In my younger days I indulged my weakness for speed by driving muscle cars, but by 2010 I had become disillusioned with Detroit and wanted something Asian-engineered. I thought a highway cruiser might be appropriate to my advancing years, so I test-drove a Hyundai Genesis. But after I used an empty parking lot as an impromptu skid pad, the sales person told me he had a better idea. He put me in a Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart.
For those who do not know, this version of the rather boring Lancer used to be almost as fast as the sporty Evolution–but much cheaper. Its interior had a bargain-basement look, but the power train was basically the same as in the Evo: a 2-liter turbo with a dual-clutch semi-auto six-speed transmission controlled by paddle shifters. It was AWD, and could do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds despite a slow launch because of the clutch action.
At first I was skeptical, because I had driven the Ralliart’s primary competitor, a Subaru WRX. It was far too noisy and the ride was too rough. I felt it was shaking me and shouting at me, like: “You see! I can go fast! Very, very fast! Even around corners!”
The Mitsubishi was almost as fast and agile, but was civilized and discreet. It said, “Hey, I can zip around corners, or overtake that tourist in a motorhome on a mountain road, but I can also cruise all day without getting on your nerves. I’ll do whatever you want, and I won’t make a fuss about it.” This seemed a perfect compromise for me.
People in the sports fraternity were unimpressed. They wrote sneering reviews complaining that the suspension wasn’t stiff, the engine didn’t sound right, there was no option for a stick shift, the car was too heavy–and worst of all, it wasn’t an Evo.
Well, sure! Guilty is charged! But that was precisely why I wanted it. I have always liked peculiar cars, and the Ralliart satisfied that inclination, because–and this is the best part–it was available as a hatchback.
If I was going to drive fast, the last thing I wanted was a car that drew attention to itself. While some might prefer a fluorescent orange Camaro with racing stripes, 20-inch rims, and underbody LEDs, I preferred to be incognito.
I liked the idea of presenting myself as a polite, elderly gentleman in a plain white compact-sized family sedan with a hatchback. Bear in mind, Arizona police are not as hard-assed as their California cousins. They can be quite forgiving if you lack attributes that would profile you as a habitual miscreant. Just remember to stow the radar detector under the seat before you pull over, and the dialog can go something like this:
“Sir, do you know you were doing 25 miles an hour over the limit?”
“Are you sure? In this little car? I’m very sorry, I must have lost track of the speed.”
In the Ralliart, this could be true. It turned out to be so stable and well mannered, its speed was deceptive. My passengers, and the occasional guest driver, often thought it was doing 70 when it was doing 90. The worst offender was a female friend who simply refused to believe that the speedometer was accurate. She was an interesting character who took full advantage of Arizona’s relaxed attitude toward concealed carry, and also travelled with a huge commando knife that she sometimes pulled out to slice apples. “Maybe you should slow down a little here,” I would say to her, when she was approaching a notorious speed trap. “Highway Patrol is often just around this bend.”
She would shake her head. “You have to stop thinking so negatively.”
I have a theory that every car has its “natural” cruising speed, when it feels “just right.” The Ralliart gravitated to about 105, and on thinly populated stretches of Interstate 40 this seemed reasonable and prudent. At least, that’s how I felt about it. A few times I took it up to 140 when driving across the Mojave desert, and on one night around 1am, as I came over a hillcrest, I found myself face-to-face with a CHP cruiser parked on the median. Before either of us had time to react, I was on my way, and my Valentine One remained silent. This confirmed my long-standing theory that if you go fast enough, they don’t have time to use their instant-on radar.
The Ralliart would have been willing to exceed 140, but that seemed unwise, because the car was a realtime education that kinetic energy is an exponential function of speed. Even with its nice fat brake pads, slowing from 140 to 70 could take three times as long as slowing from 70 down to zero, because you have to dissipate three times as much heat. When coming up behind a truck overtaking another truck, this can be an issue.
As I entered into a fulfilling symbiosis with the Ralliart, two facts became inescapable. It was designed to go fast, and I wasn’t very good at preventing it from going fast. In an effort to cope with my lack of self discipline, I paid for a half-hour consultation with an attorney who listed himself as specializing in traffic tickets. I asked him what might happen to me if I was stopped for very excessive speed on I-40, bearing in mind that I had a totally clean driving record and enjoyed the safest possible rating with my insurance company. Could I face jail time? Loss of license? Huge fines?
His opinion was that in Mohave County, I might spend a night in jail, but elsewhere in California or Arizona on I-40, it would just be a fine and points. I wasn’t sure he really knew what he was talking about, but I decided to believe him anyway.
Thus I became complacent. Cruising between 100 and 110 began to seem so normal, I sometimes forgot that it was illegal. After I got home I would wonder–how much longer can I go on doing this? The radar detector saved me several times, and on a couple of occasions I managed to brake quickly enough to be found merely speeding, as opposed to driving like a maniac. I played the age card (being 65, caucasian, and polite really did seem to help), and only had to do traffic school once. But still, after driving the Ralliart for two years, I had to consider that no other vehicle had ever overtaken me on the open road. That was a lonely, vulnerable feeling.
With regret, I decided to quit while I was ahead. I traded in my Ralliart for another slightly unusual Mitsubishi, an Outlander, thinking that I could enjoy offroading as a substitute for speed. Quickly I discovered (a) the Outlander was pathetically inadequate for driving on dirt, despite its 4WD capability, and (b) I became less alert while driving it. Consequently, (a) I bent a rear axle on a hill-climb that I thought should have been no problem at all, and (b) a few weeks later, I was ticketed for 87 in a 65 zone. I had done traffic school less than two years previously, so I had to pay the first speeding ticket in my life. I was mortified. All because of a silly underpowered SUV!
Since the Outlander experiment had been a total failure, I decided I might as well get rid of it and buy another Ralliart. By this time the hatchback option had been discontinued, and the car had become so unpopular, only one was available in the whole of Arizona. Its color was red, and it had a big ugly spoiler on the back.
I removed the spoiler, which turned out to be a nonfunctional, hollow plastic shell, and paid a local body shop $200 to fill the bolt holes and respray the trunk lid. I hoped the car would now pass muster as a family sedan, but it never made me feel as incognito as the white hatchback. Eventually I sold it to the son of a friend, because I felt my reflexes were no longer quite as good as they used to be.
Maybe a 2010 Japanese hatchback seems an unlikely candidate as a curbside classic, but I would insist that it certainly *was* a classic. The model was only available for a couple of years, and everyone laughed at it. Doesn’t that sound like a classic to you?
For me, it was perfect: I could weave through the hairpin turns on Oak Creek Canyon while carrying a mountain bike and a week’s supply of groceries in the back, and if questioned, I could say with some
honesty, “Really? I must have lost track of the speed.”
I miss being incognito.