A fast car, a decent price, but no bargain

Warren Brown
Columnist October 21, 2011

Ispent a week and nearly 1,000 miles trying to fall in love with the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart sedan. I couldn’t.

It is a car that attempts to provide maximum driving excitement at minimum expense, but it manages to be little more than a disappointing cost-cutting exercise.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Interior design is bland, among the least appealing in the segment for midsize sedans with base prices from $15,000 to $30,000.

Interior materials look and feel cheap, fake. An example: The use of carbon fiber in cabin trim is an increasingly popular styling device in midsize sedans, especially those with sport pretensions. At first glance, the trim pieces in the Lancer Ralliart’s mundane cabin look like carbon fiber. But a quick second look reveals them as nothing more than thin pieces of aluminum covered with plastic film that mimics carbon fiber. A toy manufacturer could have done better.

I normally exit a better-designed car — say a Mazdaspeed3, Subaru Impreza WRX or Buick Regal Turbo — feeling invigorated, even proud of the car in my temporary possession. But I repeatedly climbed out of the Lancer Ralliart shaking my head. The list of cheap, fake silliness in that one is so extensive it ruins any chance of sustained driving enjoyment.

Consider the transmission lever. Again, at first glance, it looks like a wonderfully inviting, straightforward six-speed manual shifter — perfect for a car with a turbocharged and intercooled 2-liter four-cylinder engine capable of producing a maximum 237 horsepower and 253 foot-pounds of torque.

Engines are essentially breathing devices. Turbocharged engines use their exhaust gases to drive impellers that pull more air into combustion chambers for a better air-fuel mix. Intercooled turbocharged engines cool that air as it flows toward engine cylinders, allowing more air to enter. It’s good engineering undertaken to maximize power output while minimizing fuel consumption, engineering that would make more sense with a good manual gearbox.

But what was presented in the 2011 Lancer Ralliart was an “automated manual” that, in terms of driving satisfaction, was neither.

For the record, I like most automated manuals — gear systems that are plainly, easily automatic when you want them to be and just as easy to use in manual mode. Automated manuals, increasingly demanded by drivers in North America, make sense in households with divided transmission loyalties — occupied by drivers who prefer automatics and those who favor traditional manual gearboxes.

The problem with the Lancer Ralliart’s gearbox is that it pretends to favor manual-transmission fans over those who favor automatics. Thus, we have paddle-shifters on the steering column left and right of the wheel — a design and engineering homage to drivers with Walter Mitty race-car fantasies. I can live with that. But what is the need for also installing a floor-mounted lever that looks and feels like a manual shifter, replete with the need to lift its collar before moving into reverse gear, but otherwise operates like an everyday, ordinary, run-of-the mill automatic?

Mitsubishi needs to make up its mind about its target audience. Is it primarily aiming at financially challenged young men who dream of racetrack glory and little else? Is it middle-income families in need of reliable transportation with punch and pizazz? Who?

Mitsubishi is going to have to choose. The market for mid-priced midsize sedans is one of the hottest, most lucrative automotive retail segments in North America. It is dominated by models such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, and slightly smaller, sportier models such as the Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru Impreza WRX.

What all those rivals have in common is consistency of design, engineering, fit, finish, and quality of interior materials. The Lancer Ralliart is lacking in too many of those areas.

Good grief! The Mitsubishi car still uses that ugly mouse-hair fuzz on its cabin ceiling, the “headliner” in automotive parlance, at a time when most of its rivals have switched to a more attractive synthetic mesh. That is truly disappointing.

But there is in all of this a mildly saving grace. The Lancer Ralliart is very fast. On turnpikes and other high-speed motorways, it’s an absolute demon, very much capable of leaving more expensive and prestigious rivals in the rear. That might be enough for someone with an insatiable need for speed and little else. But it is not enough for me, and it is apparently insufficient for most other motorists — which is why the Lancer sedan, in any its several iterations, perennially ranks at the bottom of U.S. auto-sales charts.

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