Misubishi will need to further fine-tune its Lancer Sportback Ralliart if it ever hopes to give the Golf GTI a run for its money

On a map of European preferences for Mitsubishis, there's a strong north-south divide. Drivers in northern countries like the Colt supermini while, in the south, they think only of pick-ups and 4x4s. The UK, on this map, is a southern state.

Model: Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart
Price: £21,500 approx. On sale from January
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 240bhp at 6,000rpm, 253lb ft at 2,550-4,725rpm
Transmission: six-speed sequential gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 143mph, 0-62 in 7.0sec, 28.3mpg official average, CO2 238g/km

The Lancer range is designed to bridge the divide. And it's likely that most of the Lancers bought by Europeans will be the new five-door Sportback. The adaptation from the four-door was done by Mitsubishi's Frankfurt studio from which emerged, in 2005, the very elegant Concept Sportback show car. The final production version is a good deal chunkier, with squarer edges and dated-looking door frames in place of the show car's racy, frameless door windows. But it's still striking because that's how Mitsubishi, still a relatively low-volume company in Europe, will get its cars noticed.

That the Lancer exists at all is impressive, given that it was developed while the Mitsubishi Motor Corporation was on the edge of financial ruin following its divorce from the former DaimlerChrysler. The legacy of that collaboration is that the Lancer shares many underskin components with several Chrysler products, including the Jeep Compass and the Dodge Caliber. Those cars also use the Mitsubishi "world engine" which powers the remarkable Lancer Evo X, whose fastest UK-specific version emits 360bhp.

There won't be a Sportback Evo because history says Evos should be four-door saloons. But the Sportback, a name which Mitsubishi and Audi have agreed to share, is to be offered as a hot-hatchback rival to a Ford Focus ST or a Golf GTI. In this form it has an engine that is merely powerful, at 240bhp, rather than the Evo's slightly mad menu which starts at 295bhp and is known by the name of Mitsubishi's high-performance arm, Ralliart.

Unlike those European rivals, the Sportback Ralliart has four-wheel drive. It's similar to the Evo X's system, minus the "active yaw control" which in the Evo apportions exactly the right amount of power to each rear wheel. The Ralliart looks like an Evo too, complete with air vents on the bonnet. That said, it has a regular Lancer's slender wheel arches and lacks the Evo's oversize Brembo brakes. Think of it as an "Evo Lite". Inside, it's almost the same as an Evo. That means a depressing acreage of hard plastics.

The Ralliart has, as standard, the DSG-type, sequential-shift, double-clutch transmission – here called SST – which is offered as an Evo option. And so a racy scene is set as I head into some twisty, hilly roads beyond the Barcelona launch venue. This should be a hot hatch.

First impression: it rides very tidily over bumps, suggesting a supple, fluid demeanour. Next impression: where are the 240 horses? That amount of turbocharged power should feel stronger. It almost feels as though it's holding back. Some strange gear ratios don't help. Good thing there are six gears and the SST transmission, actuated by levers either side of the steering column, gives a near-instant shift that's usually very smooth.

Maybe it will take corners with an Evo's keenness, then. Not quite; it feels much more nose-heavy. To be fair, these Ralliarts are early examples and there is still some fine-tuning to do. This could be a great car, but for now a Golf GTI is more satisfying.

Most Lancer Sportbacks, though, won't be Ralliarts. They'll be the regular front-wheel-drive cars with 1.8-litre petrol or 2.0-litre, VW-engined diesel engines, or later on Mitsubishi's new 1.8 diesel. Or they will be the entry-level car with a 1.5-litre, 109bhp petrol engine. Light in the nose and simple in its mechanical make-up, it's a satisfying drive, despite its modest pace and boomy motorway cruise. Less is more, as is so often the case.


Ford Focus ST, 5-dr: £18,850
A five-cylinder, 2.5-litre, 224bhp Volvo engine gives the fastest Focus a cultured, easy pace. It feels nose-heavy, but looks good and is painless to own.

Subaru Impreza WRX: £20,095
Lancer's historic arch-rival, here with a 2.5-litre, 230bhp version of unusual flat-four engine and four-wheel drive. Plasticky interior, soft-edged demeanour. Unremarkable.

Volkswagen Golf GTI, 5dr: £21,315
The least power here (200bhp), but a turbocharged, direct-injection engine is a responsive joy and the whole handsome car gels beautifully. Still the best choice.

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