You’ve no doubt heard endless praise for both Subaru‘s wicked Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi‘s wild Lancer Evolution. It’s well-deserved. With an intoxicating mixture of monster horsepower and magical four-wheel-drive systems, these little rockets have hexed a generation of boy racers into spending more than thirty grand on what are, in essence, tarted-up, entry-level economy cars.
But what happens when the boy racer grows up? Subaru says he turns into Jason, a fictional character its marketing department has developed and affectionately refers to as the “affluent man-child.” Jason shares more than just his name with your humble author – at thirty-two, he’s the same age, also has no kids, watches little or no television, and works in a creative field. Jason must be newly interested in cushy refinement because, to ensure that their new 2008 STI and Evo models continue to appeal to him, Subaru and Mitsubishi have kept the same blistering performance recipe – about 300 turbocharged horsepower and four-wheel drive – but added lots more everyday livability and convenience features.
They’ve added a lot more price, too. In fact, both cars, when fully loaded, come perilously close to the base price of a certain BMW, the 335xi – the car that Jason will surely want in another few years, when he grows from affluent man-child into affluent man. Although you might not realize it, the BMW is similar in size to the Japanese cars, and its powertrain cauldron is cooking up the same ingredients: a turbocharged, 300-hp engine and four-wheel drive.
You now understand the meaning of that WWJD bumper sticker you keep seeing. It symbolizes the painful emotional dilemma that faces every boy racer as he begins the long, introspective journey into adulthood. Evo, STI, or 3-series? What Would Jason Do?
To answer that question, Jason (your author) rounded up all three cars and a few leadfooted staffers and flogged them mercilessly (the cars, not his coworkers) around Southern California.
Visually, the 335xi is the grown-up of the group, devoid of deep spoilers, fender flares, clear taillights, and wings. Under its bulgeless, scoopless hood lies BMW’s power-house 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged in-line six. On the way to its 7000-rpm redline, the screaming six produces the thrust of 300 horses and a tenor crescendo that echoes off mountains a half mile away. By using two small turbochargers, BMW eliminated a great deal of potential lag – major oomph is available instantaneously, regardless of where the tachometer needle is pointed.
Our test car’s $47,100 sticker price was considerably higher than that of a $41,575 base 335xi because it included various options that don’t affect performance – and that the other two cars don’t have. So, for the purposes of this comparison, we will ignore the metallic paint, the leather seats, the keyless starting system, the Bluetooth, and the cold-weather package. Equipped with only the sport package and the eighteen-inch wheel-and-tire upgrade, our 335xi would cost $43,075. Yes, that’s a lot of dough, although the top-spec STI isn’t much cheaper: our 2008 WRX STI test vehicle shocked us with its $39,440 price tag. Subtract the optional BBS wheels and navigation, though, and the STI drops to $35,640. The two cars’ equipment levels are similar (for example, both cars have high-intensity-discharge headlights and six-speed manual transmissions) but the Subaru’s lower price is partially offset by missing standard 335xi features such as a sunroof and dual-zone climate control.
The Subaru’s 2.5-liter flat-four engine belts out 305 hp in one huge explosion, pulling so frantically toward its 6700-rpm redline that its engineers wisely installed a beeper to notify the driver that it’s time to shift. Still, we hit the rev limiter constantly. While the flat four never creates a symphony like the BMW in-line six, it’s smooth and pleasing to the ears, no matter how fast it’s turning.
The Evo X’s raucous in-line four, on the other hand, could wake the dead. Inside the car, it sounds like a blender. Outside, a jet helicopter. It builds power more progressively than the STI – to a peak of 291 hp – and pulls frantically all the way to its rev limiter. You’ll never be surprised by the rev limiter, though – the engine is so vocal that you don’t even need to look at the tach. You will be checking the gauges, however, to see if the engine is still running when you’re trying to take off gently up a steep hill: the Evo’s 2.0-liter engine – the smallest in the group – is powerless off idle. To complicate things, the Evo’s clutch fills the air with the scent of burnt lining after even moderate slippage, so slow starts on steep grades are a tricky proposition involving lots of throttle, a modicum of revs, and a measured dose of patience.
There would have been no such eau de clutch issue had we tested a Lancer Evo MR, whose dual-clutch automatic uses wet clutches. The MR – which we expect will start at about $38,000 – includes gorgeous, forged BBS wheels, two-piece brake rotors, Alcantara seats, Bilstein dampers, and additional sound deadening. Its higher price and equipment level would have made it an ideal choice for this test if it were available with a manual transmission.
