Grins. Snorts. Laughter. Armloads of steering lock, great gobs of throttle, and even more laughter. We slide sideways through an enormous pile of cast-off rubber--marbles--and come to a stop, laughing, inches from a pair of yellow slalom cones.
"Ackthph!" says my passenger, enveloped in a translucent cloud of black dust. "I can taste the tires."
We are at an autocross course at Mitsubishi's Tokachi Proving Ground, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. This is the middle of nowhere. I am attempting to convince a preproduction Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X that I am the world's most talented drifter, but the car isn't buying it; every half lap, I dissolve into helpless laughter and go spinning off into cone-mauling oblivion. Every so often, I force myself to stop cackling and pull things together for a clean, fast, drift-free run--but those are depressingly easy by comparison. They're also a lot less entertaining.
Next run. Flick--I throw the wheel right and pop my foot off the throttle. As the back end jinks out, I wind the wheel into the slide and watch the world come at me through the side window. More throttle: the front end claws us back into line, and we crisply rocket off toward the next slalom. The grin might as well be painted onto my face.
On dry pavement, unmodified all-wheel-drive street cars aren't supposed to be this much riotous, opposite-lock fun. Furthermore, bigger, plusher updates of stripped-out rally rockets aren't supposed to upstage their lighter, smaller, and rowdier predecessors. But therein lies the key: the 2008 Lancer Evolution X is a far better car than most people expect it to be.
Although there have been ten incarnations of the Lancer Evolution--the X in the Evo X's name represents the Roman numeral ten and not the letter X--the Lancer sedan upon which it is based has undergone only four generational changes since its inception. The most recent of the four gave birth to the 2003-07 Evo VIII and Evo IX; that platform was the first Evolution-spec Lancer to come to the United States. As you'd expect, it was also the best-selling of the bunch, clocking in at about 60,000 examples worldwide. (To put that figure into perspective, consider that Evos I through VI sold fewer than 60,000 units combined.)
The latest Lancer Evolution represents a hefty break from tradition. The age-old, tacked-together Evo styling ethos has been replaced by a much more cohesive, ground-up approach. Gone, too, is the legendary iron-block, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that powered all nine previous Evos. An all-new, aluminum-block, 2.0-liter turbo four with 295 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque produces both more grunt and more power than its predecessor. For the first time ever on an Evolution, a two-pedal, twin-clutch automatic transmission is available. And, most important, the once rough-and-ready Evo appears plumped out, comfy, and option-laden at first sight--or, to the layman, a great deal more like a Real Car.
For those who have been paying attention, such drastic changes are not surprising. Mitsubishi Motors has been bleeding red ink for the past decade, and the Lancer Evo, in all its forms, has long been the sole star in the company's firmament. A global car manufacturer cannot survive on one cult model, however successful, and Mitsubishi knows it.
That's why the Lancer Evo is such a changed beast. The Evolution X is a make-or-break car for Mitsubishi, created with the primary goal of jump-starting sales and boosting the brand into more widespread commercial success. Naturally, such an approach can backfire: broader appeal equals diluted focus equals a car that isn't as fantastic from behind the wheel. And so, wary of such things, we traveled to Japan to drive a preproduction, Japanese-market Evo X. We arrived full of doubt and curious as to just how much--if any--of the classic Evo charm was left.
In the remote wooded hills and relative tranquility of Tokachi, away from the distraction of urban Japan, the Lancer Evo's new personality hits you like a smack in the face. Parked next to an Evolution IX, the Evo X appears larger, more serious, and altogether less friendly than its older, iconic brother. Even the harmless little NACA duct on the hood seems to sneer at you derisively.
Certain Evo features are considered perennial. Aluminum fenders, hood, and roof panels are all stock (so long as you don't order a sunroof; that option requires a steel roof panel). Massive brakes--13.8- and 13.0-inch Brembo rotors in the front and the rear, respectively--are standard across the lineup. And sitting on the dash, right where you'd expect it to be, is a switch for the all-wheel-drive system's available traction modes (Snow, Gravel, and Tarmac, naturally).
At the same time, little has changed in the suspension department. The strut-type front and multilink rear setup used on the Evolution IX carries over, albeit with revised geometry, strengthened front struts, and more rigid hubs. The base Evo now wears a GSR suffix, while an MR model is again available and adds suspension upgrades including Bilstein shocks, Eibach springs, and eighteen-inch BBS wheels.
