Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Review

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution ReviewMitsubishi has gone through the motions of corporate automotive life. The lineup shows a couple of well-groomed sedans, a coupe, and an SUV here and there. Like a good citizen, they built an American factory. They've tried everything else, too: partnering up with Chrysler, doing the trendy TV commercials thing, and even offering the industry's best warranty.

What hath their efforts wrought? Lackluster sales, assertions that their cars will always play second fiddle to Honda and Toyota, and Chrysler's turning a blind eye in a time of crisis. Not to mention an almost monthly feature article from the latest publication to ask "so, you guys bankrupt yet?"

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Mitsubishi has decided to stand up and go postal on everyone.

That would explain this Lancer Evolution, more unanimously referred to as "Evo". It may have evolved from Mitsubishi's Lancer, but this is one car better judged on its looks than its name. Those who think of that 120-horsepower niceguy econobox will miss a few details, such as this car having been turbocharged to within an inch of its life, slamming that power through all four wheels and the fiercest tires that would fit, and wearing a sinister grille and sky-high spoiler to ensure that no one misses the message.

Think of it as Mitsubishi's collective rage bottled into one menacing mold of sheetmetal.

Road Test
Driving the Evo gives a good idea of life as a prison warden. There you are trying to get through the day while an angry herd of unruly forces awaits on all sides, ready to lash out and knock you down. Sure, the drive starts off calm and quiet, like a Lancer powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, which it is. But every time the red needle on that tachometer zeroes in on the "3," hold on for your life. When in second gear, 20.3 pounds of turbo boost blitz their way through the Evo's Yokohamas and punt you to 50 MPH before you can blink. Shift up to third and that becomes 80 in no time.

This explosive personality is the part of the Evo that strikes you on the first drive and every session thereafter. Mitsubishi has relentless in cramming every horse it can possibly fit into that engine: the original 271 now stands at an astounding 286 (which some still suspect is underrated) after adding MIVEC variable intake valve timing, revising the turbocharger's compressor housing, and improving the muffler. Clue: this baby is FAST.

Those horses and the 289 pounds-feet of torque could have been used to shred the tires to kingdom come, but fortunately the Evo is about sky-high limits all around. Each and every horse finds its way to the road courtesy of an all-wheel-drive system that spreads the power equally between the front and rear tires (or up to 100% to the front), which are all abundantly sized at P235/45R17. But it's more than that. All Evos gained two key additions last year: 1. a helical limited-slip front differential that transfers power to the front wheel with more grip in corners (complimenting the existing mechanical limited-slip diff in the rear), and 2. a new "active" center differential with an electro-hydraulic clutch (replacing a viscous type unit) that more expertly apportions the front-to-rear power split.

It's hard to determine the exact extent to which each of these factors contributes, but easy to determine that the Evo grips like a crooked used car salesman that doesn't let go as long as your right foot's down. Skidpad grip is consistently in the 0.90g range on all the various Evo models, a result of the differential-assisted front wheels pulling you through and the rears helping out. At the limit, the front tires are the ones to break free first thanks to the 60% front weight bias, but strangely and thankfully, oversteer seems just as easy to pull off (our car's lack of the monster spoiler might have helped), and in either case, the car regains traction right away. The transitions are never sudden, never scare you. The Evo makes you feel confident going fast, all the time.

Its wickedly quick steering encourages this behavior further. With a steering wheel that only turns 2.1 times (!) from one lock to the other, you can forget about that hand-over-hand thing you learned back in Driver's Ed. The four brakes - big discs, vented rotors, made by Brembo (master of brakes) - yank this adventure to a halt in an incredibly short 108 feet. Everything about this car is tense. Immediate. Impatient.

That turns out to be the problem in one area: the clutch. This one's weird. The whole bottom half of travel is completely wasted motion, and when the clutch finally engages right near the top, it does so all at once, and it's got a fairly hefty return spring. This isn't so much of a problem when you're speeding and moving your body parts quickly, but at lower speeds it takes a concentrated effort to change gears smoothly and do so without overrevving in advance. (Shift feel, however, is awesome.) Also, when performing a panic stop, the lack of antilock brakes on this RS model nervously screeches those tires all the way down to a standstill while coughing up more white smoke than San Francisco. Lastly, those extra-wide wheels give this racer a minivan moment every time you get stuck with the lame 39-foot turning circle.

And you know how turbocharging a little engine results in better fuel economy (vs. a standard big engine)? Let's talk about that. Yes, drive an Evo like a Lancer - no turbo - and you could theoretically net 25 MPG. Just one problem: having an extra 166 horsepower is only slightly less tempting than standing in front of a broken ATM machine. Expect to end up with a figure closer to ours: 18. Make that fuel premium, and while you're at it, make that engine oil Mobil 1 Synthetic.

A pleasant discovery is the price you pay in comfort. The Evo does thump along like a skateboard, sometimes exaggerating the impacts with a loud KRONG from the suspension. Rocks and pebbles constantly shower the underbody of the car, and the tires don't know when to shut up. Plus, no cruise control! But honestly, all aspects of pain were within tolerance levels. Even driving an Evo for a couple hours probably won't hurt anything too badly.

Except the pride of anyone who tries to race you.

