The End of a Rivalry: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR and Subaru WRX STI

The STI may never have a rival equivalent to the Evo.

Chris NelsonwriterRobin Trajanophotographer

Everything ends eventually, but we're still caught off guard by landscape-shifting moments -- when inextricable ties break, when a fairy-tale romance fades, or when a raging rivalry flickers.

Just after Subaru pulled back the sheets on the all-new 2015 WRX STI at last year's Detroit auto show, Mitsubishi announced it would be ending production of its Lancer Evolution after the 2015 model year, capping the quarter-century runoff with a small-batch, Japan-only Evo X Final Edition. The long-burning fire between the STI and Evo, both more capable than ever, won't be stoked, marking the end of a brawl that spilled onto our shores at the start of the new millennium.

We brought these bitter rivals together for a bittersweet goodbye and ended up asking ourselves the same question over and over again: "What happens to the WRX STI when the Lancer Evolution bows out?"

The birth of a rivalry

One hasn't ever had to live without the other. Both came to life in the early 1990s, when Mitsubishi and Subaru competed in the World Rally Championship, and have nipped at each other's heels ever since. The two were cut from the same gritty, oil-stained cloth and launched at about the same time after Mitsubishi and Subaru tossed out their big, heavy, all-wheel-drive WRC cars -- the Galant and the Legacy, respectively -- in favor of smaller, lighter cars -- the Lancer and Impreza.

To both meet Group A homologation requirements and build up the new Lancer's rally-tough persona, Mitsubishi quickly launched the Evolution, a 250-hp production version of the Lancer. The first 2,500 Evos sold in three days, so the company built another 2,500 to meet the high demand. Subaru picked up on that success and debuted its Impreza WRX STI in 1994, just as the second-generation Evolution arrived. (Mitsubishi sold 5,000 Evo IIs in less than three months.) Customer demand for the WRX STI wowed Subie's performance limb, Subaru Tecnica International; the automaker's Mitaka factory couldn't meet demand. Subaru did a rapid-fire series of updates to the STI's blueprinted flat-four until it made 275 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque, making it more than a match for the Mitsubishi.

Scottish rally hero Colin McRae soon climbed into an STI rally car, Finnish shoe Tommi Mäkinen strapped into an Evo, and the two created a spectacle that helped overseas sales blossom. We watched from afar as the rivalry turned cutthroat, and the cars went wheel to wheel for the next several years, progressing through successive versions as the war intensified.

The brashness comes to America

The fight finally trickled into America in 2001 when Subaru debuted its 227-hp Impreza WRX. Mitsubishi put the Lancer on sale the following year and then, in 2003, just days after it debuted its 271-hp, eighth-generation Lancer Evolution at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Subaru revealed its 300-hp WRX STI at the Detroit auto show. Both cars looked brash, offered performance well beyond their price tags, and were ours to enjoy. Finally. In our first head-to-head review, we wrote, "The STI is arguably more complete than any race-bred road car in history, and its owner needs to make very few sacrifices to enjoy it. But if the point of these cars is to serve the most committed and crazed of wheelmen, then the Evo has the edge. It's raw. It's punishing."

Subsequent comparisons of the STI and Evo churned out conflicting conclusions as well, which didn't surprise us since both cars offered similar, versatile performance but had different personalities. Declaring a clear victor became nearly impossible as the rivals evolved. A ninth-generation Evo preceded an all-new WRX STI, and two diehard factions of fans prayed the cars would trade punches forever.

We didn't fret over Mitsubishi leaving the increasingly stringent and expensive WRC before the 2006 season. It not only said it hoped to return after a couple of years, the automaker brought out an all-new, 10th-generation Lancer Evolution during its time away. Why build an all-new Evo and not race it? Then Subaru quit the WRC too, just three years after Mitsubishi, pointing its finger at a feeble economy.

