

The vehicle's premium components contributed to the sense of excellence. In the case of handling, that means Bilstein shocks and Eibach performance springs. As if to justify its lofty price, the suspension components contribute to the sense that you're driving a highly tuned, driver-focused car.

It took a bit for me to dismiss the suspicion that the Evolution MR-Touring is just a modified version of the ES I had previously driven. In the final analysis, though, I can say the Evolution MR-Touring offers a higher level of overall performance than anything else available in its price class, including the high-priced European spreads.

And while I've never been a parent, I can appreciate this is a car with a back seat, and with its almost-stealth appearance, it is a near-perfect dual-purpose sports car. The Evolution MR-Touring is tractable enough to haul the family during the week while providing grin-inducing thrills at the track on the weekend.

The Evolution MR-Touring might be as close as you can get to owning a street-legal rally car. And certainly, no four-door sedan that carries a sticker price of $41,735 can match its combination of performance and versatility. But with Mitsubishi's announced plans to revise its lineup by 2013, time may be running out to situate yourself in those Recaros behind this vehicle's leather-wrapped steering wheel. --Richard Truesdell

Sidebar: Behind the Wheel of the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart

If the grocery-getter base Lancer and the boy-racer Evolution are not for you, you have one other option. I understand Goldilocks' search for the "just right" thing after driving the Sportback Ralliart. It's not the all-out performance of the Evo, but it definitely offers more car than the base sedan.

The Sportback Ralliart even looks different. Instead of the three-box design of the sedan, the Sportback offers a useful hatchback. Pop the convenient switches in the cargo compartment, and the split rear seats fall out of the way, opening up the back for bigger items. Even with the rear seats up, there's plenty of space for all of that sports equipment your kids need. Bags full of baseball bats or towels for the swim team get tossed right in the back.

Compact cars aren't what they used to be. Remember when the word "compact" meant room up front for two adults with two kids seated in the back? Today, compact cars can actually haul a couple of grown-ups in the rear seat and even carry three kids across town. The Lancer's junior seating positions are usable and comfortable, making it an excellent family car.

But interior space isn't the reason you want to have the Ralliart version of the Sportback. The secret to this little car is hidden under the hood. Eagerly kicking out nearly 240 horsepower is the 2.0-liter turbocharged GEMA four-banger, co-developed with Hyundai and Chrysler. It moves this car with such urgency, you forget you're driving a four-door hatchback. Making this engine even more fun is the transmission.

A simple gearshift protrudes through the center console, looking every inch like an automatic shifter--but it's not. Yes, the selector starts off in park and moves down to drive, just like an automatic... and there's no left-foot pedal on the floor. Unlike an automatic, this unit has gears and a clutch even if it is operated electronically. Gear changes through the six ratios are quick and can be manually controlled by toggling the shifter or tapping the steering column-mounted paddles (or just letting the unit do it automatically). The roar of the engine and the quick-shifting gearbox make it difficult not to apply the loud pedal all the time!

Properly applied, that noisy pedal on the floor moves the car briskly. All four wheels keep that power on the ground and the driver in control. With this front-wheel-based system, you can get some torque steer when the turbo kicks in while cornering. It's reasonable, though, nothing that would keep you from wanting all of those ponies galloping along.

Keeping the right foot as light as possible rewards the driver with reasonable fuel economy. My tester reached up into the low- to mid-20s with a modicum of restraint. With the little voice on my other shoulder prodding me, the landscape started to blur and the gas mileage sank into the high teens.

Step away from the car and there's little to tell the scared pedestrians that they were chased back onto the sidewalk by anything other than an economy car. A modest roof-mounted wing and tiny "Ralliart" badges are about the only signs this is a car to be reckoned with. Just the kind of sheep's clothing I like my road-race cars to wear.

Whether the desire is for that disguised wolf or, like the intruder in the home of The Three Bears, the best of both worlds, the Lancer Sportback Ralliart should definitely be an option. For the power hungry, the engine in this car is intoxicating. For those manual-transmission lovers of us whose significant others prefer automatics, this transmission may be the perfect concession. In all, Mitsubishi has built an excellent family car to please almost all drivers without scaring the children. --Sam Fiorani

Sidebar: Behind the Wheel of the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

The day I picked up the Mitsubishi Lancer ES, the first thing that caught my eye was the window sticker. It was the first press fleet vehicle I've had that did not list a single factory-installed option. This is not to say my Lancer ES was stripped, in the traditional sense of the word. After all, it did come equipped with five features that might have been considered options in the past: power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, cruise control, and air conditioning.

The current-generation Lancer dates to March 2007, when it was introduced as a 2008 model. Unfortunately, its interior trim is even more dated. What seems like acres of low-grade plastic gives the interior a functional but uninviting look. Compared to a class leader like the new Chevy Cruze, its shortcomings in this regard are evident.

The test Lancer ES was equipped with a slick-shifting, five-speed manual transmission that provided a degree of driving fun. (A CVT transmission is available for those who prefer an automatic, but it tends to sap what engine output is available and should be avoided.) I found myself constantly looking for a sixth gear to better take advantage of the normally aspirated 2.0-liter I4 with 148 horsepower on tap. Its engine is Mitsubishi's version of the four-cylinder engine family shared with Chrysler and Hyundai.

Considering the ES shares a name with the Sportback Ralliart and the Evolution models, this car seems like a red-headed stepchild, especially to driving enthusiasts. And when measured against up-to-date designs like Ford's new Focus, the entry-level Lancer models come up a bit short when compared to newer compact cars that offer more bang for the buck. --Richard Truesdell

Vital Statistics: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR-Touring

Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 177.0 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Height: 58.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,594 pounds
Engine: Inline-4, 1,998 c.c. DOHC 16-valve turbocharged/intercooled
Horsepower: 291 horsepower @ 6,500 r.p.m.
Torque: 300 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 17/22
Base price: $41,735
As-tested price: $43,984, including $775 destination
Also consider: Audi A4 quattro, BMW 335i, Subaru WRX STi

Vital Statistics: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart

Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 177.0 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Height: 58.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,594 pounds
Engine: Inline-4, 1,998 c.c. DOHC 16-valve turbocharged/intercooled
Horsepower: 291 horsepower @ 6,500 r.p.m.
Torque: 300 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 17/22
Base price: $41,735
As-tested price: $43,984, including $775 destination
Also consider: Audi A4 quattro, BMW 335i, Subaru WRX STi

Vital Statistics: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart

Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Length: 180.0 inches
Width: 69.4 inches
Height: 58.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,462 pounds
Engine: Inline-four, 1,998 c.c. DOHC 16-valve turbocharged
Horsepower: 237 horsepower @ 6,000 r.p.m.
Torque: 253 lb.-ft. @ 4,750 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 17/25
Base price: $27,895
As-tested price: $31,755, including $775 destination
Also consider: Subaru Impreza WRX, Honda Civic SI

Vital Statistics: 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer ES

Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Length: 180.0 inches
Width: 69.4 inches
Height: 58.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,900 pounds
Engine: Inline-four, 1,998 c.c. DOHC 16-valve normally aspirated
Horsepower: 143 horsepower @ 6,000 r.p.m. (California specification)
Torque: 143 lb.-ft. @ 4,200 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 17/25
Base price: $17,155
As-tested price: $17,930, including $775 destination
Also consider: Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra