In a market crowded with bland competence, we're happy that there's still a car so determinedly different and, frankly, as flawed as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. When the compact fireball first hit our shores six years ago, we delighted in the way it applied cutting-edge drivetrain technology to deliver visceral driving dynamics. Despite its many shortcomings - ride quality, noise, refinement - we named it our 2004 Automobile of the Year.
But even as the Evo VIII and IX wowed journalists and went on to gain a devoted following among the fast-and-furious set, Mitsubishi sales in America continued to fall. So it's no surprise that when the Evo X debuted here in 2008, it took a somewhat different route, intent on turning its cult success into real profit and mainstream cachet. In addition to the requisite increase in power and an even more advanced all-wheel-drive system that - for the first time in U.S. models - featured torque vectoring, the new Evo benefited from the interior enhancements seen in the redesigned Lancer compact and offered some high-tech features that sent prices well out of pocket-rocket territory. The most surprising of those options was a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Intrigued, we signed up for a year with a well-equipped MR model with an eye-opening sticker price of $41,515. We hoped our fully loaded, two-pedal Evo would justify its price - nearly as much as an all-wheel-drive BMW 335i - but worried that Mitsubishi might have sold the car's devilish soul in search of wealthier buyers. It's thus with a measure of both disappointment and relief that we report that the Evo ultimately remains what it always has been: a bare-bones, high-strung, rebel-without-a-cause performance car that will turn off most but will earn the undying affection of a special few.
Within days of its arrival and through every one of its 27,926 miles with us, our apex silver Evo and its enormous rear wing put to rest any concerns that it had grown soft. Praise streamed in for its balanced chassis, lighting-quick turn-in, and nearly endless reserves of grip, the last item afforded by Mitsubishi's all-wheel-drive system, which, even in a world of Nissan GT-Rs and BMW X6s, remains exceptionally impressive. "This is clearly one of the best handling all-wheel-drive cars I've experienced," noted technical editor Don Sherman. Senior Web editor Phil Floraday added, "It's so easy to control and forgiving that even a complete doofus can look good behind the wheel." And although some thought the 2.0-liter four-cylinder had lost a bit of the frenetic character of the last model's, no one argued with its 291 hp of turbocharged thrust.
We were far less enthusiastic about the $8000 worth of options that separated our test car from a base GSR model. We loved the eighteen-inch BBS wheels and appreciated the nearly body-roll-free cornering aided by the Bilstein dampers and the Eibach springs. But the navigation system - part of a $2550 option package - frustrated most drivers with its clumsy push-button controls, and the Bluetooth phone integration was soon deemed "worthless" because the microphone and the speakers were no match for the car's considerable engine and road noise. The Recaro seats, although comfy, weren't adjustable for height, meaning that some shorter drivers had to choose whether they'd rather sit comfortably or be able to reach the pedals.
No feature drew as much criticism as Mitsubishi's TC-SST dual-clutch transmission. One editor who drove an MR (not ours) on the track admitted that it was a relief to let the transmission's aggressive programming and seamless operation worry about the shifting while he focused on hitting apexes. But in daily driving, the dual-clutch proved more of a liability than an asset. The clutch's slow engagement off the line conspired with turbo lag to make the Evo feel sluggish in stop-and-go situations. This also hurt the car in our performance testing, where, despite enjoying a slight weight advantage compared with a manual-equipped GSR model, it lagged in straight-line acceleration with a (still impressive) 0-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds, two-tenths behind the GSR. "Clutch engagement is lackadaisical," Sherman griped after he'd completed his testing. We never had a reliability issue associated with the drivetrain (or any other component of the car, for that matter), but the transmission's hesitancy seemed to grow worse over time, even though we followed Mitsubishi's recommendation and had a pricey transmission-fluid change at 25,471 miles.
Beyond any concerns about the transmission's performance or reliability, most of us simply couldn't come to terms with an automatic transmission in a car that so emphasizes the visceral, tactile joys of driving. "This car and everything about it - the hyperquick, hyperdirect steering; the peaky powerband; the truly crazy levels of grip - scream out for a manual," concluded contributor Sam Smith.
Even when we were able to disregard our complaints about the MR's individual options, it often remained difficult to swallow the idea of a $40,000 vehicle that offers all the comforts and panache of a $15,000 Mitsubishi Lancer DE - a car that still lags behind other compacts in refinement, never mind $40,000 sport sedans. "When you're trying to justify the price to passengers sitting in an interior full of rock-hard plastics and horribly ugly switchgear, they don't care that the car has a dual-clutch whatchamacallit and all that gee-whiz drivetrain technology," griped Web producer Evan McCausland.