Changing times

As the recession worsened, Subaru focused wholly on its popular, large-margin commodity cars and held off on major changes to the STI. Mitsubishi also stunted Evo development but had no real stable of moneymaking mainstream cars to tend to. Subaru survived the fiscal fallout. Mitsubishi did too, but it took a thrashing.

Bread-and-butter Lancer sales -- Evo included -- were dismal, prompting the automaker's 2014 decision to end the Evo line and fill the showroom-floor void with an onslaught of eco- and family-friendly hatches and plug-in crossovers. Subaru, on the other hand, is flush and ready to flood Subaru Tecnica International with cash so that its skunkworks can further develop the WRX STI.

The WRX STI goes forth in a shifting market, one where all-new competitors, such as the 320-odd-hp Ford Focus RS, will likely be cushier, mellower, and more approachable. But we don't expect Subaru to shave off the STI's 5 o'clock shadow or round out its rough edges just yet. When the next-generation WRX STI comes around -- and it will come around -- its engine should be more powerful than today's engine, and its chassis should be more capable than ever.

No matter how accomplished the WRX STI becomes, it will likely never have a more entertaining sparring partner than the Lancer Evolution. Say the name of one, and you'll always think of the other. We too hoped the rivalry would never end but knew full well it would. While the Lancer Evo's run ends here, the road ahead is wide open for the WRX STI.

What will the super Subie become? We're excited to see, even if it happens in an Evo-less future.

2015 Subaru WRX STI Specifications

  • Price: $35,290/$35,639 (base/as tested)
  • Engine: 2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve flat-4/305 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 290 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 17/23 mpg city/hwy
  • Suspension: Inverted strut-type, coil springs/control arms, coil springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires: 245/40R-18 Dunlop Sport Maxx
  • L x W x H: 180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
  • Wheelbase: 104.3 in
  • Weight: 3,367 lb
  • Weight Dist. F/R: 59/41%
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 4.6 sec
  • ¼ Mile: 13.1 sec @ 104.4 mph

2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR Specifications

  • Price: $39,805/$41,805 (base/as tested)
  • Engine: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/291 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 300 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 17/22 mpg city/hwy
  • Suspension: Inverted strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires: 245/40R-18 Yokohama Advan A13
  • L x W x H: 177.0 x 71.3 x 58.3 in
  • Wheelbase: 104.3 in
  • Weight: 3,613 lb
  • Weight Dist. F/R: 57/43%
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 5.1 sec
  • ¼ Mile: 13.8 sec @ 99.7 mph

Using Sales as Tea Leaves

When Mitsubishi finally brought the Lancer Evolution to the U.S., the automaker was outselling Subaru by more than 165,000 units. But the Evo sat in showrooms next to discounted Lancers, Eclipses, and other vehicles aimed at first-time new car buyers with poor or no credit, while the WRX STI shared showrooms with a regularly updated line of successful, all-wheel-drive crossovers that fostered a faithful customer base.

After Mitsubishi's U.S. sales peaked at 345,111 units in 2002, they dropped to 256,810 for '03, as Subaru's nudged up to 186,819. The easy credit market began to default, and Mitsu's sales plunged to 161,609 in 2004, while Subie's ticked up to 187,404. The two never traded places again. Subaru's slightly premium-priced lineup allowed its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, to invest in new product, and its North American-specific 2008 Forester and 2009 Outback became unmitigated hits.

Cash-starved Mitsubishi invested little in its North American product, cut models, and found itself competing unfavorably with entry-level cars from Korea. Its nadir came in 2009, at 53,986 units, off 44.5 percent that year, while Subaru was up 13.4 percent—that year's only gainer among mainstream brands—to 216,652. Last year, Mitsubishi's sales crawled back up to 77,643, while Subaru's breached a half-million,
at 513,693.

Neither the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution nor the Subaru WRX STI had anything to do with this, but the fate of respective volume models has determined the future of these street-rally halo cars. There is money left only for the WRX STI. -- Todd Lassa

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