You'll notice bigger changes when you open the driver's door. Like the recently re-vised, more pedestrian Lancer, the Evo X has a completely revamped interior. The wing-backed Recaro seats are the only familiar touches; everything else, from the dashboard to the door panels, has gone decidedly upmarket. There are still echoes of the Evo's econo-box roots--some of the console trim is made from hard, scratchy plastic, and the painted cockpit trim can feel a little flimsy--but by and large, the interior no longer reeks of Play-skool technology. ("Look, Mom! I bought a My First Rally Car!" "That's nice, honey. No oversteer in the house.")
Climb into the Evo X, twist the chunky black plastic key, and you are instantly aware--and a little disappointed--that the whole car doesn't buzz and hum and feel alive at idle like its predecessors. Yes, you think, a normal, nonmasochistic person could actually enjoy this. Above all else, you're immediately conscious of the change in size--the Evo's wheelbase is up one inch, and its width has grown by two inches. The size increase is most obviously manifested in a more cocoonlike seating position. If you sat on all previous Evos, then you sit in the Evo X, surrounded by a high-sided cave of dark plastic and grippy seat cloth.
Regardless, like every previous Lancer Evolution, the Evo X redeems its various idiosyncrasies with a fantastic engine and drivetrain. The turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder is the first-ever aluminum-block Evo powerplant and the first to sport four-bolt main-bearing caps. It's also 26 pounds lighter than the iron-block four. A steel chain supplants the old engine's rubber timing belt, and there's now variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust cams (previous Lancers had it on the intake side alone). Mitsubishi also ditched the previous long-stroke layout--bore and stroke now each measure 86 mm (3.4 inches), and a balance shaft is no longer provided.
Power delivery from the new engine is far less manic; there's still sizable turbo lag, but forward thrust is no longer served up in a nothing . . . nothing . . . WHAM! manner. The new engine is more linear, more progressive, and more friendly. It also makes more torque than the old four-cylinder at any given rpm, is quieter and smoother, and pulls more strongly at high engine speeds. Outside the car--and audible from a football field away--a familiar mix of exhaust grumble, jetlike induction whoosh, and wastegate pshht fills the air.
Tradition requires that a turbo Lancer fling itself to the next county when you hammer the throttle, and on that front, the Evo X doesn't disappoint. But for all its giddy straight-line speed, the Mitsubishi's primary strength is its chassis. And while the new Evo is cushier, better-insulated, and indeed heavier than the last car (U.S.-spec curb weights haven't been announced, but we expect roughly a 150-pound gain), those changes haven't diminished the Evo's over-the-road capability.
A heavily massaged version of the Evo IX's AWD system lives under the Evo X's exterior, complete with a tweaked iteration of the IX's electronically managed active center differential. (The helical limited-slip front unit is largely unchanged.) Mitsubishi's famed hydraulically activated Active Yaw Control rear differential--first used on the Evo IV but previously unavailable stateside--also makes an appearance.
The entire package is fantastic. The various clutch packs, differentials, and hydraulic pumps work seamlessly to make you look heroic, pulling off feats of power management that make most other all-wheel-drive cars look like stumbly boobs. Turn off the newly available stability control, flick the Evo's tail out, and the chassis simply sorts itself under throttle. Remarkably, the Evo even seems conscious of how you treat it: drive cleanly, and you're gifted with a minimally understeering, largely neutral car; throw around the car by the scruff of its neck, though, and torque gets shifted back and forth to actually help you stay sideways.
Like the base Lancer, the Evolution rides better than before. High-speed damping and suspension compliance are greatly improved, and the rack-and-pinion steering, while much less talkative than the Evo IX's, is still respectably communicative. The new, Getrag-developed, six-speed twin-clutch transmission--similar in function and layout to Volks-wagen's DSG gearbox, and the only trans- mission available on the MR (the GSR offers only a conventional five-speed manual)--works well enough, being neither obtrusively rough nor drastically uninvolving. (That said, we'll reserve our final judgment for a later date, as Mitsubishi claims the transmission's control software isn't yet in its final form.)
In the end, some of our fears were correct: Yes, the new Evo is slightly more diluted than its forebears, and yes, it's not quite as dramatic and frenzied as we had hoped. But to bemoan the march of progress is to miss the bigger picture. We might mourn the loss of the Evo IX's rough-around-the-edges personality, and we might complain that the latest Evolution MR isn't available with a manual transmission, but in the end, you have to be realistic. For Mitsubishi to survive--and, logically, for it to keep producing Lancer Evolutions at all--the Evo needs to appeal to a broader market. To do that, it had to grow up. If a small increase in refinement and isolation is the price you pay for such a fantastic chassis and all-wheel-drive system, then so be it. Trade-offs and compromises for the sake of survival? Sounds like . . . evolution, don't you think?