What Would Jason Do?

Robert Kerian

There would have been no such eau de clutch issue had we tested a Lancer Evo MR, whose dual-clutch automatic uses wet clutches. The MR - which we expect will start at about $38,000 - includes gorgeous, forged BBS wheels, two-piece brake rotors, Alcantara seats, Bilstein dampers, and additional sound deadening. Its higher price and equipment level would have made it an ideal choice for this test if it were available with a manual transmission.

We chose the basic Evo GSR, however, because, like the BMW and the Subaru, it has three pedals and a stick shift. With a sticker price of only $33,615, it arrived sans all of the MR features and without many items that the other two cars had - the HID headlights, a satellite radio, and a sixth cog in its transmission, to name a few. On the positive side, its back seat is roomier than those in the STI and the 3-series. That's important to note, because not much will fit in the tiny trunk.

Once you're behind the wheel of a Lancer Evolution, though, practical concerns like trunk space are secondary. We declared the previous Evo to be one of the most throttle-adjustable street cars we've driven, but the new one is even better. Ironically, the lack of cargo space is the price you pay for that increased maneuverability - various rear suspension and Active Yaw Control differential components live where cases of beer would normally fit in the trunk. The Evo's driveline computers shuffle power effectively through the three differentials to diminish understeer, and as a result, the Evo pirouettes like a ballerina any time you twist the steering wheel.

Perfectly accurate, although not particularly communicative, the Evo's steering is geared so quickly that it makes the 3580-pound sedan feel like a go-kart. Maintaining a quick pace on mountain roads requires lots of concentration - it's so eager to drift that we tended to leave the stability control turned on during very fast sections. Mitsubishi's engineers kept the first four gears very short and closely spaced to help ensure the availability of thrust on the way out of slow corners, but with only five gears to work with and the need for a high-speed top gear, the ratio drop from fourth to fifth is enormous. Nevertheless, the Evo's engine is in wailing range at highway speeds, making long interstate trips less enjoyable.

On the same roads at the same pace, the driver of an STI will have a much lower pulse rate. The Evo's primal scream is replaced by a distant, mellow, flat-four thrum. Instead of the Evo's tail-happy, tame-me-if-you-can chassis, the Subaru provides complete directional confidence. The STI can maintain the same pace, but whereas the Evo's driver is busy calculating the yaw-angle consequences of changing road camber, surface-grip levels, and frost heaves, the STI driver is enjoying the ultrashort throws of the bolt-action shifter and the seemingly endless range of suspension travel. Stability control? We never much cared whether it was on or off, knowing that the STI's rump would never step out.

Although the Subaru is 220 pounds lighter than the Mitsubishi, more of its mass is concentrated in the front, and it feels less willing to change direction. Its steering is very precise but much slower than that of the Evo, and it offers no more feedback. Unless you count nasty kickback over midcorner bumps, that is.

On interstate stretches, the STI's longer top gear and mellow engine make for much more relaxed cruising. Its cabin is a nicer place to be for long periods of time, thanks to higher quality materials, a smoother ride, and lower noise levels. (Even the Evo MR isn't as quiet and smooth on the highway as the STI.) The Subaru's elegant, twin-cockpit dashboard design makes even the BMW's look somber.

The second you climb into the BMW, however, you realize that you've just graduated from T-ball straight to the major leagues. Everything your fingers touch feels twice as expensive - and while the BMW is lacking in visual verve, looks can be deceiving. Take the sport seats, for example, which look as if they're nowhere near as supportive as the big-bolstered buckets in the other cars. In fact, the 3-series' bolsters are electrically adjustable and will hold you just as tightly.

With the proverbial twist of the key (the BMW uses a start button), discussions about the slight acceleration differences between the STI and the Evo are immediately silenced. The 335xi's engine displaces 50 percent more cubic centimeters than the Evo's and 20 percent more than the STI's. With 50 percent more cylinders than either - and 100 percent more turbo-chargers - the BMW beats both of the Japanese cars in a straight line.

From a standing start, the 3-series was merely a bit quicker than the other two cars, but in real-world driving it's significantly faster. The Evo's engine slowly comes alive from 3000 rpm; the STI's wakes up suddenly at 4000 rpm. The BMW, however, is always alert, achieving peak boost (and peak torque) at 1400 rpm - and it pulls hard all the way to 7000 rpm. Around town, it feels twice as powerful as either four-cylinder, and on the highway, it simply walks away from both.

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