A Cult Education: 2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR

The Asphalt Jungle

I wouldn't want to be in a cult—who wants to teleport off to planet Amazia with 37 bald-headed Crocs wearers, anyway?—so why would I want to be in a cult car? Yet there I was, zinging through the gears of a 2015 Mitsubishi Evo MR, a turbocharged sports sedan that couldn't scream "cult car" any louder if Eraserhead were driving it. And I got to thinking: Evo devotees love their rabid, all-wheel-drive pressure cookers, but why the cult label? At home, I carefully scanned the Evo options list: There is no "Pathological Narcissist Mode."

Turning to the Webster's dictionary that I'm pretending to have, I note that certain uses of the word "cult" refer roughly to "something most people don't like at all but a few people like a whole lot." I suppose this makes Brussels sprouts a "cult vegetable." Given its reputation, the Evo must rub a whole lot of us the wrong way. Yet a few of you out there simply catch sight of one and immediately start writing really sappy poems about it. (It amazes me that Kenny G isn't known as a "cult saxophonist. ")

Though Mitsubishi introduced the car—officially, the Lancer Evolution—in Japan in 1992, it wasn't until the car's eighth generation in 2003 when the Evo arrived on our shores. Americans had to endure more than a decade of rapturous chanting from overseas ("So fast!" "Little rally car!" "Nyah nah nah nah nah!") before we could get in on the fun. It was a harsh indoctrination period. On the faces of early Evo VIII buyers one could observe an unmistakable look of bliss.

The VIII introduced the basic blueprint that continues with today's Evo X: feisty turbo four-cylinder engine, computer-regulated all-wheel-drive system, grip-biased suspension, assorted hardware and cosmetic bits seemingly plucked from a race car. The VIII wasn't comfortable, wasn't beautiful, and wasn't afraid to challenge sports cars 10 times its price. The fanboys swooned. Some even modded the chassis and cranked in enough boost to reach orbit, creating bargain supercar-killers. Yet for all its obvious prowess, the Evo VIII clearly wasn't for everyone. It was a hard-riding, hood-scooped instrument of bristly technology that behaved like an angry teenager and looked like a family sedan with a big rear wing (which it was). Only the true believers wanted in.

The X is an instantly recognizable Evolution. On tap is even more tech; additions include Active Yaw Control and, on the MR edition, a six-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. Brembo brakes are standard. My test car also included a few nods to civility: The Touring package ($2,000) adds leather seats (heated in front), a moonroof, and extra sound deadening.

Yet it only took a few minutes behind the wheel to realize the X is still very much an Evo. With 291 hp, it's quick, though in an age of Nissan GT-Rs and 650-hp Corvettes it's no longer the comet it once seemed. It handles flat and sure, and in the snow of a winter visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I plastered a delicious layer of icing all over the doors driving sideways through country-road turns. It's still fun to drive hard.

But it's also abundantly clear why the Evo's cult status is now cemented. This is a car for a niche even narrower and more committed than the VIII. Price for my test car: $41,805. I almost choked on my Zingerman's sandwich at that figure. The total doesn't even include navigation, which is $2,375 more. Whoa.

The diehards may still go goofy over the Evo, but I doubt many of the rest of us will. The Evo's longtime neo-rally rival, the Subaru WRX STI, delivers a far more vibrant and satisfying driving experience (which helped earn it a spot on our 2015 All-Stars list). Judging by the sweetness of the All-Star 2015 Volks­wagen GTI, the coming AWD Golf R will surely set the bar for manners and sophistication. (The Golf R will start at $37,415.)

Mitsubishi knows this: 2015 marks the final year of Evo production (though the name may return in different form). It was a good run, but you won't hear any laments from me. I don't like to associate the word "cult" with "car." I prefer "needs more cowbell."

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