The other day, as my car and I sat at an intersection underneath a red light, marinading in a thick soup of late spring humidity, something unexpected appeared in the turning lane just to my left: a minty-fresh Mitsubishi Lancer draped in metallic silver paint and wearing a temporary tag in its rear window.
The temp tags and its squeaky-clean condition meant that someone had just purchased the thing brand new. And that's very remarkable because it's actually fairly rare that I see a brand new Mitsubishi mingling with other cars in normal traffic. Come to think of it, it isn't really all that often that I see a Mitsubishi of any sort in normal traffic, period.
Sure I might spot an occasional delinquent Eclipse loitering in the parking lot of a random fast food joint, its neglected hide pock-marked and sun-bleached, propped up by three dismal tires mounted on hopeless steel rims and one emergency spare. But Gallants, 3000GTs, Outlanders, Endeavors, Raiders, Mirages both old and new, Diamantes and Monteros... I'd have an easier time using my naked eye to hunt for the e coli squirming around on a steak at an all-you-can-eat buffet than I would trying to spot any one of that bunch roaming about in the wild.
And what of Mitsubishi's most relevant car on sale today, the rally-bred, Playstation-flavored Lancer Evolution, you might be wondering. Ha! You might as well tell me to keep my eyes peeled for Sophia Bush to arrive unannounced at my front doorstep tomorrow afternoon. Naked. With a suitcase full of money and two wedding bands.
So as I glanced in large gulps at this Japanese compact sedan, I found myself mildly delighted that someone decided to shower some attention on a car that has carried on generally unloved since it was launched about seven years ago. However, my delight was short lived as an electric sensation of opposing bewilderment soon came flooding in. That's because I suddenly realized that someone decided against buying a much better and fresher Mazda 3, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus or even that colossal overdose of zolpidem that Honda calls a Civic in favor of what honestly has become the C average student of the compact class.
As the light changed to green, and the Lancer and I parted ways, a thought suddenly blossomed in my head: Mitsubishi could still make an B average student out of the Lancer if they just injected it with more technology from the Evo and then sold it at a bargain price. After all, it wouldn't be hard considering that without the Lancer, the Diamond Star car company wouldn't have anything to make the Evo out of. And who would turn down an alternative to the Subaru Impreza now that Subaru's went and blanded it up?
It seems Mitsubishi may have beaten me to the punch on this one, though. Since the 2009 model year, Mitsu offers the Lancer in Ralliart trim that includes the same turbocharged 4B11T 2.0 liter four-pot from the base Evo that cranks out 237 horsepower. It also has most of the Evo's all-wheel drive system and a handicapped version of the Evo's six-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The Ralliart doesn't get the Evo's Colin McRae suspension, nor is it blessed with the Evo's testosterone-infused bodywork. But that's fine considering that you can buy it with a practical hatched back and the Evo only comes as a sedan. And even better, because it's only one half of an Evo, it only costs one half of the price.
Except it doesn't. An entry-level Evo will cost you in the land of $36,000 dollars after tax, title and license fees. Choosing the Ralliart will only save you six grand. That means Mitsubishi will charge you exactly two-thirds of the price for what amounts to one half of one of their cars. What in the hell about that makes any sense? It reminds me of an episode of Sanford and Son where Redd Foxx tries to sell a gelded glue factory as a breeding thoroughbred for a war price. It's moronic.
And that's a shame because, if it had been cheaper, the Lancer Ralliart could've filled a role for the brand that has been left vacant since the Eclipse went Elvis, got fat and died on the throne. There isn't an affordable small sporty car in Mitsubishi's model range, and that's something it desperately needs. After all, that's what the brand used to be about: sportiness and performance, and usually at an obtainable price.