2004 Mitsubishi Lancer
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Mitsubishi is not a power player in the small car market, but its small Lancer lineup should be more competitive with revised styling, a new station wagon, larger available engine and sportier Ralliart trim levels.
Mitsubishi isn't letting grass grow under the front-wheel-drive Lancer, which was all-new for 2002. The latest version has a different front end look with such things as a new bumper, hood and fenders. The rear has a revised trunk lid.
Racy New Models
The Ralliart promises to make some waves partly because it has a new 2.4-liter horsepower engine instead of the standard 2.0-liter 120-horsepower Lancer sedan engine. The new motor generates 160 horsepower in the new Lancer LS Sportback wagon and 162 horsepower in the Ralliart sedan and Sportback Ralliart wagon.
The 2.4 engine comes only with a 4-speed automatic transmission in both versions of the wagon.
The Ralliart has a free-flowing exhaust system for the extra horsepower, additional steering stiffness for a sportier feel and a firmer suspension with low-profile (50-series) tires on 16-inch alloy wheels.
One cue that the Ralliart is a more serious car than standard Lancers is its red tubular 3-point front strut tower brace, which spans the engine bay to help reinforce the Ralliart's structural rigidity for sharper handling. Larger 4-wheel disc brakes with an anti-lock system and electronic brake force distribution provide surer stops.
The Evolution is one of the fastest small cars and comes in even more ferocious RS form for 2004. The RS is nearly 150 pounds lighter, with no items such as air conditioning or even power windows or locks.
The regular Evolution costs about $30,000, but other Lancer list prices are considerably lower. They range from $13,597 for a Lancer ES sedan with a manual gearbox to $19,197 for the Ralliart wagon with an automatic transmission.
Special Ralliart Features
The Ralliart has special trim and stylish white-face gauges, which aren't as easy to read as black-face gauges. Front bucket seats are yanked from the Japanese Evo GT-A and provide excellent support when zipping through curves. The wagon version gets standard front side airbags.
The Ralliart competes in the small car market against such under-$20,000 sporty small cars such the Ford Focus SVT and Nissan Sentra SE-R.
The O-Z sedan has average performance because it's powered by the same 120-horsepower 4-cylinder engine that is in the ES and LS sedans. All provide adequate acceleration and are most lively with the standard manual 5-speed gearbox.
Regular Lancer sedans are pleasant economy cars with decent ride and handling, along with fairly roomy interiors. Pre-2004 Lancers been have been subjected to "deal-of-the-month" marketing, which hurts their image and resale values.
The Evolution pretty much sells itself to car buffs who like its stirring performance and don't mind its noisy interior and stiff ride.
Filling a Gap
The Ralliart comes as a $17,997 sedan with a nifty 5-speed manual gearbox and as a $18,797 sedan with a responsive 4-speed automatic transmission that adjusts itself to a driver's individual style.
The engine works with an aggressive final drive ratio that helps fully exploit the engine's power, although that ratio causes the engine to rev rather high above 65 mph.
While it comes only with an automatic transmission, the $19,189 Sportback Ralliart may get a manual gearbox if demand justifies adding it.
A Sportback Ralliart wagon I tested had strong, smooth acceleration and was generally fuel-thrifty. Handling was nimble, and steering was quick. The ride was firm, but supple enough to be comfortable most of the time—although sharp bumps elicited jolts. The brake pedal was a little soft, but had a linear action to prevent jerky stops.
There is decent room for four tall adults in the 181-inch-long Sportback Ralliart, which is only slightly longer than the sedan. Leg room is tight for a 6-footer with long legs behind a driver who shoves his seat back all the way.
The sedan has a fairly large trunk, which could use a better opening. However, the wagon's spacious cargo area has a low, wide opening.
The Ralliart dashboard has carbon-like and black wood accent panels to liven up its appearance. The turn signal stalk has an especially handy size and location for easy use.
Radio controls should be larger for comfortable driver operation, but are placed above the climate controls, which generally aren't used as frequently. Some climate controls work smoothly, but others are notchy.
The Lancer is rigidly built, but its doors and trunk close with a cheap-sounding clang that may give the wrong impression about the car in showrooms. Mitsubishi, which lacks the name recognition of larger rivals, should get its act together to prevent such a noise.
However, Mitsubishi has a leg up with the Ralliart sedan and wagon because they don't have many under-$20,000 competitors.