And then there were the compromises in the name of performance. For instance, components from the all-wheel-drive system, together with the rear-mounted battery, swallow almost five cubic feet of the Lancer's trunk. The stiff ride, although perfectly tolerable for passengers, wreaked havoc on the cheap interior as time went on. In fact, our single warranty repair was for a particularly annoying squeak that developed near the A-pillar. The rear wing, which most of us could do without, blocked rear visibility and seemed the equivalent of a matador's red cape for police, who followed the Evo's every move. (Fortunately, we had an Escort Passport 9500ci "radar and laser defense system" professionally installed when we first got the car.) Worst of all, fuel range was abysmal. Even though we observed decent fuel economy - 19 mpg - the Evo's small, 14.5-gallon tank meant that we needed to fill up every 250 miles or so. It didn't help that the Chicken Little digital fuel gauge had a habit of decreasing indicated range in increments of ten miles.
And yet, for all its limitations, the Evo inspired uncommon devotion. "The Evo is my favorite Four Seasons car - more fun even than the Audi R8," gushed Floraday. "Every car I drive after the Evo feels disappointing," added another equally smitten editor. Not surprisingly, the car's biggest fans hailed from the office's male, under-thirty contingent. Others weren't so infatuated. "Maybe I'm getting old or just boring (possibly both), but I have yet to truly enjoy this car for any length of time," wrote production editor Jennifer Misaros.
Considering how few twenty-somethings can afford a $40,000 car, we'd have to say that Mitsubishi failed in its mission to create an upmarket Evo. Not that the automaker is giving up. For later 2008 models, it addressed the dash rattle - again, the only actual problem we needed to visit the dealer for - and recalibrated the fuel-range gauge to provide more accurate readings. For 2010, it added a slightly upgraded interior and a higher MR Touring trim level, which includes leather seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a sunroof. Still, we'd recommend skipping the MR and getting the GSR model. Not only is it significantly less expensive, but it also addresses our main beef with our car by offering a traditional five-speed manual (we're told that Mitsubishi doesn't have a six-speed manual that's both compact enough and stout enough to serve in these oft-modified cars). For less than $35,000, the GSR is an extremely fast, fun, and, if our experience is any indication, reliable sport sedan.
Clearly, the Evo isn't for everybody. As much positive attention as the Evo attracts for Mitsubishi, the brand will need to look elsewhere for its salvation in the U.S. market. Nevertheless, we're happy that the Evo has retained its unique, demanding character. Senior editor Joe Lorio summed it up best: "Will most people prefer a BMW 335i? Absolutely. But I wouldn't want the Evo to become one."
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
RATING: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars
body style : 4-door sedan
accommodation : 5 passengers
construction : Steel unibody
Engine : 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement : 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
Horsepower : 291 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque : 300 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission type : 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive : 4-wheel
Steering : Power rack-and-pinion
lock-to-lock : 2.3 turns
turning circle : 38.7 ft
Suspension, front : Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear : Multilink, coil springs
Brakes : Vented discs, ABS
Tires : Yokohama Advan
Tire size : 245/40YR-18
headroom f/r : 40.6/36.9 in
legroom f/r : 42.5/33.3 in
shoulder room f/r : 54.7/54.3 in
hip room f/r : 53.3/54.1 in
L x W x H : 177.0 x 71.3 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase : 104.3 in
Track f/r : 60.8/60.8 in
Weight : 3560 lb
weight dist. f/r : 55.6/44.4%
cargo capacity : 6.9 cu ft
fuel capacity : 14.5 gal
est. fuel range : 275 miles
fuel grade : 91 octane
Our Test Result
0-60 mph : 5.3 sec
0-100 mph : 14.4 sec
1/4-mile : 14.1 sec @ 99 mph
30-70 mph passing : 6.3 sec
peak acceleration : 0.65 g
speed in gears : 1) 35; 2) 54; 3) 73; 4) 97; 5) 128; 6) 145 mph
cornering l/r : 0.97/0.96 g
70-0 mph braking : 156 ft
peak braking : 1.06 g
5-yr/unlimited-mile roadside assistance
5508 mi: $69.09
13,317 mi: $69.09
25,471 mi: $370.03
5508 mi: Apply antisqueak tape to address rattles at corner of dashboard
2503 mi: Purchase and install Escort Passport 9500ci radar detector, $1998.95
9125 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Michelin Pilot Alpin winter tires, $1033.78
21,965 mi: Mount and balance Yokohama Advan summer tires, $99.96
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.29
($0.78 including depreciation)
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; aluminum wheels; automatic air-conditioning; power windows, mirrors, and door locks; tilt steering column; xenon headlamps; Bluetooth; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Technology package (navigation; CD/MP3/DVD stereo with 30-gigabyte hard drive; 650-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system; Sirius satellite radio), $2550
*Estimate based on info from kbb.com and edmunds.com