Production-based racing has unleashed some of the world’s most ferocious cars onto the road–the Porsche 911 Turbo, the Audi Coupe Quattro–but none has been as accessible as the two cars gathered for this test. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru Impreza WRX STi are every bit as authentic as the aforesaid duo, but the nature of their underlying World Rally Championship formula makes them far more practical. They are, at their core, economy cars, albeit ones that have been given every advantage a works-racing program can confer. From humble family sedans come these Manson Family sedans, which are subsequently, perhaps foolishly, re-released into normal society.
Their path back to street legality is a familiar one. Just as the Porsche 911 formed the basis for the first Group 5 turbocharged Carrera, which then led to the roadgoing 911 Turbo, so have the Subaru and the Mitsubishi navigated the homologation Mbius strip, where production cars beget competition cars that beget production cars, and so on. Bouncing from the rally stage to (other countries’) streets and back again for a decade, as these two have, has forged two sedans that are not only armed with the latest in amortized racing technology but also suited ideally to our times: They are roomy enough for a small family, cheap enough to register as true performance bargains, fast enough to shame many an ’80s supercar, and frugal enough to keep you on the right side of the petroleo-moral debate.
Because they have gone knee-to-groin for so long in rally sport, their roadgoing personae are aimed more directly at each other than almost anything else on the road. Like any cars built to a formula, they achieve their similar ends by similar means: four-cylinder turbocharged engines, low curb weights, four-wheel-drive systems, monstrous rear wings, manual transmissions, and similarities in look and comportment too obvious to mention. This is the enthusiast’s version of Accord versus Camry, except, instead of trying to be all things to all people, the STi and the Evo hope to alienate as wide a swath of humanity as possible. These cars aren’t for the general citizenry, which is convenient, since they will come in limited batches of just 3600 (STi) and 6500 (Evo).
If their only mission were to scare people, the Subaru might have the edge. It has ten-spoke forged alloy wheels that, set face-up, look like venomous spiders. This super-WRX also has a new, Peter Stevens-designed (McLaren F1) front fascia, side spoilers, and rear bumper; a tall hood scoop; a dual-element rear wing; and more body blisters than a burn victim. The STi’s interior begins to resemble a racing car’s, too, with blue perforated faux-suede buckets, a small-diameter steering wheel, and a blank plate where the radio should go. There are no floormats, no armrests, and thin glass, all in the interest of lower weight.
At the scales, the STi is within 50 pounds of the standard WRX, but the STi is heavy with rally technology. Perhaps the only element not taken over wholesale from the WRC program is the STi’s 2.5-liter engine. WRC rules specify displacements no higher than 2.0 liters, but Subaru wanted the STi brand to make a bigger U.S.-market entrance than its 2.0-liter could provide, hence the familiar 2.5-liter, tuned to within an inch of its life. It makes a satisfyingly round 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque via 14.5 psi of boost. Lag from this large-capacity turbocharger is offset by a variable valve timing system, hollow camshafts, and a drive-by-wire throttle, all of which enhance engine response. An intercooler, 30 percent larger than the one in the WRX, has a manual, in-car water spritz to lower the intake charge temperature. The engine’s block is stiffer than stock, and its thermal stamina is higher, thanks to sodium-filled exhaust valves and thicker piston crowns.
Before delivering power to all four wheels, the engine runs through a six-speed manual and something Subaru calls its Driver Controlled Center Differential. While it’s true that this system can be adjusted by the driver, you’d have to be Richard Burns to think you could apportion torque more effectively than the algorithm can. In the automatic mode, a computer-controlled clutch overrides the center differential’s action, which is geared for a 35/65 percent front/rear split. For traction discrepancies within the same axle, the STi has limited-slip differentials front and rear, each of a different design (see sidebar).
Suspending all this are four struts that fit into the WRX’s wheelside holes, with one crucial difference: They are upside-down. Inverting the struts in accordance with the laws of black-wizard rally craft is a means of increasing their bending stiffness and internal volume. The larger size boosts both damping capacity and fade resistance. There are also cross-member braces front and rear for an exceptionally stiff ride bed.
Brembo makes the brakes, 12.7-inch discs front and 12.3-inch discs rear. Unlike the WRX, with its front twin-piston calipers, the STi uses four pistons at the front and two at the rear. An electronic brake distribution system is standard.
The Mitsubishi Evo also has disc brakes large enough for family-style dining, but the overall sophistication of the car relative to the STi is slightly lower. The Evolution may be farther away mechanically from the stock Lancer than the STi is from the WRX, but bear in mind that the gulf in performance, excitement, and refinement between the base Lancer and the WRX is almost Mexican in width.
That said, there is plenty of impressive equipment behind the Evo’s anime-cartoon face. Thanks to the abundant use of aluminum, its body is lighter than the Lancer’s. Its track is wider, its aerodynamics are better, and its engine output is in another league. The most obvious post-Lancer mod, though, is the hand-formed carbon-fiber-composite rear wing, which not only stabilizes the back end but also makes drying dish towels or getting arrested baselessly a breeze.
The Evo is more somber inside than out, its black and gray plastics living together in misery. But the three-spoke Momo wheel and well-bolstered Recaros manage to liven things up a bit, and at least the Evo has a radio.
The Mitsu’s 2.0-liter engine honors WRC convention, but it, like the STi’s, has been given a thorough going-over. The transversely mounted in-line four makes 271 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque and uses numerous forged pieces such as the connecting rods, aluminum pistons, and steel crankshaft for greater durability. The turbocharger feeds the engine with as much as 19.0 pounds per square inch of pressurized air, and a twin-scroll housing maintains high gas velocity for better throttle response in the face of that very large-capacity turbo. Most of the reciprocating parts in this engine have been lightened and/or strengthened over a decade of racing development, extending to the camshafts, valves, and valve cover, the latter cast in magnesium. As in the STi, a large intercooler keeps things from boiling over, and if they do, the Evo has a switch inside that will automatically spray the air-to-air intercooler with a shot of cold water as needed.
