Photos by Byron Hurd and Nicole Gagnon. Unprofessional driver on a closed course. Don’t try this at home, but feel free to try it with NASA Mid-Atlantic Autocross.

“Are we annoyed with the SUV drivers?” That sing-songy voice is Nicole, my girlfriend, addressing me from the luxurious cabin of the M56 in my rear-view mirror. We’ve finally managed to pass a left-lane camper at whom I had been gesticulating wildly, encouraging a pass that took what seemed like hours to execute.

“Maybe just a little bit,” I reply. So glad I could amuse you. “I’m not on the bluetooth though. I gotta let you go.”  It’s easy to be amused in the front seat of the M. It’s like rolling down the highway in a 420-horsepower electronics store. Me? I’m leading our two-car caravan in the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. If the M is a big-box store on wheels, the Ralliart is the pre-owned section at Gamestop.

Unfortunately for Mitsubishi, scheduling logistics forced us to take the Ralliart and the M56 at the same time. If these cars were people, the Ralliart could be forgiven for developing a complex. Fortunately though, today is the Lancer’s chance to shine. We’re headed down to Virginia Motorsports Park, not far from Richmond, for NASA Mid-Atlantic’s first championship autocross of the 2011 season. It’s the Lancer that will see cone duty, while the Infiniti will have to make do as a V8-powered spectator booth for Nicole. And boy, did we need it.

When we left Annapolis at about 7:15, the ambient temperature reading in the M indicated 12°F. 200 miles away, the NASA staff tossed a pile of cones onto the blacktop in preparation for course set-up. They shattered. By the time we arrived, it was just cresting 20° and the wind was picking up.  We were headed up to a balmy 35°, but hey, at least it was sunny. Racing weather? Maybe not, but it’ll do.

For perspective, my expectations were already low. When I shot an email to Mitsubishi’s product rep to clear the event, he was surprisingly forthcoming with the Lancer’s credentials–well, lack of them, really. I found this curious, and normally I would have dismissed it as hedging on his part, but when I pulled the specs and started doing the math, it started to make a lot of sense. When is 237 horsepower and all-wheel drive in a sport compact not the recipe for an autocross champ? If your guess was “when it’s under-tired and overweight,” you’d be 100% correct. Just how overweight? Try 3500lbs. Inside the fenders, you’ll find 18×7″ wheels sporting 215/45R18s. They’re summer rubber, sure, but that’s not a lot of tire to go under, let’s face it, a whole lot of Lancer. For comparison’s sake, my personal Mazdaspeed3 rides on the same tire width, weighs ~350lbs less, and puts out ~265 (wink, wink) horsepower at the crank.

Mitsubishi’s all-wheel drive is good, but it’s not that good.

At some point between our course walk and the first hot pass, the sun finally warmed the blacktop enough that it started to expand. Normally, heat in the surface is a good thing. This time, however, as the asphalt swelled, it forced from every nook and cranny many gallons of previously hidden water. What was a dry, dusty surface just minutes prior turned into a maze of puddles and wet crud. When you show up for a motor sports event on a cold morning, you can count on a lecture regarding sub-optimal grip conditions. You listen. You nod. You then promptly discard this tidbit as common sense and move down your mental checklist. But when the surface is changing rapidly before a car even sees the course in anger, all bets are off. The first run is basically a crap shoot.

I’m fortunate in that a single walk is enough for me to commit the course to memory, so while others are typically learning the course on the first run, I’m familiarizing myself with the car instead. That goes for any car, really, whether it’s one of my regular rides or a newly-acquired press loaner. Like the surface, the car is different every time.

As it turns out, the Lancer is rather a bit more playful than I had anticipated. I start off aggressively, blasting through the Ralliart’s awkwardly short first gear much more quickly than expected. The course darts immediately left and then right, straightening into a tight slalom. I grab second gear on the slalom entry, but it’s too much. There’s no grip. I haul the car back down, but leave it in second, fearful that I’ll be right on the limited if I drop it down a gear. As I come to the slalom exit, I put my foot down for a brief straight leading up to another right-left complex. Nothing but turbo lag. I ride it out, knowing that a downshift to first is pointless.

