R is for radical

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am


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Here's another one of those boy-racer cars that's as flashy as it is quick. Ranged against the Ford Fiesta ST, Mitsubishi's souped-up Ralliart R has similar, out-there performance, yet it's even more keenly priced than Ford's pocket rocket.

Tweaked and tuned by Ralliart, Mitsubishi's motor sport and tuning division (best known for prepping its Lancer World Rally Championship cars), the R is a radical departure from the standard hatchback - a Colt on Viagra, if you will.

Some of the specs about the R make you blink when you read them, and you can't help but notice them behind the wheel, either.

The Ralliart is light - just 1,140kg - and has an intercooled and turbocharged 1.5-litre engine that delivers 154 horsepower at 6,000rpm, with a lot of torque coming on stream through the mid-ranges of the gears. As a result, it's seriously fast, and possibly unbeatable at speeds over 70km/h by most other hot hatches around.

The Fiesta ST is faster off the starting line and has more initial dash, but the Ralliart seems to have longer legs - it keeps pulling through the lower ratios to deliver a surprisingly meaty performance on such a small set of wheels.

The Version-R is about as boy-racer-friendly as they come, but arguably more subtle than the ST if you opted for Ford's body kit and central stripe. The Colt could almost pass for an innocuous compact if it wasn't for the oversized Mitsubishi Evo-style bonnet air-intake, customised front grille, single rear exhaust and spoiler.

From the inside it's even more obvious that Ralliart took its revamp seriously, installing front Recaro bucket seats (real ones - you'll need them) and a black-and-red dash that harks back to the excesses of hot hatches of the 1980s, such as the Golf GTI and the Peugeot 205 GTi.

Ralliart has gone all out to tweak the handling and chassis, too. The Version-R comes loaded with a lot of the tricks that help keep Mitsubishi's uber-car, the Evo, firmly on the ground - customised stiffened suspension, ventilated disc brakes and 16-inch alloys.

There's a lot of bang for your buck with straight-through acceleration accompanied by light, pin-sharp cornering and G-force-inducing braking.

The R behaves like a mini-Evo wearing its sensible hat: floor the accelerator and you'll be amazed how fast it takes off. There's no turbo lunge, as you'd expect from an Impreza, but a very rapid wind-up to 110km/h that makes you a little edgy as you hit the red line - the Ralliart just doesn't stop accelerating.

And all this speed and handling comes for less than HK$50,000 more than the list price of the standard Colt hatchback. It's fun, it's fast and, just like the Fiesta ST, feels pretty bonded to the road.

But it can't be perfect, surely? Side-by-side with the Fiesta, the R loses out to the HK$185,000 Ford on several counts. The five-door Mitsubishi may have more rear passenger space than the ST, but it's arguably not as sexy in terms of styling (especially if you don't buy into that 80s red-and-black look) and the three-door Fiesta looks more like a true hot hatch.

As good as the transmission was (and the auto box in the Version-R does a great job of working through the gears), there's nothing to beat a manual gear change, especially in a car trading on its racing heritage.

And finally, the Ford feels better put-together. It's perhaps not as light on its feet as the Mitsubishi, but it's more solid on the road and the steering is less twitchy.

All this said, Ralliart deserves full marks for turning a rather ordinary city runabout into something pretty special - a mini-Evo that won't scare your bank manager.