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One Last Drive: 2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Final Edition Review

It’s survival of the fittest, not fastest

Jake HolmeswriterPatrick M. HoeyphotographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

When future enthusiasts, perhaps swiping on a tablet while ensconced in their autonomous mobility pods, look back on the history of the performance car, the Evo will stick out. Often mimicked but rarely equaled, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution deserves a special place in the history books for the way it eschewed anything but performance.

But the thing about evolution is that if you don't keep pace, you're not long for this world. The auto industry became a more regulated and stringent place, one that no longer had room for cars like the Evo. I wasn't happy to hear Mitsubishi was killing it off, but I wasn't surprised either. Nothing left to do with this Final Edition but think back to the good times and get my kicks while I can in what is almost certainly the last Evo we'll ever know.

It's a tricky thing to launch -- a stick-shift Evo. Too gentle and you bog down waiting for the turbo to wake up. Too aggressive and your chirping tires come with the faint scent of friction material. Once on the move, though, the Evolution is explosive. This 10th-generation car may be more than a decade old, but it's still as much fun as any of its modern rivals. Short gearing and sledgehammer torque amplify the sense of acceleration as you work through the five forward ratios. It feels crazy fast even in the era of 707 hp Dodge sedans, especially because this Final Edition model has all the best pieces from the Evo parts bin.

It's much more involved than your typical run-out special. The 2.0-liter turbo-four engine makes more boost and boasts tweaks like sodium-filled exhaust valves, yielding an extra 12 hp and 5 lb-ft of torque over other Evos. The chassis also blends the best elements of the base GSR and the upgraded MR model: The five-speed manual transmission migrates from the GSR, but you also get the lightweight two-piece Brembo brake rotors, Bilstein dampers, and Enkei wheels from the MR. There are plenty of dress-up bits too, like dark-painted wheels, a black aluminum roof, Final Edition badges, and a numbered plaque (we tested US0073).

For a car that's been around for what seems like such a long time, it's easy to forget that the Lancer Evolution almost didn't come to the U.S. at all. The cognoscenti might have known about the car's popularity in Europe and Japan, but it was only when Americans began "driving" the Evo in Gran Turismo and reading about it online that they began lusting for the rally-bred car to reach America. In 1999, Mitsubishi stirred the pot by bringing an Evo VI to the States and letting journalists get behind the wheel. Industry insider Kyle Bazemore, who was working in Mitsubishi product planning at the time, is the one to blame/thank for that move. He got word about an unsold Evo lingering at a port in Germany and pitched his bosses on bringing it to America as a promotional tool.

"We all knew what an Evo was, and we knew that it would be awesome to have around," he remembers now. Bazemore's bosses approved his plan, so after some phone calls -- and a big check -- the car was shipped to the U.S. There was just one quick change needed: As the Lancer was still called Mirage in the U.S. at that time, Mitsubishi pulled off the car's Lancer badges and stuck in Mirage floor mats.

Journalists were smitten, recalls Bazemore: "It was just really cool to be able to call the enthusiast books and say, 'You won't believe what I've got the keys for.' It was probably the easiest sell of my career."

It was clear there was demand for the Evolution in the U.S., but it wasn't until the Evolution VII that the company could homologate the performance car for American emissions and crash requirements. Introduced at the 2002 Los Angeles auto show, the car was a hit when it hit dealer lots in 2003, scoring big with both the press and buyers. It essentially sold itself, says Mitsubishi product planning senior manager Bryan Arnett, and very little traditional advertising was needed to get buyers in showrooms. That type of publicity was exactly what Mitsubishi wanted from the car.

"We were looking for a vehicle that could essentially serve as a flagship for the Mitsubishi brand," he says. "There's value in [being on] magazine covers. I think it provided a good decade of branding for [Mitsubishi]."

The Lancer Evolution helped keep Mitsubishi on car guys' radar at a time when it had transitioned from selling cool cars like the 3000GT and Eclipse GSX of the 1990s to tepid Mirages and Galants. A halo car in every sense of the word, the Evo became an icon that rose far above the company's mediocre mainstream cars. You don't buy an Evo by accident; you do it because your passion overwhelms your good sense.

So I'm not surprised when I come out of a store to see a group of 20-something guys peering over the Final Edition. One of them parked his white Evo GSR next to my test car; his buddy's black MR is a few spaces down. They instantly know why this car is special and want to talk shop. Nor am I surprised when a Dodge Charger 392 driver rolls down his window on a city street to compare notes on fast cars, nor even when a Ford Focus ZX5 with a loud exhaust drops a few gears, unprompted, to fly past me.

Not that driving the Evo is without compromise. The engine never shuts up, spinning and droning above 3,500 rpm on the highway; every bump and imperfection in the road gets telegraphed right to your spine; and the cheap, plain plastic interior panels buzz and resonate in sync with the engine. No matter how hard I try, the low-res touchscreen radio won't Bluetooth-pair with my phone. Trunk space is minimal because the battery and washer-fluid bottle live there, meaning the back seats don't fold.

To the right type of driver, though, none of this matters. The Lancer Evolution really is excellent to drive, with perfect brake-pedal feel to minutely modulate the Brembos, steering that chatters to your fingers readily as a gossiping middle-schooler, and ultra-stiff Eibach suspension springs that excommunicate body roll. If I lived next to a race track or a canyon road, the Lancer is the car I'd want. It's raw and pure in a way the Golf R and Subaru WRX STI only hope to be.

But those cars also grew up and got better as the Lancer Evolution, well, did not. It still feels like it's from 2007, and in the face of strong competition, including the new Ford Focus RS, it takes a special kind of person (read: fanboy) to drop nearly $40,000 on this car. But Mitsubishi declined to develop an 11th-generation model because the company has turned its attention away from throaty turbocharged terrors as fuel-efficiency and safety regulations tighten. The company has refocused on plug-ins and crossovers; there's no denying there is some business sense in pursuing the types of cars that many people will actually buy.

"The car could not evolve any further within the environment that we're in," says Arnett. "I think it was better to end on a high note. A car like the Evo, I think it had its day, and now we look to the future."

Mitsubishi's rally-bred performance car may have failed to evolve, but the way it dominated its ecosystem for so long has left a serious mark on the world of affordable sports cars. No one can deny that on rally stages or road courses, from slaloms to switchbacks, the Lancer Evolution was a force to be reckoned with. This may well be the last time I ever drive an Evo, but it's not a drive I'll soon forget.

2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Final Edition Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $38,805/$41,295 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L DOHC turbocharged 16-valve I-4/303 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 305 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 17/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 177.0 x 71.3 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Weight: 3,527 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.1 seconds (est)
Top Speed: N/A