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20-Grand Smackdown

Mitsubishi Lancer Relliart vs. Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

Jun 19, 2004

You read Sport Compact Car. You drool. You look at your bank account. You cry. Join the crowd. Not everyone can afford an EVO or STi. Hell, most of us can't even afford a modified Civic. So, if your automotive fantasies are constantly being interrupted by your financial reality, then perhaps it's time to look elsewhere. And that's exactly what we've done this month.

Only a few rungs down the ladder from the bad boys, the kings of our automotive hill, are the 20-grand scrappers. Cars that can still be lots of fun to drive without being such a pain to pay for. Enter the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. Both make obvious claims to performance in their names alone. Any Nissan with the letters SE-R and Spec V together better damn well live up to the heritage that alphabet soup is known for. The Mitsu takes things a step further: Ralliart, the company known for building Mitsubishi's WRC cars, has a motorsports heritage long enough to make our heads spin. So, yes, there better be some fun hidden in these two machines somewhere.

The Sentra, you've seen before. We're fairly familiar with its antics and attitude. We've come to like the SE-R Spec V in the two years since its introduction the same way we like Pam Anderson wearing a cardboard box. There are some really good parts under there, but you've got to get past the ugly packaging to find them. And for 20 grand, it's an impressive list: six-speed gearbox, helical limited-slip differential, 17-inch wheels and relatively sticky 215/45 series tires and 12-inch rotors with four-piston Brembo calipers in front.

And then there's the engine. Sure, it's not a blown, boosted mill, but it makes the numbers. Nissan claims 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque from the all-aluminum, 2.5-liter four. Our dyno says 151 hp and 159 lb-ft. And the whole package can be yours, starting at $17,300. The Brembo brakes on our test car will run you another grand. The Lancer doesn't pack the same punch when it comes to hardware: five-speed gearbox, open differential, 16-inch wheels with 205/50 Goodyear RS-A tires and more conventional, single-piston brake calipers stopping 10.9-inch rotors up front.

The engine, however, has been updated. The single-overhead cam 4G69 uses Mitsubishi's MIVEC variable valve timing to make a claimed 162 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. On our dyno, the Lancer put down 157 hp and 155 lb-ft. Base price is $17,997.

There are other fundamentals which matter here as well. The Lancer has the Sentra beat when it comes to suspension. Both use MacPherson struts up front, but in the rear, the Lancer's multi-link setup is superior to the Sentra's twist-beam, Scott Russell-link contraption. Plus, intuition tells us the Lancer's platform will be more adept at handling serious driving. It's the base platform for the EVO, after all, which should give it some fundamental structure that's likely lacking in the Sentra's econobox platform.

There are other important points to be made looking at the specs: The Lancer is 133 pounds heavier (2,843 lbs. vs. 2,710 lbs.), and it's only larger in one dimension--length (180.5 in. vs. 177.5 in.). The Sentra is marginally wider and taller, but the Lancer has the advantage when it comes to interior dimensions with a larger, more usable rear seat. But we're not here to nitpick rear seat room. We're here to drive.

Wring out both cars and the results aren't exactly what we expect. Although the Lancer's fundamentals are there, Mitsubishi missed the mark when it came to outfitting the Lancer for the under-20-grand performance wars. The Sentra, which bounces and bobbles its way down any sort of twisty road, hands the Lancer its ass every time.

On real-world roads, it's clear this Sentra is the quicker of the two. Drive it hard and it's reasonably quick, putting the power down exiting corners and managing reasonable grip everywhere else. The limited slip, big tires and serious brakes do their jobs. But it could be better. It's as if these parts were thrown at the chassis with little thought about making them work together. The B15 chassis isn't the composed, graceful and willing partner we'd like. You've got to be a bit of a brute to make it go fast. Forget about smooth inputs, subtle adjustments and caressing it down the road. Get out your wrestling shoes because you're in the ring when you drive a Spec V hard.

But it's fun and it's adequately damped until either the driving or the road gets really silly--then you're on your own. Plan ahead for the bump stops or they'll instantly show you who's boss. And get ready to hit the rev limiter. With a low, 6200-rpm redline, close gears and plenty of grunt, you'll get familiar with it in a hurry. Still, it's fun and it certainly isn't slow. In other words, the Spec V gets the job done, even if it isn't pretty.

