Let’s Get Dirty

Scientists can’t classify it as an element, but soil is one of the few substances on this planet we simply cannot live without. Foliage and food sources spring from it, our modern world is built atop of it, and arguably, it provides the basis for one of the most entertaining forms of motorsport ever created: rallying.

No, it doesn’t have the multi-million dollar presence of NASCAR (at least not here in the U.S.), but the idea of flogging a production-based vehicle over roads and trails is quickly gaining popularity with audiences across the world. Who can blame them? The sight of an all-wheel-drive monster sliding through a dirt turn deep in a forest is exciting, even to those who have never heard of a “killer B.”

If the expansion of rally racing has you itching to play in the dirt with something other than the rusted Tonka toys of your childhood, listen up. Remarkably, no fewer than three automakers presently offer street legal models priced under the $40,000 mark that can be slid through a special stage or used as a daily driver.

Which production vehicle strikes the balance between road and rally car? Read on to find out.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
Price: $39,735
Pros: Handling that’s sharp as a diamond, brutal power delivery
Cons: Dual-clutch gearbox occasionally finicky, lack of cargo space

Mitsubishi’s compact Lancer sedan has been dominating rally events since the mid-1970s, but few have been as sharp, agile, or as powerful as the current tenth-generation Lancer Evolution.

Just like your local ice cream store, Mitsubighi offers the Evolution in several different flavors. Although a new Special Edition model for 2011 allows buyers to partake in Mitsubishi’ six-speed dual-clutch gearbox on the cheap, we’re still somewhat smitten by the high-trim MR. Not only is its $39,735 price tag aligned with two other competitors, but it sports a few tweaks that enhance its position as an incredible rally weapon.

All Lancer Evolutions make use of the same turbocharged, DOHC, sixteen-valve 2.0-liter I-4. According to Mitsubishi, the forced-induction four-banger is good for 291 horsepower at 6500 rpm, and 300 pound-feet of torque at4000 rpm. We believe it — once the boost comes on, the 4B11 engine pulls like a runaway freight train, firmly shoving your spine against the form-fitting Recaro front buckets.

Power is nothing, however, without control. Mitsubishi directs that power to all four wheels via its S-AWC all-wheel-drive system, which can split power not only between the front and rear axles, but also vector torque to the inside and outside wheels, helping the car rotate during cornering. Drivers can adjust how the system reacts on different surfaces at the push of a button; pre-programmed settings adjust the center differential, ABS, and stability control for optimized performance on tarmac, gravel, and snow.

The six-speed dual-clutch transmission is an equally interesting bit of technology, but it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. In manual mode, the gearbox is superb, as shifts, triggered by column-mounted paddles, are performed in milliseconds. When placed in automatic mode, however, the transmission isn’t as refined — gear changes can sometimes be abrupt and harsh, and we occasionally found the transmission hunting for the right gear.

We’ve often lauded Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution for laser-sharp handling, but the MR takes things even further by adding firmer Bilstein struts and stiffer Eibach springs. 18-inch forged aluminum wheels are sourced from BBS, and their light weight helps reduce unsprung mass. As in the Evolution GSR, the MR’s four-wheel disc brake system is sourced from Brembo, but MR cars receive two-piece front rotors with aluminum centers.

All these ingredients add up to one impressive performance sedan, but living with the car in the real world isn’t always easy. Sure, there’s room for four adults, but they had better not bring much luggage with them. The Lancer Evo’s trunk holds a scant 6.9 cubic feet of cargo, and a fixed rear bulkhead (which houses the battery and the wiper fluid reservoir) means there’s no way of expanding that space into the cabin.

Subaru Impreza WRX STI
Price: $33,690
Pros: Configurable driveline, extra cargo space
Cons: Power delivery feels flaccid, over-boosted steering

Ironically, evolution is a term that aptly describes Subaru’s hottest street legal rally machine, the Impreza WRX STI. After witnessing a barrage of different special-edition models launch globally in 2010, Subaru announced it would substantially revamp the car for the 2011 model year.

Although we weren’t able to get seat time in a 2011 STI for this review, we did drive a 2010 STI Special Edition. Although it eschews some of the luxurious standard features of a normal STI (including leather seating, a 10-speaker audio system, automatic A/C), a Subaru spokesperson tells us the suspension tuning, cribbed from the Japanese-market Spec C model, is a good preview of the new 2011 model.

If that’s the case, expect the 2011 STI to be a vast improvement over a standard 2010 model, which erred on the side of soft. Although the STI Special Edition still offers a compliant ride, body motions are kept largely in check, thanks to stiffer front springs, firmer rear dampers, and a thicker rear sway bar. Steering, however, continues to be quick but over-boosted, and doesn’t offer as much feedback as the Evo’s setup.

On paper, the 305 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque supplied by the STI’s turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer-four-cylinder eclipses the Evolution, but unless you flip the right switch, you may not know it. Drivers can dial their car from mild to wild thanks in part to the Si-Drive controller, which adjusts both the engine computer and electronic throttle to control power, torque, and throttle tip-in. The so-called intelligent setting is quite sedate, but power junkies need only crank the dial past Sport and over to Sport Sharp, which unleashes the boxer four’s full potential.

