CLARKSTON, MI – As Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s rally-bred Lancer Evolution matures in the marketplace, growing in price and refinement, a sizable void is emerging between it and the entry-level Lancer sedan.

And with the Lancer’s longtime foe, the Subaru Impreza, having addressed the same issue years ago with the turbocharged WRX slotting between the base model and the Evo-battling STI, the time is right for a mid-range Lancer sport compact.

Enter the ‘09 Lancer Ralliart, the fourth model to spawn from the auto maker’s global performance architecture that also underpins the 7-seat Outlander cross/utility vehicle.

Based on the front-wheel-drive GTS model, the new Ralliart takes the core attributes of the high-strung Evo and blends them into a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive package that is more acceptable to a wider audience.

Looking remarkably similar to the Evolution X, save for the range-topper’s bulged fenders that emphasize its wider track, aluminum suspension and fatter wheels and tires, the Ralliart is a pleasantly aggressive offering for less than $27,000.

Under the vented aluminum hood lurks a detuned and more-tractable version of the Evo’s 4B11 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. Whereas the 7,000-rpm, Evolution-spec mill makes 291 hp and 300 lb.-ft. (407 Nm) of torque, its little brother spins only to 6,500 revs, yet produces a still-respectable 237 hp and 253 lb.-ft. (343 Nm) of torque.

Major differences include a lower-pressure, single-scroll turbocharger in place of the Evo’s twin-scroll compressor, as well as a smaller intercooler, new camshafts and revised tuning for the intake, electronics and MIVEC variable valve timing.

Mitsubishi only is offering the Evolution MR’s 6-speed TC-SST (Twin Clutch-Sportronic Shift Transmission) automated manual on the Ralliart, with new programming and taller 5th and 6th gear ratios (for better fuel economy) the only differences between the two variants.

Much of the Ralliart’s steel suspension is shared with the GTS and is tuned to be a compromise between the base car’s ride comfort and the Evo’s stellar grip. A new steering pump and smaller-diameter steering wheel from the Evo sharpen responses from the helm, while upgraded 4-wheel disc brakes from the Outlander boost stopping power.

However, the Ralliart’s multi-link rear suspension is unique, as it must accommodate the new rear differential for the AWD system.

This setup is about the same as that found on the previous Evolution IX, the auto maker says, and includes an active center differential and front and rear helical and mechanical limited-slip differentials, respectively. Absent is the Evo X’s Active Yaw Control torque-vectoring rear axle.

’09 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Vehicle type front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.0L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 237 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 253 lb.-ft (343 Nm) @ 3,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.0:1
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
Wheelbase 103.7 ins. (264 cm)
Overall length 180.0 ins. (457 cm)
Overall width 69.4 ins. (176 cm)
Overall height 58.7 ins. (149 cm)
Curb weight 3,462 lbs./ 1,570 kg
Base price $26,490
Fuel economy 17/25 mpg (14/9 L/100 km)
Competition Chevrolet Cobalt SS/HHR SS, Dodge Caliber SRT4, Mazdaspeed 3, Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen R32
Pros Cons
Baby Evo No Sportback, yet
Slick gearbox No manual offered
Under $30,000 Plain interior

Like the Evo, the AWD system is adjustable for tarmac, gravel and snowy conditions, while the TC-SST can be switched between normal and rapid-fire sport modes.

A brief jaunt around the rolling hills here reveals the new Ralliart to be very well rounded. It feels sportier than the WRX but not punishing, and the dual-clutch gearbox is equally adept at performance driving and lazy commuting.

Although scheduling prevented probing the Ralliart’s limits, a few laps in an Evo X around the twisty Waterford Hills racetrack reminds us how nimble and capable Mitsubishi’s AWD tuning can make the Lancer’s chassis feel.

The Ralliart’s interior is nearly identical to other Lancers and is well equipped with a full slate of airbags, keyless entry and Bluetooth connectivity.

A Recaro sport-seat package, which also includes xenon headlights and a 650-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo, is the only factory option. However, a navigation system with a 40-gigabyte hard drive can be installed at the dealer, bringing a fully loaded model to about $30,000.

The only thing missing is a hatchback, which Mitsubishi says likely will be added to the U.S. lineup in the form of the sharp-looking 5-door Sportback to be shown at the Paris auto show in October.

With three-quarters the ability of the Evolution at a price that should attract WRX buyers soured by its most recent redesign, Mitsubishi’s Lancer Ralliart is just right.

msutton@wardsauto.com