Coming out of the right-hander into a set of offset gates, the Lancer comes alive. Second gear is fine here, and the section can be taken flat-out with a little steering input. Coming out of the offset, I’m confronted with a sweeping left-hander, a brief straight where the course crosses over itself, and then a slow, sweeping right hander to double back toward the cross-over. There’s a ton of water at the entrance to the right-hander–water that wasn’t there during the course walk. I put the brakes to work again, setting up a trail-braking approach to get the car hauled around to the right on the nasty surface. I’ve overcooked it. Riding the brakes in makes the rear end come around briskly but smoothly. I’m pointed in the right direction, but the Lancer is quite sideways. I get on the gas and ride the drift through the corner, lifting at the end to get it pointed toward the cross-over and the long back straight. I’m clearly past the peak of the slip angle curve, but I’m holding it back from the steep drop-off in traction looming ahead of me. Just.

The back section is fast. Again, almost flat with a little back-and-forth of the wheel. At the end, though, it gets tricky. There’s another set of closely-spaced offset gates here. Coming out of the straight, I have the Lancer naturally running wide left, and I have to haul it down for a quick right out of the offset into an overlapping loop. As I ease onto the brakes, the Lancer gets loose again, the back end stepping out predictably and sharply to the left, following the car’s wide momentum. I counter-steer and continue braking, using the slide and brakes in concert to get down to the speed I need for the last set of gates before the loop. The drift gets me pointed in the right direction, and I get back on the gas as soon as the tires bite. The loop is straightforward–drive 10/1oths with constant steering and throttle input until I’ve come back to where you entered. I manage to get the ass loose again anyway, putting on a show for the cone chasers at the center. Once out, I bee-line for the exit and the following 90° left-hander before the stop box. I put my foot down in the left turn and find nothing but turbo lag, yet again. Frustrating, but there’s no time to be gained here anyway. That’s the run.

To be fair to the Mitsubishi, nobody had decent grip for the first few runs. As a matter of fact, nobody in the entire first heat had a particularly noteworthy pass. But that’s how it goes in competition. Sometimes it sucks for everybody. Unfortunately, the Lancer managed to suck a little bit more than others. I was never able to get it to do anything I liked in the early section, running into issues with the slalom whether I tried to hold first gear until the exit (which required riding the rev limited for some five seconds) or trying to short-shift and better manage momentum. It was a lose-lose. Even on my better runs, this section was never pretty.

By the end of the day, I managed an unofficial 7th out of 15 in NASA’s C class, running with various 350Zs, S2000s and a handful of turbo compacts, and an overall finish of 28th out of 72. NASA doesn’t use any sort of normalizing index for overall performance, so that’s based strictly on overall time. You’ll find the full results and a video of one of my later runs at the end of this piece.

Subjectively, the Lancer gets a lot right. It feels quick, it turns in decisively and the transmission is unbelievably good–better than VW’s DSG, I’d say. The all-wheel drive is a complete hoot. Unfortunately, you still have to contend with a cheap interior, abundant road noise, insanely short gearing and an under-achieving 237-horsepower engine in a ~3,500lb car. That’s 63 fewer on-paper ponies than big brother Evo. One welcome option on our tester was the Rockford Fosgate audio system, featuring a massive, trunk-intruding sub-woofer. Dialing up the volume helped conquer the road noise, but if your concern is potential hearing loss, neither approach is particularly attractive.

Fortunately though, there were some highlights. Later in our loan term, the D.C. area was smacked with a nasty rush hour snow and ice storm. Despite the relatively aggressive tires, the Lancer trudged through nasty, unplowed snow with confidence-inspiring determination. With the stability control off and the active center diff set to snow mode, the Ralliart never once missed a beat. Thanks to the tires, braking performance wasn’t stellar, but it was nothing that couldn’t be overcome by a little added following distance. Hills, corners and panic-stricken commuters were all dispatched with alarming ease.

Surprise thundersnow? Not a problem.

Nevertheless, the Ralliart never quite won me over. It’s not what it is that is problematic, but what it isn’t, and unlike some of its competitors, the Lancer reminds you much more regularly of what you could have had. In a WRX, for instance, there’s no Driver Control Center Differential knob staring you in the face, reminding you that you could have flipped a few thousand more burgers and left the dealership with the STI instead. But in the Ralliart, you’re constantly staring at two great features found on the Evo, knowing all the while that the overall package just can’t compare.

So what did I like about the Ralliart? Simple. It reinforced for me just how much better the Evo really is.

NASA-X event results:

http://www.get-fast.net/nasacross/012311res.htm

Big thanks as always to all the good folks from NASA Mid-Atlantic. Check them out at http://www.nasaracing.net or http://www.nasaproracing.com/ (National).

                     

About author View all posts Author website

Byron Hurd

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Speed:Sport:Life

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading