But sometimes the stars align just right, as they recently did when I returned on a flight, fresh from driving the new 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX, and hopped right into a 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart Sportback. To help you compare and cross-shop the two, here are some notes on these two archrivals:
First impressions can be deceiving
In both our First Drive of the 2010 Ralliart Sportback last year, we'd noted that road noise could be an issue. So I'd expected it to be louder inside and it proved otherwise. Yes, the Ralliart was a bit louder than the WRX, but not by much.
The excellent Recaros in the 2010 Ralliart Sportback were firm and supportive, wrapping around the back, however for this tall driver the integral headrest was too low and couldn't be adjusted.
On first glance, there's an obvious power-to-weight deficit in the Ralliart, compared to the WRX, but truth is, surprisingly, the two feel quite evenly matched. The Ralliart weighs about 200 pounds more yet makes about 20 hp less—and lacks low-rev torque in much the same way—so from a standing start the Ralliart feels not sluggish and not much different than an on-a-budget small car.
Once the revs rise and you get past 10 or 15 mph in first gear, that slightly sluggish feeling is forgotten as you follow the twin-clutch gearbox's expert shifts and the turbo's forgiving boost on up past 80, 90 mph and beyond. One of the keys to why the Ralliart feels so perky is that it makes 9 more foot-pounds of peak torque at 3,000 rpm—1,000 lower than the Subaru. So much for displacement.
Ralliart holds the transmission trump card
Thanks to the Twin-Clutch Sportronic transmission, shifts are quick and direct, with only a slight lurch shifting into second or third when you're taking off gingerly. What's more, when you're driving the Ralliart harder, you'll appreciate the sturdy column (not steering-wheel) mounted shift paddles.
With the 2011 Subaru WRX, a five-speed manual transmission is still the way of shifting, and the throws are a bit long and awkward. Subaru officials have told us that there are no plans for an automatic transmission in the WRX anytime soon. There aren't any options that would fit with the automaker's unique boxer engine layout, and the company, having just invested in its own CVT design, doesn't have the resources to design a new automatic that could take the WRX or STI's power and torque.While the first Ralliart Sportback we drove, last year, was equipped with all-season tires that truly detracted from the driving experience, with both more road noise and less grip, this test car was equipped with the proper Yokohama Advan summer performance tires; they made a huge difference and felt much grippier and more progressive.
In either case, we loved the Ralliart's handling. Just as with the more expensive Evolution, the Ralliart has quick, direct steering that's about the best it gets in any new vehicle.
Remarkably close in size, shape, and purpose...but different in personality
In looking at the specs of both hatchback models, it's remarkable how close they are. Both are about 180 inches long, with a wheelbase in the vicinity of 103 inches and an overall width of just less than 70 inches (not counting the Subaru's new flanks).
There are a few impossible-to-ignore personality differences between these two models. For starters, the exhaust note of the Subaru is a low thrum that pulsates more when pressed; meanwhile, the Ralliart sounds a bit more generic and resonated—more like you'd expect a tuner car to sound.
We found it slightly easier to reach a comfortable, upright driving position in the Ralliart, though the downside was more difficult outward visibility. The Subaru feels to have a larger, airier greenhouse with, from most angles, a better view out.
The switchgear in either car isn't anything to behold, but we really didn't like the weak, tinny way the doors closed in the Ralliart. The dash and door trim felt a step down in the Ralliart; with the hard door trim showing some scratches and wear already…
But there are some packaging advantages. With the Ralliart's seats down there seemed a little more space (perhaps with a slightly higher ceiling), and there's a quick-release lever up alongside the cargo area, so that you can flip the seat forward with one arm—something the WRX doesn't have. Yet the subwoofer for the available Rockford Fosgate audio system eats up a little of cargo space.
That 710-watt premium sound system in the Mitsubishi, by the way, sounds better than what you get in the Subaru, although it's only available as part of a pricey, $2,500 Recaro Sport Package that brings the sound system plus Sirius Satellite Radio, Recaro sport seats, and HID headlamps. A navigation system is available separately, though only as a port-installed option.