For the past fifteen years, the fastest cars in the world over unseen, challenging roads haven’t been Porsches or Dodge Vipers or Ferraris or any other type of supercar. No, the cars in question have been pumped-up compact family sedans, the cars automakers have used as the basis of their Group A rally weaponry.
Europeans and the Japanese have known this for some time, reveling in cars such as the Lancia Delta Integrale, the Ford Escort Cosworth, the WRX, and the Evo. (Even the original was a homologation special for Group A racing and had its fair share of success in tarmac rallies.) The recipe is pretty simple: compact sedan or hatchback, turbo-charged engine, all-wheel drive, meaty brakes and tires. Fire up, and go like hell, whatever the weather, whatever the roads.
In the States, the PlayStation generation and pockets of enthusiasts have known all about these cars and have been wanting to drink from the rally car well. Subaru finally brought its Impreza WRX to America in 2001, a mere nine years after it debuted in Japan, and the mighty STi finally arrives this summer. Despite Subaru’s trepidation, the WRX has been a smash hit, providing outstanding performance, practicality, and value.
Mitsubishi had a bit more of a dilemma than Subaru. The basic WRX uses a fairly unsophisticated all-wheel-drive system and a moderately powerful turbo engine, which keeps the car affordable. By comparison, the more powerful, better-braked, and racier STi will cost about 25 percent more than the regular WRX. The recent Lancer Evos all had 276-horsepower engines as standard, mated to a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that used torque-sensing front and electronically controlled rear differentials. That made the Evo a more expensive car than a regular WRX, positioning it against the STi in a much higher price bracket: It’s one thing to sell an Evo or an STi on its performance merits at a price less than $30,000, but persuading people to part with more than that for what looks like a warmed-over compact sedan is a much lower-volume proposition.
One gets the feeling that the enthusiasts inside Mitsubishi were waiting to see how the WRX fared here before fully committing to a U.S. version of the Evo. After all, these cars are hard-core, aimed at people who put performance and speed above styling, luxurious interiors, and prestige. Cars like the Evo score with people who know cars, but they barely register with nonenthusiasts.
The U.S.-spec Evo VIIIor the Evolution, as it’s known in a country with no prior Evo historyhas a few compromises to keep the price at less than $30,000. Compared with the Japanese and European versions, there’s a less complicated drivetrain that uses mechanical differentials. The six-speed manual transmission was replaced by a five-speeder for durability reasons. And the turbocharged in-line four-cylinder engine makes “just” 271 horsepower, down from 276 because of emissions requirements.
Externally, the Evolution looks like a Lancer that has been to a speed shop. Bulged wheel arches, an aggressive fascia, striking seventeen-inch Enkei wheels, and a way-cool carbon fiber, dual-element rear wing give the Evolution a chunkier, sportier mien. More subtle performance-car cues are the red Brembo brake calipers lurking behind the wheels, a four-inch exhaust tip, and stylish projector headlamps. The cognoscenti will know this car when they see it, but valet parkers will think you’re part of the import-tuner scene.
Inside, the Evolution is understated. Only a sweet alloy-spoked Momo steering wheel, leather-wrapped shifter, supportive wraparound Recaros (which are bigger for U.S. plushbottoms than for the rest of the world), and silver gauge rims differentiate it from its economy-car roots. These are highlighted by interior plastics that fall well short of most cars you can buy for $30,000. Unlike many a performance car, this one is hugely practical, with a decent trunk and rear-seat leg room that easily betters that of the WRX. The equipment list is fine, with a standard six-speaker stereo, power windows and locks, and air conditioning; the dual-element rear wing and a sunroof are the only options. Mitsubishi plans to bring 6500 Evolutions into the United States in the first year.
The reason you’d spend twice as much for an Evolution than you would for a regular Lancer has nothing to do with the interior trim. Most of that money is under the skin, starting with 200 additional body-shell welds that double the torsional rigidity of the standard Lancer. Reinforcement is added in key areas, such as the front-strut tower mount, rear trailing arm, and upper-control-arm mounts. For the United States, the car is beefed up with side-impact beams and reinforced front and rear bumpers to meet safety regulations. To offset the weight of the body reinforcement, the Evolution has an aluminum hood and front fenders.
The Evolution uses the same basic suspension layout as the Lancer, with a strut-type front end and a multi-link rear, but it shares few actual pieces. Up front, there’s a strut-tower cross-brace to stiffen the mounting points. There are larger-diameter, gas-charged inverted struts, forged aluminum lower control arms and front knuckles (in place of steel), a lower-control-arm connecting bar, and a 0.9-inch-diameter anti-roll bar. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a quicker 13:1 ratio. The track is wider than a regular Lancer’s, too.