Inside and Out
Here's where it does hurt: no radio. No speakers. No power windows, no power door locks, no power mirrors, no keyless entry, no center console, no map lights. No sound deadening in the body, no carpeting in the trunk, no wiper in the rear, no paint on the naked door handles or mirrors. Amazing what we take for granted until it's gone. Can't live without these life sustaining necessities? Then stay away from this track-ready Evolution RS - something that all but about 200 of Mitsubishi's customers did last year. Honda sells that many Accords in two hours. On a slow day.

Since those voids can be easily filled with a step up the Evo ladder, let's focus on what's common to all Evos, most of which is common to all Lancers. It's just your basic retro-90s Japanese economy car interior: plain but perfectly functional. The few controls work exactly as expected, with a quality feel that belies their cheap appearance and new cupholders for this year. If it pleases your eye, you should have nothing to complain about. Especially if you like black.

Unique to Evos are the enveloping Recaro seats, which add side bolsters that aggressively hold you in place while maintaining the high comfort levels of the standard Lancer. There should be enough room and adjustability in them for drivers of all heights, though fatties might not fit within the narrow width. Also, those Recaro guys copied one of Volkswagen's wrong answers by placing the angle adjuster on one of those frustrating knobs that must be turned ten thousand times to recline the seat one degree. And in some conspiracy against ergonomics, the knob has a freakin annoying triangular shape and is nearly impossible to reach with all that bolstering in the way. In a two-driver household, this car could inspire divorce.

Some more Evo exclusives are the Momo steering wheel (nothing wrong with this piece) and the sportier red gauges, in which the tachometer stands front and center. And of course, no other Lancer has the switch to toggle between Tarmac, Gravel, and Snow settings on the Active Center Differential.

The back seat is standard Lancer fare - adequate for two adults, possibly tolerable for three. Good legroom and footroom, but seat cushion too low, short, and soggy. The built-in head restraints are pretty flimsy, too, and there are no side air bags in any position. A mix of average-feeling leather and nice-feeling Alcantara (suede?) covers all surfaces.

The back seat doesn't fold down into the trunk like on other Lancers, no doubt to keep the car as stiff as possible. But the trunk is fairly roomy, even if, on this RS model, it looks like a looter made off in the night with the contents.

Other Thoughts
Before we break down the Evos, it might be helpful to track its chronology for those who haven't been keeping up with its ever-changing world.

2003: Only ten years late, the Lancer Evolution arrived in America, landing in February 2003 as a single model, with a single engine and transmission for a single MSRP (which most early cars sold thousands over). Though this was only the third generation of Lancer to have an Evo variant, Mitsubishi of Japan seems to tack on a new Roman numeral to signal every little change, so by this time the car was known as the "Evo VIII."

2004: The Evolution RS (tested here) was born. Though light on content, it boasted unique features like a limited-slip front differential, rear crossmember (more stiffness), lighter aluminum roof, and lighter price. Notice that unlike some manufacturers, Mitsubishi actually charges less for removing content, not more.

2005: The Evolution MR makes three. More street-friendly Bilstein shock absorbers, a 6-speed manual transmission, lighter-weight BBS wheels (replacing Enkeis of the same size), HID headlights, the RS's same aluminum roof, and shark's fins vortex generators mounted on the roof for extra high-speed downforce made this the ultimate Evolution. Also this year, all Evos got the front differential from 2004's RS plus the new Active Center Differential and 5 extra horsepower. Mitsubishi suddenly started calling the middle-of-the-line model the "Evo VIII," as in Japan.

2006: New front and rear styling, another extra 10 horsepower, grippier seats, aluminum pedals, a new wing, and the newly-styled wheels (lighter by 3.3 pounds) and closer transmission gear spacing on the lower two Evos were apparently enough for Mitsubishi to dub this the "Evo IX." The Evo X, based on the new Lancer, is coming for 2008. Notice that so far, every three Roman numeral Evos seems to comprise one generation of Lancer.

Back to the present. We've still got the same three Evos, starting with the RS at $29,744. It's $2,250 extra for all that essential stuff on the standard Evo at $31,994, the most important being antilock brakes. From there it's a steep $4,900 to the MR at $36,894. Only on the middle Evo can you get leather, a sunroof, or a 315-watt Infinity stereo.

While the MR still marks the summit and the RS does help keep the pounds off, the original Evo still seems the most appealing to the mainstream (to the extent that the Evo can be called mainstream), and is best at the Evo's specialty: humiliating any so-called sports car within ten miles of its price point. Mustang, 350Z, RX-8, S2000? Burned, destroyed, rejected, massacred. Mitsubishi didn't even have the mercy to let the $90,000 Acura NSX die with the "fastest Japanese car ever sold in America" title intact. With 60 MPH in the Evo's lap by 4.3 seconds, it yanked away that crown pretty bluntly.

Only one car in this world can match its bang-for-the-buck quotient: the 300-horsepower $33,620 Subaru Impreza WRX STI, its fellow turbocharged 4-door rally car and longtime enemy. And to buy something faster is to spend an extra 40% - as in the $44,600 Corvette - and even then, there's still the question of which is more fun.

Last Word
Mitsubishi's wrath tastes great.

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