The Lancer, well, it doesn't really get the job done at all. In the real world, it's an understeer engineer's wet dream. We understand the need to design cars for least common denominator drivers, but this is silly. Every attempt we made, short of emergency brake intervention, to get the Lancer to rotate was met with understeer and more understeer. It's as if the God of Understeer himself declared the Lancer Ralliart the Prince of Tire-Shredding Insanity.

And it's underdamped. Sure, the Spec V has an occasional unwanted meeting with its bumpstops, but the Lancer makes this look like a good habit. Driven hard, the Lancer doesn't know any other way. It bounces like Janet Jackson at a halftime show. The engine is adequate, but the chassis was wholly incapable of putting down even 160 hp. Exit any corner under power and you produce enough tire smoke to get a job on a Hollywood sound stage. In fact, burnouts are a Lancer strongpoint. Good power, low gears and crappy tires combine to make editor Oldham smile all the way home.

If the Spec V is a scalpel, the Lancer Ralliart is a garden hoe. On the road the difference is that dramatic. We put both through our instrumented tests to see how they measured against each other in a more controlled environment. Acceleration goes to the Spec V. Never known as a friendly car to launch, it stutters and hops out of the hole as the front tires pound the tarmac searching for grip. The 1-2 shift produces a hiss as the engine twists in the chassis, temporarily pulling the exhaust system apart but, again, it gets the job done. Both front tires put down power and the Sentra breaks the traps in 15.2 seconds at 92 mph.

The Lancer also spins both tires out of the hole as grip is severely limited by the cheap rubber. Surprisingly, the lack of a limited slip doesn't make a huge difference in a straight line. The Lancer is slightly off the Spec V's pace at 15.5 seconds and 91.5 mph. Handling, no surprise here, also goes to the Spec V. It was a full 2 mph faster through the slalom (69.2 mph vs. 67.2 mph) than the Lancer. Interestingly, that's nearly 2 mph off the pace of this same Spec V the last time we tested it (SCC, April 2004), perhaps due to tire wear. It should be pointed out that the Spec V isn't a picture of grace through the slalom. It bounces from bumpstop to bumpstop in every transition, but thanks to decent grip and the ability to put power down, it always manages a respectable speed. The Lancer suffered similar issues with much less control, thanks to less grip and power transferred inconsistently to the ground through the open differential.

Watching engineering editor Coleman shove the Lancer around the skidpad is like witnessing a goat give birth to a turkey--painful to watch, but you're sure as hell not going to look away. When he returned, the verdict wasn't as bad as expected at .82g, but Coleman's commentary was telling.

"It makes you want to kill it. There's nothing you can do but suffer through its relentless pushing." The Sentra, beam axle and all, was better at .88g. Braking was a tough comparison. The Sentra's Brembos and larger rotors should have an advantage in both stopping power and heat capacity, but a lack of ABS on our test car took them away completely. In fact, the lack of ABS gave this test to the Lancer. It stopped shorter from both 60 and 80 mph by 10 and 11 feet, respectively.

So every instrumented test except braking goes to the Spec V. Over the road, the clear winner is the Spec V. The Lancer Ralliart wins our hearts for being slightly more practical, infinitely better looking and a whole lot more refined. But none of those qualities matter much if you're in this game to drive hard and have fun. So the Sentra gets the win. Has to. In a world where performance matters most, the Lancer, ironically, doesn't measure up