At the rear, the A-shaped upper control arms and three subsidiary links per side are all forged aluminum in place of sheet steel, as is the suspension crossmember. The rear dampers and anti-roll bar are of larger diameter, while low friction and stiffer bushings are used all around. Brembo brakes are fitted, with 12.7-inch-diameter front and 11.8-inch rear ventilated discs. Four-piston aluminum calipers are used at the front, with twin-piston rears. The ABS has been upgraded for improved braking stability. Enkei cast aluminum seventeen-inch wheels, with spun ribs to reduce weight, are shod with exclusive P235/45R-17 Yokohama Advan tires.
Under the hood, the Evolution uses the venerable 4G63 in-line four-cylinder engine that first appeared here in the original 1989-94 Eclipse. In this turbocharged and intercooled application, the Evolution’s cast iron block is reinforced, and there are forged steel connecting rods and crankshaft, with low-compression (8.8:1) aluminum pistons. With an 85.0-millimeter bore and an 88.0-millimeter stroke, the engine displaces 1997 cc and is supposedly limited to 7000 revsbut when we drove the car, no one found the limiter kicking in below 7500 rpm.
The engine has belt-driven dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder in an aluminum-alloy head, with numerous subtle refinements. Hollow camshafts, tapered valve springs and aluminum retainers, and natrium-filled exhaust valves reduce valvetrain inertia and help response. The cams, as well as a magnesium-alloy cam cover, help reduce the engine’s topside weight and thus its center of gravity. There are also more compact balance shafts to reduce inertia.
A twin-scroll turbo design helps improve mid- to low-end throttle response and torque output. Maximum boost is 19 psi at 3500 rpm. One of the coolest features is an automatic water-spray system for the air-to-air intercooler, which delivers two-second sprays of cold water every five seconds to lower air temperature. The system can be activated manually with a switch on the center console. The result of all this work is an engine that produces a most bountiful 271 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm.
Power is transmitted via a five-speed manual gearbox to a standard all-wheel-drive system that has a 50/50 front/rear torque split. The transfer case uses a bevel gear differential and viscous coupling to feed torque to an open-type front and a plate-type limited-slip rear differential.
The Lancer Evolution might look like a tuner sedan, but as soon as you get behind the wheel, it’s apparent that it’s the work of engineers with four rally world titles to their credit. The relationship among pedals, steering wheel, seat, and shifter is just right. The clutch is smooth and fluid, and the shifter has short throws and a sweet, easy action. The Evolution is easy to place, and outward visibility is excellent.
Actually, pretty much everything about the driving experience is excellent. Around the twisting Pattaya track in Thailand, it was a serious device. Mitsubishi claims that the 0-to-60-mph time is just under 5.0 seconds, the standing quarter-mile takes just 13.8 seconds, and the top speed is around 155 mphnumbers we can easily believe. In achieving that performance, though, the engine isn’t the usual turbocharged light switch, revealing instead a linear power delivery on par with a much larger-capacity engine. From 3000 rpm, throttle response is scintillatingly sharp, and the engine rapidly zings past 7000 rpm. It doesn’t sound particularly memorable from the inside, but the turbo’s whistling and chirruping are suitably sporty.
The single most impressive feature on the car is how idiot-proof it is, how easy it is to drive really fast. You don’t need to have been to a racing school or to have learned to tame high-speed oversteer to go really, really fast in an Evolution. Cornering grip is outstandingMitsubishi claims lateral grip of 0.97 to 0.99 gand the handling balance depends on your driving style. Go for the slow in, fast out approach, and you will have a little initial understeer followed by reassuring neutrality as you get on the gas. Gutsy drivers can throw it in way too hot and rotate the tail with either a dab of the brake pedal or a huge throttle lift before launching out of the corner as they put the power down. (We don’t recommend this approach for the street . . . ) The all-wheel-drive system is pretty seamless, even in very tight turns where the initial understeer disappears as you squeeze on the power.
The brakes are fabulous; the ABS is perfectly tuned for track use, with no discernible wheel lock. The Evo even rides well, with impressive damping over Pattaya’s evil curbs, although it is stiffly sprung. The car’s only weakness is the steering, which is very accurate and direct but lacking in ultimate, Porsche-type feel. At highway speeds, the Evo is refined and doesn’t suffer the low-speed torpor that afflicts the WRX.
If you want to go obscenely fast cross-country with minimal effort and still have a car that is practical family transport, the Evolution is the real deal. Until the WRX STi goes on sale, there’s nothing for less than $45,000 that will cover ground as fast on secondary roads. If you want a car that shouts about you and your status in life, the Evolution isn’t for you; but if you want a car for speed, then it is. The amazing thing is that it’s a Mitsubishiand even more amazing, it’s based on the Lancer, a car that hardly sets our hearts aflutter. It’s probably about time the Japanese automaker had an image car, because its current vibe is dowdy and dull. The Evolution should help to change that.