It seems the penny has finally dropped as Mitsubishi prepares to stick it to the opposition with its new saloon car, the Evo X

Never overlook the obvious - advice Mitsubishi has seemingly failed to heed for many years. What is obvious is that to be a successful mainstream car-maker you need a standard-size hatchback or saloon with competitive driving qualities and a look likely to evoke at least the first stirrings of covetousness. And that greatest of automotive ironies of recent times, the Mitsubishi Carisma, did not pass the test.

Yet while Mitsubishi's European sales operations struggled with this Dutch-built dullard, the world's rally stages resounded to the turbocharged howls and pops of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo in its various generations. European markets also got, sporadically, a "normal" Lancer in estate-car form, but fundamentally they were a bad case of non-joined-up thinking.

This has all changed. The Evo has reached its 10th generation to become the Evo X, but more significant is that the Lancer on which it is based is a properly competitive car available with four or five doors and an intelligent variety of engines. The Evo no longer stands alone as a petrolhead's cult-car; instead it heads a proper range.

All of them look good, with the charisma the Carisma so obviously lacked, its top half a reference to the grille of some of Mitsubishi's more handsome saloons of the past. One such was the mid-1990s Galant, a car notionally a size-class up from the Lancer. Yet our new Lancer is actually roomier than that Galant, a size observation that explains why in Japan the new car is called Galant and not Lancer. That's clear, then. But Lancer it had to be for Europe, given the need for the Evo X to keep the Lancer name as Mitsubishi's sole thread of European credibility in mid-size cars.

Now the logic gets fuzzy again. The new range, although pitched at the likes of Ford's Focus and Volkswagen's Golf, begins with four-door saloons, with the five-door Sportback not arriving until September. Saloons are normally not popular in the domain of Focus-size cars, but you could argue that the Lancer is as big as cars the next class up used to be. In which case it looks a bit of a bargain, with the cheapest five-door (the 1.5-litre, 109bhp petrol in basic GS1 trim) to be priced at £12,499 on its September launch. The four-doors are all in posh GS3 or GS4 trim and come with either a 143bhp 1.8 (with manual or continuously-variable automatic transmission) or as a 140bhp 2.0 turbodiesel, an obsolescent Volkswagen unit until Mitsubishi's own diesel is ready.

There's another puzzle. Certain past Evos wore Ralliart badging, named after Mitsubishi's European motorsport division. The September launch of the Sportback will see a specific Ralliart model, with a detuned version of the turbocharged 2.0-litre Evo engine (still 240bhp), and a simplified version of the Evo's four-wheel drive system (still with Active Yaw Control). It will be a convincing hot hatchback, a kind of junior Evo.

So I get inside a new Lancer 1.8 and try the first-touch quality test. The dashboard looks good, but its top surface is hard plastic. Oh dear. I had hoped we might now have proper padding. Ditto the tops of the doors, a blind spot from which Subaru has also suffered with its new Impreza, the Lancer Evo's arch-rival.

Setting off, the driving position feels fine, the gear change easy, the steering accurate and confident. It also rides smoothly over bumps. I can't get as enthusiastic about the engine; the 143 horses feel undernourished and the response to the accelerator is not very keen.

The diesel, with almost as much power and vastly more torque, is much livelier with a strong, easy pull from low engine speeds and a six-speed gearbox to make the most of it. But the perils of adapting your car to someone else's engine reveal themselves in the boomy noise that can penetrate the cabin. Gruffness apart, the Lancer 2.0 Di-D is a decent car and worth a look. If nothing else, it can bask in the glow emanating from the Evo X, which is a wholly extraordinary machine.

The Evo X builds on its predecessors' extraordinary roadholding and bombastic pace, adding a degree of civility lacking before, and letting its driver enjoy an even cleverer four-wheel drive system which makes sure each wheel always has exactly the right share of the engine's output to help the car do what it judges its driver wants. And if that means the tidiest, easiest, longest and most-controlled powerslide you have ever executed, then so be it.

Stuffed full of expensive technology and exotic materials, the Evo X starts at £27,499 and stops at £37,999. That's expensive for a Lancer or cheap for a BMW M3 rival, depending on your point of view. After driving these diverse Lancers, I await the Ralliart version with interest.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Mitsubishi Lancer 2.0Di-D

Price from £15,499. On sale now (4 door), Sept (5 door)

Engine: 1,968cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 229lb ft at 1,750rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 129mph, 0-62 in 9.6sec, 44.8mpg official average, CO2 165g/km

THE RIVALS

Ford Focus 2.0 TDCi: from £17,412. Recently facelifted, the Focus remains the best car in its class both to drive and to be in. There is a Focus four-door saloon, but hardly anyone buys it in the UK

Subaru Impreza 2.0R: from £14,995. An odd-looking five-door hatchback, but it retains flat-four engine and four-wheel drive. Interior still feels cheap and there's no diesel as yet

Volkswagen Jetta 2.0 TDI: from £17,682. Currently same engine as the Mitsubishi, but smoother and quieter in its VW home. Jetta is effectively a Golf with a four-door saloon rear half, so it's good

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