2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Evo VIII Four Seasons Test

We never tired of driving Mitsubishi‘s rally-bred performance sedan, but it wasn’t cheap to run.

We’ve just finished a one-year test with a 2003 Lancer Evolution, but we’ve actually been on a much longer journey with Mitsubishi’s World Rally Championship-bred sedan. After all, we first told you about a Nrburgring drive in the European-market Evo VI in March 2000, and in May 2002, European bureau chief Georg Kacher stormed over Bavarian back roads in both an Evo VII and a WRX STi to celebrate the announcement that Mitsubishi’s most (only?) exciting car at last would come to the States. In June 2003, we compared U.S.-spec versions of the top-tune Lancer (effectively the Evo VIII but called the Lancer Evolution here) and the Subaru WRX STi and gave the Evo the nod. The Evo then power-slid its way into our October 2003 megatest of $30,000 sedans, and in January, it turbo-boosted its way to victory as our 2004 Automobile of the Year.

We’ve never tired of telling you about the Evolution, because it’s a car we’ve never tired of driving. Twelve months and 27,636 hard and fast miles have only confirmed that the Evo lives up to all the hype we and others have disseminated about it. It’s raw. It’s edgy. It’s fast and furious. Decked out in lightning yellow paint and the optional rear wing, as our test car was, it’s loud, outrageous, and sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s always entertaining, because it’s the automotive equivalent of Howard Stern. And at only $30,000, the Evo’s tariff is far less than what that particular shock jock has been incurring in FCC fines lately.

Our 2003 Evo’s sticker actually worked out to exactly $30,062, which reflected a base price of $28,987, a destination fee of $595, and only one option: the $480 carbon-fiber spoiler, a boy-racer affectation that might have provided a bit of extra downforce but impeded rear vision and probably attracted undue attention from the roadside authorities. We’d definitely forgo the darn thing next time around.

Although there was no surfeit of frills in the Spartan cabin, all the stuff that makes the Evo the Evo was standard, including the 271-horsepower, 2.0-liter, turbocharged in-line four-cylinder engine; slick-shifting five-speed manual; ground-grabbing four-wheel-drive system with three differentials; quick-ratio steering; aluminum suspension engineered to make the best of the worst rally roads; supremely comfortable and supportive front Recaro seats; Momo steering wheel; Brembo brakes; Enkei alloy wheels; and seventeen-inch Yokohama high-performance tires. If the cabin trim and secondary controls were as down-market as a Wal-Mart sweat suit, well, no one much cared, because the Evo could run with cars that cost more than twice as much (as the Evo, not the sweat suit).

Turning the pages of our logbook, we find some negatives, however. There was no cruise control, something editor-in-chief Jean Jennings and her husband, Tim, discovered soon after taking off from Ann Arbor for New York. Given the sport-tuned suspension, the Evo rides remarkably well on smooth pavement, but every encounter with Michigan’s freeway expansion joints, noted technical editor Don Sherman, was “pure punishment: constant shake, rattle, and crash.” At 38.7 feet, the Evo’s turning circle is bigger than the Subaru WRX‘s (35.4 feet) as well as the ‘s (37.4 feet). The raucous little engine, although an absolute rocket above 3000 rpm, suffers from considerable turbo lag below that. And there were calls for a sixth forward gear for the transmission, which might have quelled a bit of freeway noise in addition to improving fuel economy.

But these are mere quibbles in light of the Evo’s hugely rewarding driving experience, which was lauded repeatedly: “I love the gearchange and the brakes, and the drivability around town is amazing. The steering is quick and precise, and in the wet, the handling is supremely throttle-adjustable. The suspension is stiff, but the damping is excellent, so the Evo rides through undulations better than most cars.”

“The Evo’s rally-car heritage was evident yesterday as I drove through an unexpected early-spring snowstorm. The car can be controlled not only with the steering but with the throttle and brakes, with predictable results.”

“I like the seats, the on-center stability, and the gearshifter but, most of all, the ability to leap tall buildings with a kick to the throttle.”

Our Evo saw its share of track time, and, naturally, that’s when we really loved our yellow screamer. “At Grattan Raceway, the Evo was as wonderful and in its element as it had ever been,” noted one of our hotfooted staffers. “The brakes are great, and the car easily rotates.” (The cheaper and lighter Evo RS, a real stripper, is even more of a blast on a track.) After a summer and fall of high-spirited track days and some rigorous road use, however, the Evo surrendered its brake pads at 20,287 miles, which cost us $706.23. We also had detected a grinding noise in the gearbox when shifting into fifth gear, so the synchro was replaced under warranty.

Our Evo developed a keen appetite for Mobil 1 synthetic oil, requiring a quart or two every 2000 to 3000 miles, especially with heavy track usage. Our expenditures on oil, oil changes, and tire swaps (we wore out the stock Yokohamas, so we replaced them with Toyo Proxes T1-S tires, then ran Yokohama AVS Winter rubber when the snow started to fly) were modest enough that, even with the brake work, our total out-of-pocket expenses for the year would have been fairly reasonable given the Evo’s level of performance.

Unfortunately, all such fantasies of a cheap year dissipated at about the ten-month mark, when the clutch started slipping. Replacement of the clutch disc and pressure plate-wear items, dontcha know-didn’t fall under warranty. Instead, $1257 fell out of the Automobile Magazine piggy bank, which raised our total annual out-of-pocket expenses, including scheduled maintenance, to a not inconsiderable $4043, or $337 per month, proving once again that performance seldom comes cheap. That said, a Sun Belt owner who doesn’t need snow tires and doesn’t participate in track days as often as we did probably will spend only a fraction of what we spent to keep his or her Evo on the road.

The stiffly sprung Evo was not exactly our staff’s first choice as a freeway cruiser, but it still hit the interstates for many trips, the longest at the hands of motor gopher Stuart Fowle, who sped to Colorado for spring break. “Much like a postman,” Fowle declared after 3000 miles, “the Evo always delivers, whether in rain, sleet, snow, or shine. The Recaro seats were incredibly comfortable, the powerful engine and all-wheel drive propelled me through the Rockies with ease, and the xenon headlamps brightly illuminated even the darkest mountain roads.”

All was not bliss as he crossed the Plains states, however. “Unfortunately, there’s no trunk pass-through, so my snowboard became a back-seat passenger. The rally car-inspired styling is not for everyone, which I learned after receiving a middle-finger salute from two farm boys in a Chevy truck in Nebraska. Police officers also give the car long, hateful looks. And the lack of cruise control killed my ankles and knees.”

Contributor Kirk Seaman and his wife, Susan, took the Evo to Chicago for a weekend, and their impressions pretty well summed up our year: “We knew that the Evo had a reputation for a rough ride, and the lack of cruise control seemed daunting for a four-hour trip. Our apprehension, although well founded, melted in the face of complete turbo-induced bliss. Yes, it rode roughly over bad pavement, and yes, the lack of cruise control was a pain, but the Evo won us over with its rawness, its edginess, and its complete focus on capturing the spirit of the World Rally Championship.

“Not once did our backs ache or our legs hurt or our tushes tire in the Recaro seats, and we loved the mechanical sounds of gears, turbo, and exhaust-this car has an immediacy and an intimacy that are very satisfying. All of the driver interfaces-steering, brakes, gearshift, and throttle-show that the Evo is serious about communicating with its driver.

“The Evo reminded us of our first new car, a 1988 Mazda 323 GTX. It had the heart of a racer, loved to rev, and brought a little bit of rallying to the road. We adored that car, and it didn’t have cruise control, either.”