The 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer might be a sharp, performance-honed small sport sedan (or hatch) in its Ralliart or Evolution variants, but it's far from that in base form. While these cars can look closely related from the outside, what's under the hood, and the driving experience, is very different.
Overall, Lancer DE and ES models should be thought of as cheap wheels that handle better than most other models in this price range—though not with all that much verve—while Lancer GT models providing a taste of Ralliart performance without the turbocharged engine or all-wheel drive. At the top of the lineup is the no-holds-barred Evolution—an all-wheel-drive supercar in some respects—while the Ralliart works down from the Evo and up from the Lancer GT, compromising the two with a hotter-performing yet practical and affordable package.
Power for the basic Lancer DE and ES comes from a 152-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's just perky with the five-speed manual and barely gutsy enough (though not any fun) with the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. The Lancer GT is sharper and more responsive, and it gets some suspension and performance improvements (in common with the Ralliart), and has a 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter four; GT models with the CVT get magnesium steering-wheel paddle-shifters with six simulated gears to help those who want more of a performance driving feel.
A new SE model was introduced last year and essentially fits all-wheel drive (not the Evo's Super All Wheel Control system, but the more ordinary AWD system also used in the Outlander Sport) and the 2.4-liter. It builds onto the ES rather than the GT, and clearly aspires to snowy driveways, not the rally stage.
The Evolution is of course the performance star of the lineup. It packs a 291-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder that's very peaky by today's standards, with quite a bit of turbo lag and the need to be revved high into its range to extract its power. When it arrives, it's phenomenal, and delivered confidently with an Active Center Differential, helical-gear front differential, and Active Yaw Control, altogether giving this plebeian sedan the agility, tractability, and poise to match much more expensive sport machines. You can get a notchy five-speed manual gearbox, but our pick would actually be the six-speed 'Twin Clutch SST' gearbox--a dual-clutch automatic that actually serves to help keep you in the turbo boost.
The Evo has changes beyond that, though; with an 'enhanced body structure' and many body panels made of aluminum, not steel. It's no doubt a costly manufacturing process that's in part reflected in the Evo's much higher sticker price.
If there sounds like a huge performance jump between the GT and the Evo, there is; and it's the Ralliart that fills the gap. With a lower-boost, 237-hp version of the turbo four, all the body and suspension improvements of the GT, plus the quicker-ratio steering and some other hardware borrowed from the Evo, the Ralliart is the best sweet spot between performance and daily-driver usability for most. Its engine is much more flexible, and feels just as strong as the Evo's in everyday driving. The only thing missing is the Evo's high-end AWD system, and in either of these models it's worth keeping in mind that ride harshness does play a part in the driving experience--they're a couple of the relatively few cars on the market in which you feel everything, and seat-of-the-pants drivers will like that.