NAYOGA, JAPAN There are winners and losers in every industry, and at the moment, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation is very much one of the latter. Worldwide sales have plunged, the carmaker is bleeding $12 million a day, and its parent company, the Mitsubishi Group, has just choked forth another $5 billion in rescue aid, the second such stipend in less than a year.
No wonder, then, that Mitsubishi was eager for us to sample the latest version of the Lancer Evolution, which is very much a winner, at its Okazaki proving grounds in Japan. Never mind that the 2006 model we drove is nearly identical to the current car. When you have only one vehicle in your lineup that anybody really cares about, you work it for all it's worth.
Mitsubishi's evergreen 4G63 turbo four certainly is being worked for all it's worth, gaining variable intake-valve timing in this ninth-generation Evo for an additional ten hp, up to 286, plus three additional lb-ft of torque, for 289. In first and second gears in particular, the latest Evo feels ever so slightly sprightlier, and the engine sounds marginally more refined and more modern. But the greatest differences continue to lie between the base model and the top-of-the-line MR, regardless of whether the cars are 2005 or 2006 iterations. (The lightweight RS also returns for '06.) With its quicker-response Bilstein dampers; aluminum roof; six-speed manual; and shark-tooth-shaped vortex-generator aerodynamic add-ons to the roof, the MR continues to carve a smoother and more livable edge into the Evo's performance, offering less understeer, more predictable bump suppression, and better overall composure. (As before, those advantages will cost an extra $5000.) Both base and MR models still boast chassis and steering that are more communicative than those of any car other than the Lotus Elise, Brembo brakes that can be hammered all day long, and more grip than a frat boy's palm on a bottle of beer.
Other changes for 2006 include black Alcantara inserts in the Recaro seats; a Gurney flap-which basically looks like a piece of window molding-attached to the rear wing to increase downforce, a new front air dam, smoked-lens head- and taillights, and new Enkei wheels.
Bigger news lies ahead for the tenth-generation Evo, scheduled to arrive in 2007 with brand-new architecture, styling, and possibly an optional Audi-style, dual-clutch, paddle-operated transmission. With any luck, Mitsubishi's headlines will be more favorable by then.
Price: $31,750 (est.)
Engine: Turbo 2.0L DOHC I-4, 286 hp, 289 lb-ft