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 The age-old, tacked-together Evo styling ethos has been replaced by a much more cohesive, ground-up approach.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.