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2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback & Lancer Ralliart Road Tests
Lancer offers choice between sporty & practical

By Bill Roebuck

Mitsubishi's Lancer is an interesting vehicle. It not only fits in the front-wheel drive compact sedan market, but in other configurations, it's an ideal small wagon or a hot speedster with rally-car aspirations. We recently drove the Sportback wagon and the Ralliart sedan back to back to provide you with a comparison.

If economy is most important, check out the base Lancer sedan, Mitsubishi's smallest car in Canada, which lists at just $15,998. The more practical Sportback LS wagon we tested adds another five grand. Why so much? Because it's more than just a cargo area stitched on to the back of the sedan.

The Sportback LS, which includes a larger engine with an automatic transmission, has been beefed up so it not only offers five-door utility but the company's large-displacement Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control (MIVEC) technology. Its 2.4-litre inline four produces 160 hp, compared to the 120-hp from the standard a 2.0-litre engine in the Lancer ES and LS sedans.

MIVEC provides two different cam profiles for the twin intake valves, with a hydraulic actuator that engages a more aggressive high-lift mode at 3,500 rpm. On the road, that gearhead terminology translates to mean peppier performance that's especially noticeable on highway passing manoeuvres.

The engine design also allows torque to build at lower engine speeds, so the Sportback literally leaps away from a stop. You tend to use a gentle foot when you have passengers on board, because the quick start can be startling for them.

Performance also is aided by the Sportback's electronically controlled, four-speed, automatic transmission. It features a sporty 4.212 final drive ratio and driver-adaptive shift control. That means the transmission automatically tailors the shift points, so that aggressive drivers get faster, higher-rpm shifts, while more laid-back drivers will find smoother, lower-rpm shifts. The Sportback is only available as an automatic.

The 2004 Sportback LS is built from a base Lancer chassis that was enhanced and strengthened. It has unique reinforcements to compensate for the lack of a rear bulkhead, and a structural ring frames the cargo door opening to help stiffen the body. The ring also serves as a flex- and twist-resistant foundation for the suspension.

Inside, the interior has good headroom and legroom front and rear, even for six-footers. With the rear seat folded, the wagon handles 60.7 cubic feet of cargo. The cargo area also has under-floor and side storage compartments, a 12-volt power outlet, and four cargo tie-down hooks.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning, a 140-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with four speakers; white-faced gauges; a height-adjustable driver's seat; tilt steering wheel; power windows, door locks and side-view mirrors; and remote keyless entry. The front shoulder belts are also fitted with pre-tensioners and force limiters.

The rear seat has a 60/40 split-fold design and can be usefully reclined for comfort. A centre armrest in the rear includes fold-out cupholders

A step up on Lancer's performance ladder is the Ralliart edition, available both as sedan and Sportback wagon models. We tested the Ralliart sedan with a five-speed manual transmission, which has a base price of $21,988, but can be loaded up with options to reach $25,348. The Sportback Ralliart is $24,198.

Both Ralliart models share the 2.4-litre 162-hp engine (a boosted version of that in the Sportback LS) and a factory-tuned suspension that inspired the Ralliart street-tuner name. Interestingly, the engine produces just two more horsepower than the non-tuned version, yet the performance boost feels impressive.

Our test Lancer Ralliart four-door sedan was a hoot to drive. The five-speed manual shifts from gear to gear with ease -- though the shifts are a bit long -- and there's a soft, throaty exhaust note to add to the rally-car sensation. The fact that the car was bright yellow didn't hurt, either.

Part of the additional power comes from a freer-flowing exhaust system, which features a larger-diameter exhaust pipe and large-volume catalytic converter and muffler.

Ralliart models get a sport suspension, including unique spring rates, specific damper tuning, tighter bushings, a stiffer steering rack and a particularly stiff three-point front strut tower brace. The tires are upgraded, as are the wheels. Antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are standard equipment, as are larger brake discs.

The Ralliart versions also have increased steering stiffness for a sportier driving feel. Steering needs only 2.86 turns lock-to-lock, giving quick response. However, the turning circle is much larger than expected for a relatively small vehicle.

The Ralliart exterior features a lower body kit that includes front, side and rear air dams, a unique grille, tinted headlamp lenses and projector-beam fog lights.

Inside, there are all-black materials, high-end sport seats that are very supportive, a white-faced gauge cluster, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter and parking brake lever and a carbon-look accent panel on the dash. Overall, we liked the interior appearance a lot.

In both models, the gauges were easy to read and controls placed just right. The stereo is positioned handily above the ventilation controls, the cupholders are easy to access in the centre console, and storage pockets and the glove box are all a decent size.

The Sportback LS had plenty of practicality built in plus adequate power for all the driving situations we encountered. But if you move up to the Ralliart model, either in the sedan or wagon versions, the fun quotient increases significantly. The choice is sure to present a challenge.

© 2004, Bill Roebuck,

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