DRIVE Pictures don't do Sportback justice
Mitsubishi's new Lancer Sportback wagon seen as versatile, affordable
By Ann M. Job
For The Associated Press
It looks better in real life than it does in pictures.
And it has a mouthful of a name -- 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart.
This new wagon from Japan is lively, versatile and affordable, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, that's likely to be just under $20,000. Final pricing is due to be announced later in September.
Ralliart is Mitsubishi's international performance brand. And for 2004, it's a new trim level on two compact Lancer models in the United States -- the new Sportback body style, which is really a station wagon, and a Lancer sedan.
You can think of Ralliart as a step below the strictly-for-racing-buffs, stiff-riding, pricey Lancer Evolution; it's a definite step up from Mitsubishi's more cosmetic-oriented Lancer OZ Rally model.
Certainly, the Sportback Ralliart comes with a sporty, customized look.
A standard lower body kit adds front, side and rear air dams. Other standard features are fog lights, unique grille, tinted headlamp lenses and Euro-flange alloy wheels.
More than looks
But all this doesn't seem to show well in pictures. Besides, the Ralliart version of Sportback is more than looks.
The basic suspension is the same as in all Lancers. The front is independent MacPherson strut, while theres an independent multilink configuration with coil springs at the rear.
But in the Ralliart version, the suspension is specially tuned, with shock damping that's increased 150 percent in the front and 85 percent in the back for a more controlled ride.
Bushings are changed in the upper and lower control arms of the rear suspension, and there's a front strut tower brace under the hood, painted bright red, that helps keep the chassis stiff.
Tires, meanwhile, are upgraded to performance, grippy, 16-inch rubber, and brakes are larger.
So, the ride is sporty, though nowhere near as jarring as that found in the Lancer Evolution, and the handling is commendable.
In fact, the front-drive test wagon surprised me because it handled like a fun, hunkered-down car -- ready for mountain twisties and the uneven pavement on country roads -- but without being punishing.
I took curves at decent speeds and the car held its line and composure. In an emergency maneuver in city traffic, the Sportback Ralliart made its move and continued on, unperturbed.
Steering, which has a decent response to driver inputs, is power-assisted rack-and-pinion.
The Ralliart wagon and Ralliart sedan have an improved, and larger, 2.4-liter, single over head cam, four-cylinder engine that's capable of developing 162 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.
The Sportback Ralliart comes only with a four-speed automatic transmission.
Still, I was surprised at how sprightly the Sportback felt. The tester seemed to find power easily, and while it didn't slingshot past other cars in passing maneuvers like a sports car might, it behaved with decent zip.
Best of all, the Sportback Ralliart's performance was comfortable and comforting, giving me confidence that it could merge onto freeways capably and climb mountain roads without feeling sluggish.
Note the Ralliart engine gets its wide power range from a new, valve-timing system, which is called Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control (MIVEC).
There also are other engine improvements, such as larger valves, longer intake runners and dual-port exhaust manifold. The catalytic converter and muffler are designed to accommodate larger volumes, too, which helps reduce back-pressure on the engine.
Fuel economy is decent. The car is rated at 22 miles a gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway, according to Mitsubishi.
The Ralliart cars include sport front bucket seats with good-sized, side bolsters and fabric that can hold a body snugly during aggressive driving.
Even though the Ralliart rode low and I had to drop down onto the side bolsters of the driver seat to get inside, it was not a difficult maneuver. The bolsters have some give and aren't painful to land on, thankfully.
Sitting on the front seats feels like sitting on sturdy foam, and these sculpted seats are shaped well enough that I was neither fatigued nor achy after a 2.5-hour drive.
Flat rear seats
The Ralliart's back seat has no side cushion bolsters, so it's a rather flat resting spot for three, but a close fit for three adults.
All passengers in the Sportback have adjustable and lockable head restraints and three-point shoulder belts. I liked that the four outboard head restraints in the test car had centers cut out for a sportier look.
The Ralliart version gets extra safety equipment vis-a-vis the base Sportback. This equipment includes side airbags for the front seats, antilock brakes and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.
Note the decent-sized rear door windows for back-seat riders, too. They added an airy feel to the interior, even in a car that doesn't offer a sunroof.
Although this is a sporty-riding car, it's still a wagon with a good amount of cargo room.
There's 24.9 cubic feet of room behind the rear seatbacks and 60.7 cubic feet if the rear seats are folded.