The 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer might show some inattention to detail in its cabin, but its driving experience is for the most part neat and responsive. Steering is nice and direct throughout the lineup, while handling is reassuring and a bit communicative for all but the more basic models.
While these cars can look closely related from the outside, what's under the hood, and the driving experience, is very different. The Lancer ES is the keep-it-simple model in the lineup; it has a 152-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's perky at lower speeds with the five-speed manual but barely gutsy enough with the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. If you move up to the 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that comes in the Lancer GT (or all-wheel-drive SE), you get plenty of power and torque to move this small sedan or hatchback with more confidence. With the CVT, on GT models, you get magnesium steering-wheel paddle shifters with six simulated gears, too.
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. If drivability is important, though, you might prefer the Ralliart for its better drivability and broader torque curve.
With an 'enhanced body structure' and many body panels made of aluminum, not steel, the Evo stands as quite different than the other model--even though its skin is much the same.
The Ralliart is what fills the huge performance gap from those other models up to the Evo. 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. While you're missing the high-end AWD system, its engine is much more flexible, and feels just as strong as the Evo's in everyday driving.
In either of these models it's worth keeping in mind that ride harshness does play a part in the driving experience--you feel everything, to the delight of some and to the dismay of others.