2004 NISSAN SENTRA SE-R SPEC V
Base Price : $17,300
Estimated Price as Tested : $19,190
Engine
Engine Code: QR25
Type: Inline four, aluminum block and head,
Valvetrain: DOHC, four valves per cylinder,
CVTC variable intake cam timing
Displacement: 2488 cc
Bore x Stroke: 89.0mmx100.0mm
Compression Ratio: 9.5:1
Claimed Crank Hp 175 hp
Claimed Crank Torque: 180 lb-ft
Measured Wheel Hp: 151 hp
Measured Wheel Torque: 159 lb-ft
Redline: 6200 rpm
DRIVETRAIN
transmission Six-speed manual
Gear Ratios
1: 3.153:1
2: 1.{{{944}}}:1
3: 1.392:1
4: 1.055:1
5: 0.809:1
6: 0.673:1
Final drive: 4.133:1
Redline: 6200 rpm
CHASSIS
Curb Weight:2710 lbs.
Weight Distribution F/R:{{{62}}}/38
Overall Length:177.5 in.
Wheelbase: 99.8 in.
Overall Width:67.3 in.
Track F/R: {{{57}}}.7 in./56.9 in.
Height: 55.5 in.
SUSPENSION
Front:MacPherson Struts, 22 mm anti-roll bar
Rear: Twist beam located by two
trailing links and one Scott- Russell lateral link
BRAKES
Front: 12.0-inch vented discs,
four- piston Brembo calipers, NISMO brake pads
Rear 10.9-inch solid discs,
single- piston sliding calipers, NISMO brake pads
Electronic Driving Aids/Inhibitors : Electronic throttle
WHEELS AND TIRES
Wheels:17 x 7-inch, 48-mm offset
Tires 215/45ZR-17 {{{Continental}}} Conti SportContact
PERFORMANCE
0-30 mph:2.8 sec.
0-60 mph: 7.2 sec.
Quarter-Mile Time: 15.2 sec.
Quarter-Mile Speed: 92 mph
HANDLING
Slalom Speed (700-ft. Slalom):69.2mph
Lateral Grip ({{{200}}}-ft. Skidpad): 0.88g.
BRAKING
60-0 Stopping Distance: 135ft. (no ABS)
80-0 Stopping Distance: {{{240}}} ft.(no ABS)
2004 MITSUBISHI LANCER RALLIART
Base Price : $17,997
Estimated Price as Tested : $19,972
Engine
Engine Code: 4G69
Type: Inline four, cast iron block and aluminum head,
Valvetrain: SOHC, four valves per cyclinder, MIVEC variable valve timing
Displacement: 2378 cc
Bore x Stroke: 87.0 x {{{100}}}.0
Compression Ratio: 9.5:1
Claimed Crank Hp 162 hp @ 5750 rpm
Claimed Crank Torque: 162 lb-ft @ {{{4000}}} rpm
Measured Wheel Hp: 157 hp @ 5800 rpm
Measured Wheel Torque: 155 lb-ft. @ 4100 rpm
Redline: 6500 rpm
DRIVETRAIN
Layout: Transverse front engine, front wheel drive
transmission five-speed manual
Gear Ratios
1: 3.583:1
2: 1.947:1
3: 1.379:1
4: 1.030:1
5: 0.820:1
Final drive: 4.058:1
Differential: open
CHASSIS
Curb Weight:2,843 lbs.
Weight Distribution F/R:62/38
Overall Length:180.5 in.
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Overall Width:66.8 in.
Track F/R: 57.9 in./57.9 in.
Height: 53.7 in.
SUSPENSION
Front:MacPherson struts with lower control arm, 26 mm anti-roll bar
Rear: Multi-link, upper and lower control arms, trailing link and toe-control link, anti-roll bar
BRAKES
Front: Single-piston floating calipers, 10.9-in. rotors
four- piston Brembo calipers, NISMO brake pads
Rear 1Single-piston floating calipers, 10.3-in. rotors
Electronic Driving Aids/Inhibitors :Electronic throttle
WHEELS AND TIRES
Wheels:16 x 6.0-in. alloy wheels
Tires 205/50-16 Goodyear {{{Eagle}}} RS-A
PERFORMANCE
0-30 mph:2.8 sec.
0-60 mph: 7.6 sec..
Quarter-Mile Time: 15.5 sec.
Quarter-Mile Speed: 91.5 mph
HANDLING
Slalom Speed (700-ft. Slalom):67.2 mph
Lateral Grip (200-ft. Skidpad): .82g
BRAKING
60-0 Stopping Distance: 125 ft.
80-0 Stopping Distance: 229 ft.

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