But, unlike the STi, the Evo only comes with five speeds in its gearbox and none of the fancy electronic trickery lurking in the Subaru. The Mitsubishi’s driveline is comparatively straightforward, with an open differential at the front, a viscous-type limited-slip device in the center, and conventional pressurized-plate limited slip at the rear.
The differences pretty much end there. The Mitsubishi also has inverted struts up front (but multiple links in back), big Brembos with electronic brake distribution, and super-lightweight Enkei wheels on Yokohama tires that look like grooved slicks.
We snuck the STi and the Evo back over to San Bernardino, California, to a pass in the San Gabriel Mountains that would serve as our de facto rally stage. This red-sand two-lane, soaring and plummeting like a falcon riding thermals, was bent with first-gear turns and painted with thick black skid marks. As the STi and the Evo charged up and down, they whistled like teakettles.
Although the terrain was a sort of homecoming for both cars, they attacked it differently. We wondered how two cars this close in specification and purpose could feel so markedly distinct, from their power delivery to their steering, braking, handling, and ride–a surprising dynamic contrast for so tight a contest.
In the Japanese compact-sedan arms race in which these two are locked, the STi has clear ground superiority. Its nearly 30-horsepower advantage is astounding, garnering a standing ovation for Subaru at this year’s Detroit show when the company announced those output figures. The 2.5-liter four growls like any boxer engine but is refined and quiet at cruising speed. It never darts to its 6000-rpm power peak; instead, forces mount evenly. Unlike with the 227-horsepower WRX engine, there is no turbo lag and just a whiff of camminess around the 4000-rpm torque peak. Throttle response is precise and instantaneous. In tightening third-gear sweepers, it’s rare to feel as if you’ve selected too high a gear, but the gearbox’s close ratios frequently have you running out of second. Changing up is no chore, thanks to positive, light-effort throws.
Still, the Evo’s powertrain is far feistier. It revs more freely, barks louder, and rushes up to its redline with more urgency than Dom DeLuise being shot by a catapult toward a chocolate cake. There is an elastic quality to this engine that more than makes up for its ten percent power deficit, its throttle lag, and its slower across-the-board performance numbers. Its neck-yanking power crescendo makes the Evo feel faster than the STi, even if it pulls far fewer g’s under acceleration. Shift action, too, is more immediate than the STi’s, with a bolt-action assuredness.
In the chassis department, the Evo lacks the STi’s composure. Its front end bobs up and down on California freeways, and its ride will batter your kidneys like a prizefighter. But what sweet, sweet pain! Thanks to its flinty steering, hair-trigger differential, and progressive-breakaway tires, the Evo feels about three feet narrower than the STi on a tight, spiraling road. Moreover, the Evo is the most throttle-adjustable street car we have ever driven, and sometimes you get the feeling that it would rather be guided with the throttle pedal than the actual steering wheel. Go into a turn too hot, and simply lift off the throttle for a benign, instant tightening of the car’s line. Go into a turn waaaay too hot, and you’ll begin to understand why they left that wiper on the rear window. For all you weekend Mkinens out there, this is as close to Monte Carlo as you can get in a production car. That the Evo allows you to steer with all four wheels–not just the front two–adds the extra dimension of control that rally stars use when they’re staring out the side window while careening toward a rally spectator immobilized by drunkenness.
The STi tries harder, and succeeds better, at being an everyday street car. Its ride is firm, but its damping and body control are far better than the Evo’s. The seating position is good in both cars but superior in the STi, thanks to a height-adjustable seat. Although its braking system needs more space to stop the car, the Subaru’s pedal feels more responsive and better tuned.
But buffing the car of its many rough edges has robbed it of the lunatic twitchiness promised by its bodywork. Steering that’s slower and duller than the Evo’s (but still faster than the WRX’s) gives the impression that the car is bigger and heavier, even though the Mitsubishi is five inches longer and only twenty pounds lighter. And whereas the Evo will dart into a corner, shake its moneymaker until you throw a dollar at it, and then gently understeer out, the STi rides into a corner on its front tires. Only after some patience with the throttle can the STi be balanced and made to drift neutrally through the corner’s exit. Los Angeles bureau chief Michael Jordan says, “The car claws its way forward, which is part of the reason the Impreza WRC car is best on gravel and loose dirt . . . but for all that, the STi feels like a well-constructed front-wheel-drive car with big tires. A lot of rubber bushings between you and the contact patch, which distorts the message.” And if you’re using these cars as intended, at the track or on a rally stage, then you need to hear that message without interference.
This is not to suggest that the STi is anything less than a downright amazing car. It’s arguably more complete than any race-bred road car in history, and its owner needs to make very few sacrifices to enjoy it. But if the point of these cars is to serve the most committed and crazed of wheelmen, then the Evo has the edge. It’s raw. It’s punishing. It has all the civility and social grace of an incontinent mongoose–infuriating at times but very amusing nonetheless.
Perhaps an instructive way to think about these cars is to imagine them as two pieces of cutlery. One, the STi, is a paring knife. The other, the Evo, is a scalpel. Both are sharp precision tools that should be wielded with caution. Both are shiny and alluring. The paring knife is more useful; you probably pick it up every day. The scalpel is single-purpose, flimsy, and disposable. But only the scalpel has the power to heal, to cut out illness, to separate man from the dead parts of himself and thrust him back among the walking, thankful to be alive.