For the past fifteen years, the fastest cars in the world over unseen, challenging roads haven't been Porsches or Dodge Vipers or Ferraris or any other type of supercar. No, the cars in question have been pumped-up compact family sedans, the cars automakers have used as the basis of their Group A rally weaponry.
Europeans and the Japanese have known this for some time, reveling in cars such as the Lancia Delta Integrale, the Ford Escort Cosworth, the Subaru Impreza WRX, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. (Even the original BMW M3 was a homologation special for Group A racing and had its fair share of success in tarmac rallies.) The recipe is pretty simple: compact sedan or hatchback, turbo-charged engine, all-wheel drive, meaty brakes and tires. Fire up, and go like hell, whatever the weather, whatever the roads.
In the States, the PlayStation generation and pockets of enthusiasts have known all about these cars and have been wanting to drink from the rally car well. Subaru finally brought its Impreza WRX to America in 2001, a mere nine years after it debuted in Japan, and the mighty STi finally arrives this summer. Despite Subaru's trepidation, the WRX has been a smash hit, providing outstanding performance, practicality, and value.
Mitsubishi had a bit more of a dilemma than Subaru. The basic WRX uses a fairly unsophisticated all-wheel-drive system and a moderately powerful turbo engine, which keeps the car affordable. By comparison, the more powerful, better-braked, and racier STi will cost about 25 percent more than the regular WRX. The recent Lancer Evos all had 276-horsepower engines as standard, mated to a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that used torque-sensing front and electronically controlled rear differentials. That made the Evo a more expensive car than a regular WRX, positioning it against the STi in a much higher price bracket: It's one thing to sell an Evo or an STi on its performance merits at a price less than $30,000, but persuading people to part with more than that for what looks like a warmed-over compact sedan is a much lower-volume proposition.
One gets the feeling that the enthusiasts inside Mitsubishi were waiting to see how the WRX fared here before fully committing to a U.S. version of the Evo. After all, these cars are hard-core, aimed at people who put performance and speed above styling, luxurious interiors, and prestige. Cars like the Evo score with people who know cars, but they barely register with nonenthusiasts.
The U.S.-spec Evo VIIIor the Evolution, as it's known in a country with no prior Evo historyhas a few compromises to keep the price at less than $30,000. Compared with the Japanese and European versions, there's a less complicated drivetrain that uses mechanical differentials. The six-speed manual transmission was replaced by a five-speeder for durability reasons. And the turbocharged in-line four-cylinder engine makes "just" 271 horsepower, down from 276 because of emissions requirements.
Externally, the Evolution looks like a Lancer that has been to a speed shop. Bulged wheel arches, an aggressive fascia, striking seventeen-inch Enkei wheels, and a way-cool carbon fiber, dual-element rear wing give the Evolution a chunkier, sportier mien. More subtle performance-car cues are the red Brembo brake calipers lurking behind the wheels, a four-inch exhaust tip, and stylish projector headlamps. The cognoscenti will know this car when they see it, but valet parkers will think you're part of the import-tuner scene.
Inside, the Evolution is understated. Only a sweet alloy-spoked Momo steering wheel, leather-wrapped shifter, supportive wraparound Recaros (which are bigger for U.S. plushbottoms than for the rest of the world), and silver gauge rims differentiate it from its economy-car roots. These are highlighted by interior plastics that fall well short of most cars you can buy for $30,000. Unlike many a performance car, this one is hugely practical, with a decent trunk and rear-seat leg room that easily betters that of the WRX. The equipment list is fine, with a standard six-speaker stereo, power windows and locks, and air conditioning; the dual-element rear wing and a sunroof are the only options. Mitsubishi plans to bring 6500 Evolutions into the United States in the first year.
The reason you'd spend twice as much for an Evolution than you would for a regular Lancer has nothing to do with the interior trim. Most of that money is under the skin, starting with 200 additional body-shell welds that double the torsional rigidity of the standard Lancer. Reinforcement is added in key areas, such as the front-strut tower mount, rear trailing arm, and upper-control-arm mounts. For the United States, the car is beefed up with side-impact beams and reinforced front and rear bumpers to meet safety regulations. To offset the weight of the body reinforcement, the Evolution has an aluminum hood and front fenders.
The Evolution uses the same basic suspension layout as the Lancer, with a strut-type front end and a multi-link rear, but it shares few actual pieces. Up front, there's a strut-tower cross-brace to stiffen the mounting points. There are larger-diameter, gas-charged inverted struts, forged aluminum lower control arms and front knuckles (in place of steel), a lower-control-arm connecting bar, and a 0.9-inch-diameter anti-roll bar. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a quicker 13:1 ratio. The track is wider than a regular Lancer's, too.