We chose the basic Evo GSR, however, because, like the BMW and the Subaru, it has three pedals and a stick shift. With a sticker price of only $33,615, it arrived sans all of the MR features and without many items that the other two cars had – the HID headlights, a satellite radio, and a sixth cog in its transmission, to name a few. On the positive side, its back seat is roomier than those in the STI and the 3-series. That’s important to note, because not much will fit in the tiny trunk.
Once you’re behind the wheel of a Lancer Evolution, though, practical concerns like trunk space are secondary. We declared the previous Evo to be one of the most throttle-adjustable street cars we’ve driven, but the new one is even better. Ironically, the lack of cargo space is the price you pay for that increased maneuverability – various rear suspension and Active Yaw Control differential components live where cases of beer would normally fit in the trunk. The Evo’s driveline computers shuffle power effectively through the three differentials to diminish understeer, and as a result, the Evo pirouettes like a ballerina any time you twist the steering wheel.
Perfectly accurate, although not particularly communicative, the Evo’s steering is geared so quickly that it makes the 3580-pound sedan feel like a go-kart. Maintaining a quick pace on mountain roads requires lots of concentration – it’s so eager to drift that we tended to leave the stability control turned on during very fast sections. Mitsubishi‘s engineers kept the first four gears very short and closely spaced to help ensure the availability of thrust on the way out of slow corners, but with only five gears to work with and the need for a high-speed top gear, the ratio drop from fourth to fifth is enormous. Nevertheless, the Evo’s engine is in wailing range at highway speeds, making long interstate trips less enjoyable.
On the same roads at the same pace, the driver of an STI will have a much lower pulse rate. The Evo’s primal scream is replaced by a distant, mellow, flat-four thrum. Instead of the Evo’s tail-happy, tame-me-if-you-can chassis, the Subaru provides complete directional confidence. The STI can maintain the same pace, but whereas the Evo’s driver is busy calculating the yaw-angle consequences of changing road camber, surface-grip levels, and frost heaves, the STI driver is enjoying the ultrashort throws of the bolt-action shifter and the seemingly endless range of suspension travel. Stability control? We never much cared whether it was on or off, knowing that the STI’s rump would never step out.
Although the Subaru is 220 pounds lighter than the Mitsubishi, more of its mass is concentrated in the front, and it feels less willing to change direction. Its steering is very precise but much slower than that of the Evo, and it offers no more feedback. Unless you count nasty kickback over midcorner bumps, that is.
On interstate stretches, the STI’s longer top gear and mellow engine make for much more relaxed cruising. Its cabin is a nicer place to be for long periods of time, thanks to higher quality materials, a smoother ride, and lower noise levels. (Even the Evo MR isn’t as quiet and smooth on the highway as the STI.) The Subaru’s elegant, twin-cockpit dashboard design makes even the BMW’s look somber.
The second you climb into the BMW, however, you realize that you’ve just graduated from T-ball straight to the major leagues. Everything your fingers touch feels twice as expensive – and while the BMW is lacking in visual verve, looks can be deceiving. Take the sport seats, for example, which look as if they’re nowhere near as supportive as the big-bolstered buckets in the other cars. In fact, the 3-series’ bolsters are electrically adjustable and will hold you just as tightly.
With the proverbial twist of the key (the BMW uses a start button), discussions about the slight acceleration differences between the STI and the Evo are immediately silenced. The 335xi’s engine displaces 50 percent more cubic centimeters than the Evo’s and 20 percent more than the STI’s. With 50 percent more cylinders than either – and 100 percent more turbo-chargers – the BMW beats both of the Japanese cars in a straight line.
From a standing start, the 3-series was merely a bit quicker than the other two cars, but in real-world driving it’s significantly faster. The Evo’s engine slowly comes alive from 3000 rpm; the STI’s wakes up suddenly at 4000 rpm. The BMW, however, is always alert, achieving peak boost (and peak torque) at 1400 rpm – and it pulls hard all the way to 7000 rpm. Around town, it feels twice as powerful as either four-cylinder, and on the highway, it simply walks away from both.
The 335xi’s shifter throws are neither as precise nor as short as the other cars’, but its clutch engagement and electronic throttle control are so well-matched that you’ll execute every shift perfectly without even trying. BMW fits its all-wheel-drive 3-series models with a slower steering ratio, but what the rack lacks in quickness, it makes up for in feedback. Its steering system transmits constant messages about the road surface to your fingertips, loading up naturally as you turn in.