The driver has an equal amount of say over the all-wheel-drive system. Like Mitsubishi, Subaru allows you to tailor the driveline to road conditions, but the STI allows for additional precision in those adjustments. The automatic setting for the center differential may be fine for most, but select Auto (-) Sports, and you’ll find the torque bias has been sent rearwards, helping improve steering feel. Auto (+) Sports sends torque forward, and also pre-tenses the center diff, making it best suited for slick surfaces. Of course, if you think you know better than a computer, you can always manually dial in the torque split up to a 50/50 split.

Although a new sedan model joins the STI portfolio for 2011, we’d still opt for the hatchback variant, which was launched in 2008. Purists may hem and haw over the rounded appearance, but there’s no denying the hatchback adds a considerable amount of cargo space — and, therefore, practicality — to an already tasty recipe.

Ford SVT F-150 Raptor
Price: $38,995
Pros: Turn-key package, able to leap tall dunes in a single bound
Cons: Huge, hefty, and no rocket ship — even with the 6.2-liter

Okay, okay-this beast was designed to tackle desert races, but what’s a Baja run but a rally with very loosely defined course borders? For that reason, we think Ford’s F-150 SVT Raptor is a road-ready rally car — er, truck — in its own right.

Although it’s based on a half-ton pickup, the Raptor is remarkably similar to the STI and Evo on a number of counts. The latest project from Ford’s Special Vehicle Team is street-legal, seats five, costs just under $40,000, and was designed to blitz its way through dirt, mud, and sand. Ford’s engineers, however, wanted to design a vehicle that’s capable of leaping over the tallest sand dune in a single bound, an obstacle not typically encountered in a WRC event.

To that end, the heart of the Raptor is its customized suspension. Although the frame virtually mirrors that of a standard F-150, the hardware at all four corners is specialized for high-speed off-road hijinks. Most notable are the custom, piggyback reservoir front and rear shocks supplied by Fox Racing. These heavy-duty dampers, along with unique upper and lower front control arms and modified rear leaf springs, help provide 11.2 inches of suspension travel in front, and 12.1 inches at the back.

While the Evo and STI slice through dirt with the precision of a surgical scalpel, the Raptor does the same with all the poise of a 20-pound sledgehammer. It stands to reason that a 5900-pound truck isn’t as nimble as a compact car, but its sheer size doesn’t help, either. Those lamps scattered across the front grille and rear fenders aren’t décor-their presence is legally mandated. Thanks to an enlarged track and flared fenders, the Raptor is some 86 inches wide. On an open road, the girth is unnoticeable, although it does pose issues when squeezing the truck into a narrow parking spot or down a slender trail.

Likewise, don’t expect this truck to be all that quick. The standard engine, a 5.4-liter V-8, dishes out only 320 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, while the optional 6.2-liter V-8 adds an extra 91 ponies, 44 pound-feet, and $3000 to the price tag. You’d think that with more than 400 hp on hand and more than 400 pound-feet of torque, the 6.2 liter would be more than enough engine for this truck, but that’s not the case. Blame the nearly 3-ton curb weight, which gives the big V-8 an awful lot to contend with. Sure, it’s better than the 5.4 liter (and a lot more expensive), but it still doesn’t make the Raptor fast.

Despite its specialized equipment, the Raptor is largely as usable as any other extended-cab F-150. Payload capacity is 980 pounds, and the truck is capable of towing a trailer up to 6000 pounds. If you plan on regularly loading cargo, we’d spring for the integrated tailgate step; what is a novelty on other F-series trucks becomes a necessity on the Raptor, with its increased ride height.

A Photo Finish
In the end, each of these three vehicles is more than capable of putting smiles on your face once you stray from the beaten path, but in a slightly different manner.

Looking for a decent dirt weapon that’s also a tarmac missile? You’ll be more than happy with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR, but depending on your lifestyle, you may find the sedan somewhat restrictive. Sure, there’s seating for five, but a shallow trunk and a lack of a cargo pass-through means you may need to borrow a buddy’s vehicle to bring home large cargo.

Subaru’s WRX STI isn’t quite as tactile as the Evo, but it does a better job of spanning the gap between race and road car. If you can forgive the STI’s softer feel and bulbous form, you’ll find a car that’s equally thrilling, compliant, and practical in everyday life.

Regardless of your choice, both the STI and Evo may still need some work (and money) to make them perfect for a long blast off-road. Their tires, for instance, are typically designed for grip on pavement, not on loose surfaces, and ride heights and suspension tuning are typically dialed in for roads, not gravel and dirt.

Perhaps that’s why we absolutely love Ford’s F-150 SVT Raptor: just like the R/C buggy we played with as kids, the truck is a turnkey, ready-to-run off-road racer. Better yet, it still has the seating, cargo capacity, and payload of a standard half-ton pickup. If you can live with its massive size, you’ll be rewarded with a daily driver that can be a springboard for all sorts of off-road adventures — rallying included.

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2018 Subaru Impreza

MSRP $24,195 2.0i Limited w/PZEV Sedan