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Euro-styled Mitsu arrives

Why can’t more passenger cars be built like the Sportback?

That is the question after scoping out the newest member of the Mitsubishi Lancer family. The stylish 2010 Sportback is pleasing to view and its ability to, with catlike reflexes, transport five passengers and/or plenty of what-have-you provides a level of versatility that places it ahead of its sedan counterparts. Who could ask for more?

Whether for aesthetic reasons or a terminal case of entrenched conservatism, hatchback models tend to lag in popularity when compared with more traditional three-box (engine, cabin, trunk) body styles. One theory is that collectively we tend to be all-or-nothing consumers who will consider purchasing a traditional sedan or a squared-off wagon-shaped vehicle, but shy away from something in between.

That’s a shame since the Sportback proves you can mix poise and practicality in one neat package. Mitsubishi first introduced the Lancer hatchback body style in Europe, where it’s practically mandatory for automakers to offer at least one or more hatched models. At one time they were almost exclusively the domain of small, inexpensive econo-cars, but now a number of upscale builders, notably Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Porsche, have them on the road or in the pipeline.

The Sportback is virtually identical to the sedan version from the nose to the back doors. At that point, the roofline and hatch door have conspired to reshape the rear end, significantly changing the Lancer’s appearance in the process. From its backside, the view is less formal, but definitely sportier, helped along by a nifty spoiler that likely was added as much for styling purposes and to provide rear-passenger sun protection as it was for aerodynamic purposes.

The Sportback adopts the sedan’s roomy, nicely appointed passenger compartment, but nearly doubles that model’s stowage room, even with the 60/40 split rear seats in place. When they’re folded flat by activating the handy quick-release handles, the load area increases to 47 cubic feet, which is slightly more real estate than in a Subaru Impreza, but less than in a Dodge Caliber or Toyota Matrix.

Trim levels mirror the sedan’s top two tiers, which means that base-equipment levels are somewhat more than baselike. All models come with the expected power amenities such as climate control, 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels and seven airbags, including one that helps safeguard the driver’s knees.

The GTS arrives with a 168-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine matched to a five-speed manual transmission. The optional continuously variable automatic unit has a mode that allows the driver to select from six stepped ratios, which simulates manual operation.

For more serious fun (yes, the oxymoron fits), the Ralliart sets you up with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant inspired by the ferocious Lancer Evolution. But where the Evo’s rally-ready 2.0 spools out some 300 horsepower, the version installed in the Ralliart is rated at a more modest 237 due to a smaller turbo and more restrictive intake manifold.

It also comes with an Evo-based six-speed automated manual transmission that delivers near-instantaneous upshifts and downshifts with the use of paddle shifters. Like many other such manual transmissions, there is no clutch pedal. If preferred, the transmission can be put into an automatic mode.

The Ralliart also has full-time all-wheel-drive that allows the driver to adjust the torque split between the front and rear wheels according to three different settings: Tarmac (dry pavement), gravel and snow. Adding to the sporty image, the Ralliart comes with a vented aluminum hood, Recaro brand sport-bucket seats, aluminum pedals and both stability and traction control to assist in keeping the Sportback under control in slippery situations.

Whatever version your credit limit will allow, the Lancer Sportback’s impressive packaging, reasonable sub-$20,000 base price and spirited driving potential make it a worthy compact contender. Who knows, it could even make you hatchback convert.

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