Second in space, first on the moon.
Through rural Kentucky's dappled afternoon sunlight, over humpback, switchback, no-turning-back two-lanes, the simple genius of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution seduced all who belted themselves in. Forget that, as of this writing, the 2004 Evolution is already half a year old. Like all legitimately masterful cars, the Evo seems more youthful every time you drive it. Some inexplicable, age-defying alchemy is stirred up by its linkages, firing pistons, and brake calipers, and so the impact of the driving experience is always undiminished. This makes the Evolution not just our 2004 Automobile of the Year but also very likely the automotive icon of the decade.
Although a few cars came close to the Evo in our AOY voting--the Mazda RX-8, the Cadillac CTS V, the Porsche 911 GT3, and the Audi A8L all had their fans--nothing came close on the street. Our New York bureau chief, Jamie Kitman, put it this way: "The Evo has all the power one could use on a Kentucky backroad, with all the tools to deploy it, which you can't say about a lot of cars, even some of the greats we tested. So fast, such brakes, so much roadholding."
The speed Kitman alludes to puts the Evo in perspective. It storms to 60 mph in an unbroken rush of turbocharged power, hitting the mark in 5.1 seconds (according to testing done for our June 2003 issue). It is in some astoundingly expensive company. Aside from the competitively stickered Subaru WRX STi, which lacks the Evo's X-factor, all the other cars in the five-seconds-or-less category start at around $50,000. M3, E55, RS6, 911 Turbo, Modena, Gallardo--the Evo is a bantam among heavyweights.
Proof is that you won't have an aneurysm if a stray shopping cart makes contact with an Evo door. It is both a reasonable everyday sedan and a supercar. Gorge yourself on its contradictions: It costs a mere $30,000. Its proving ground was the WRC rallying circuit. It seats four. There is enough headroom for a helmet. It has a four-wheel-drive system but relatively little corruption of steering feel. Despite all its dualities, associate editor Joe DeMatio correctly states that the little Mitsubishi sedan "unapologetically, uncompromisingly, unequi-vocally provides the most performance for the money of any car in the world."
Yet the Evo is not without fault. Because of the tight packaging of the turbo's intercooler (it is wedged behind the front bumper), there is little room for a bigger one and therefore little tuning headroom on the cars, meaning that you won't see any 500-horsepower Evos marauding your city's streets at night. Depending on your station in life, this might be a good thing. A bigger issue is the extreme buzziness of the 271-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Long trips, we've noticed, can be tedious, and were it not for the car's extremely supportive seats, most long-haul Evo drivers would exit the highway and power-slide directly into the lush confines of their nearest mental hospital.
There is an undeniable yet welcome coarseness to this car, a sharpness that hasn't been dulled by the inevitable regulatory processes and focus groups that break the spirit of an automobile. The Evo has survived with its rallying essence intact. There are few competition-bred cars--even production-based ones--that have made the transition from the rally stage or racetrack to the road as seamlessly as the Evo. Only the aborted Le Mans racer now known as the Porsche Carrera GT and the stealth F1 car called the Ferrari Enzo lay their cubic-dollar racing technology on the street with the same authority. The big difference is that the Mitsubishi is affordable and usable once it gets there.
It's an authenticity that is palpable from the driver's seat. The Evo feels nervous and twitchy and pulsingly alive when you're hustling it down a road. But as soon as the cut-slick tires break traction, a funny thing happens. Everything slows down. The steering, formerly so quick and volatile, becomes acute and precise, like the volume knob on a McIntosh tuner. Once loaded up, the chassis transmits its highs and lows as if it were a handbuilt studio monitor. The Evo's transparency and clarity allow it to get loose without ever feeling out of control; its driver can use all the messages streaming into the cabin to correct the car's line--not only with the steering wheel but also with the throttle and the brakes. Rally drivers, around whose every corner lurks ice, gravel, or unexpected landscaping, have always been afforded these added dimensions of control, but this is the first time anyone with $30,000 has had access to the high plateau of vehicle dynamics.
That Mitsubishi makes such a car may seem bewildering to those of us who haven't spent the last few years sauteing our brains in front of Sony PlayStation consoles. To most car enthusiasts, Mitsubishi is primarily a manufacturer of television sets. How has it come to crank out this solo of purest speed metal amid the elevator music of its current lineup? And if the Evo is just a happy fluke of Mitsu's rally program, why are we giving it our most grandiose prize?
The Automobile of the Year award honors, variously, the most significant, the most groundbreaking, or simply the most fun-to-drive vehicle of a given model year. Even the craftiest PR flack would have a hard time arguing that the Evo is significant for anyone other than Mitsubishi and the several thousand enthusiasts per year who will buy one. It isn't all that groundbreaking, either. In fact, Subaru showed far more chutzpah in bringing its rally-born WRX here two years ago than did Mitsubishi, which waited. But as assistant online editor Mike Austin put it, "The Evo may have been second in space, but it's the first on the moon." The Evo's importance and its daring are contained in its driving dynamics. Indeed, all debate about its significance is silenced by a well-laid piece of road, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and a good driver at the controls.
The Evolution RS is the version that hides a dirty little secret.
While most consider underwear a basic necessity, more rebellious types prefer the feeling of going without--a feeling of being unhindered, of being comfortable with less. Regular Lancer Evolutions are outrageous performance cars that have a few basic creature comforts, but, compared with the lightweight RS version, there's still a layer between sheetmetal and mechanicals that keeps things from getting too raw. Shamelessly unfettered, the new RS version of the Lancer Evolution is a stripped-down, uninhibited Evolution that makes more of having to wear less.
The 700 or so RSs that Mitsubishi plans to build this year will appeal to performance enthusiasts on a budget, weekend racers, and import-car tuners. In the interest of weight loss, the RS lacks air conditioning, sound-deadening material, trunk carpeting, a radio and speakers, vanity mirrors, and power windows, mirrors, and locks. The RS sneaks in at less than $27,000, but that means you'll have to say goodbye to xenon lights, the monster deck-lid spoiler, anti-lock brakes, and painted exterior mirrors and door handles. After all the deletions, 88 pounds of flab that you didn't realize existed are gone. For those who can't do without air conditioning or power everything, the optional Urban Jungle package includes them.
Mechanically, the only difference between the RS and its heavier brother is a front helical-type limited-slip differential; regular Evolutions have an open device. Driven back-to-back with a regular Evolution on the two-and- a-half-mile road course at Willow Springs in California, the RS had more traction upon turn-in, better acceleration out of corners, and less understeer. The 271-horsepower, turbocharged in-line four is unchanged in the RS, but Mitsubishi has hinted at more power for future RSs. If you can live with fewer creature comforts, the RS is a smart way to get into the Evolution. But remember, without underwear or ABS, skid marks could be a problem. --Tony Quiroga