The 335xi’s operatic engine and prodigious steering feedback keep its driver as involved as the Evo’s but with a dose of the STI driver’s confidence. BMW doesn’t install its sport suspension on all-wheel-drive cars, but the 335xi offers a blend of the silky ride quality and remarkable body control typical of other 3-series. Not surprisingly, tail-out antics are not easily accomplished in this all-wheel-drive Bimmer. Trail-braking causes it to push wide, whereas the Japanese cars’ sophisticated, rally-bred chassis computers help them rotate. Regardless, the 3-series is always able to keep up with the others on back roads, its relative lack of absolute grip negated by the additional grunt from the big engine’s broad torque curve.
Cruising at high speeds in the 3-series is, as you’d expect, a nonevent compared with the STI and the Evo. Triple-digit speeds happen as if by accident. The 335xi, despite having the largest engine and the best acceleration times, also has the highest EPA highway fuel-economy ratings.
Although their performance credentials are both impressive, the STI and the Evo couldn’t be more different in personality. The Evo’s high-energy, manic nature is in stark contrast to the Subaru‘s relaxed, refined demeanor. Yet the STI’s understeer is no match against the Evo’s sophisticated yaw dance. In cornering agility, the Evo has advanced from the modified compact-sedan realm into hard-core sports car territory. As the crudest, most aggressive car in this trio, it stays truer to the boy-racer ideal in both price and performance.
Some enthusiasts, though, will always view the pair as sub-$20,000 economy cars with $20,000 in upgrades, no matter their performance chops. A few years back, both the STI and the Evo were fantastic bargains at about $30,000. However, as these Japanese rally cars creep up in price, more and more boy racers will understandably stretch their budgets and look toward Germany. That’s what this particular boy racer named Jason would do.
Click here for video of this comparison test.
Techtonics: Differential Equations
By Don Sherman
After two decades fiddling with every conceivable type of mechanical differential in their WRC-inspired sport sedans, Mitsubishi and Subaru are both moving aggressively toward active (electronically controlled) limited-slip devices. As the spec panels on the right show, basic open differentials have gone the way of the buggy whip.
BMW’s xDrive system is an apt reference in this comparison test, because it bridges the gap between old and new. The old parts in the 335xi are a simple transfer case serving as the center differential and open front and rear diffs. These seemingly outdated components work acceptably well because they’re backstopped by electronic circuits. A computer-controlled transfer-case clutch sets the share of torque dispatched to the 335xi’s front wheels. Automatic one-wheel brake applications by the ABS help both axles behave as if they were fitted with limited-slip differentials.
Our cornering tests revealed a significant performance edge attributable to the Mitsubishi Evo’s new Active Yaw Control system. Two computer-controlled clutches in the rear differential open or close on cue to help the car rotate (yaw) about its vertical axis. This approach proved very effective at curbing understeer and maximizing midcorner speed.
While electronically regulated differentials and cockpit adjustments are handy tools, neither negates all-wheel drive’s dirty little secret: ordinary rear-wheel drive usually delivers superior dry-pavement handling. One reason is that every car engineered for public roads understeers (runs out of front-tire grip) at the limit. The most expedient means of diminishing understeer, and thereby elevating performance, is to allow the front tires to devote all of their adhesion to cornering (none to propulsion). The second reason is that skilled drivers generally prefer to command the front of the car with the steering wheel and the rear of the car with throttle adjustments; all-wheel drive muddies this strategy.
So why do Mitsubishi and Subaru continue racing for all-wheel-drive superiority? Two reasons: First, both the Evo and the STI spring from front-wheel-drive genes, and all-wheel drive is a notch higher in the performance pecking order. Second, no one drives exclusively on smooth, dry pavement; when the road is rough or slippery, all-wheel drive is more likely than any alternative to get you home quickly and safely.
- BMW 335xi
- Evolution GSR
- WRX STI
- Primary F/R Torque Split
- Limited-slip Differentials
- Open (brake application)
- Helical gear
- Helical gear
- Transfer case clutch
- Mechanical and electronic
- Open (brake application)
- Electronic (one clutch per wheel)
- Torsen gear
- Center-Differential Adjustments in Cockpit
- 3 modes
- 3 modes, plus 6 degrees of locking