Formula One might well be regarded as the pinnacle of motorsport but, if your enthusiasm for cars truly runs deep, it is rally cars that will fire the imagination. Cars a lot like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X.
One of the most successful rally cars in the modern history of the sport, the first Lancer Evolution road car went on sale in 1992 and made its world championship debut the following year. It was designed and built specifically to satisfy Group A regulations, which required a production run of 5,000. The result was a humdrum Mitsubishi four-door saloon with four-wheel drive, big brakes and a potent, turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. Though no one knew it, a rallying icon had just been born.
Its name proved appropriate, for the Lancer became fitter and faster with each model. By 1996 it was the personification of four-wheeled aggression: peppered with vents and air intakes and fitted with ever more outlandish wings and aerofoils in an effort to keep it on the ground.
By then the Evo was virtually unbeatable, but its showroom success was limited by the fact that it would not be sold officially outside its native Japan until 2003. Ironically, Mitsubishi only began to expand the Evo’s cult appeal and capitalise on its global sporting success as the rally car’s competitiveness began to wane. Luckily, enthusiasts have long memories and the Evo’s credibility has endured.
Now the 10th generation of Evo is upon us, but the car traditionally worshipped by fanatical rally fans and Gran Turismo gamers alike has undergone a radical makeover. No longer built with the express purpose of winning rallies, Mitsubishi has allowed it to mature, and while its immaculate rally lineage remains central to its core appeal, considerable effort has been expended to make the Evo X greener, more refined and more versatile.
Don’t think that it has gone soft. Far from it, as one look at the X’s chiselled flanks, scowling face and don’t-mess aura confirms. Clearly Mitsubishi might want to muscle in on a little of Audi’s and BMW’s territory, but the Evo remains an extreme machine with its own unique identity.
To those of you not well-versed in the intricacies of the Evo, a glance down the X’s spec sheet might give you the impression that little bar the exterior styling has changed. Look more closely and you will see that much of it is in fact new.
The old iron-block, 1,997cc, turbocharged 4G63 engine fitted to all nine previous generations of Evo has been pensioned off, replaced by the lighter, less polluting, all-alloy 1,998cc 4B11 unit.
It does not develop any more power than the old engine’s 276bhp, due to Mitsubishi’s commitment to a long-standing (and largely ignored) gentleman’s agreement between Japanese car manufacturers to cap power outputs.
In truth it is a somewhat meaningless figure anyway, as not only do Evos tend to leave the factory with an honest 300bhp but, much like that other great Oriental hero car, the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Evo has such latent potential that most customers cannot resist the urge to tune their cars seriously.
So accepted is this that, when the car goes on sale in Britain in March, Mitsubishi UK will be doing just that, offering fully warranted “FQ” versions of the Evo X, just as it did with its predecessor (if you don’t know what FQ stands for, don’t ask). Beyond the standard car, which will be badged FQ-300 to reflect its true power output, there will also be FQ-340 and FQ-360 models.
The other major hardware change for the Evo X is the optional six-speed DSG-style transmission. Called Twin Clutch Super Sport Transmission (TC SST), this is Mitsubishi’s take on the VW Group’s paddle-shift double-clutch DSG gearbox, offering the convenience of a self-shifting, two-pedal automatic together with the rapid-fire and near-seamless thrills of a paddle-shift sequential manual. A conventional five-speed manual is fitted as standard for those who prefer the simple joys of slicing through a sweet-shifting H-pattern gearbox.
Which is best? Unless you are a real diehard it is difficult to fault the TC SST box. When left in Drive, it shifts up and down with a level of intuition that is almost spooky, expertly blipping the throttle on downshifts and changing up with a smoothness and rapidity beyond even the most adept driver. Electing to use the magnesium steering column-mounted gearshift paddles gives you an added degree of control, but whether you are actually doing a better job than the Evo’s gearbox electronics is debatable.
Driving the manual version is more engaging, as you are directly involved, but it is harder work and you have to adopt a different style. Where the TC SST car encourages you to charge at corners, braking right into the heart of the turn while simultaneously changing down with the merest flick of your left hand, the manual car demands that you take a more measured, disciplined approach. It is no more or less satisfying, but much like comparing a stick-shift and paddle-shift Ferrari, you cannot help thinking that opting for the stick denies you the car’s final layer of ability.
While our test of the Evo X was confined to Mitsubishi’s Tokachi Proving Ground in the far north of Japan, it was challenging enough to demonstrate that this latest Evo builds on the extraordinary ability of its fierce forebears while taming their wilder excesses. Packed with hi-tech hardware and software, the Evo X features the all-new Super All Wheel Control (S-AWC) system, which manages information gathered by the Evo’s other dynamic systems, including Active Yaw Control, Active Centre Differential, Active Stability Control and Active Front Steer. When you drive it in anger and you feel the technology in action, the result is absolutely brilliant.
Combined with four-wheel drive and a set of super-sticky Yokohama tyres, it is no wonder the Evo is a dizzyingly agile machine. Tremendous traction, head-scrambling roadholding and rabid stopping power mean you can extract every ounce of performance on the tarmac.
Whether Mitsubishi has succeeded in creating an Evo that appeals to mainstream customers remains to be seen. It is a less intimidating beast for those more accustomed to the familiar manners of a European sports saloon, although the Evo’s spectacular A-to-B ability will still leave them breathless. (The Daily Telegraph)
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X
Price/availability: TBC – Aug/Sept 2008
Engine/transmission: 1,998cc all-aluminium, in-line four-cylinder petrol with DOHC and four valves per cylinder; 276bhp at 6,500rpm and 311lb ft of torque at 3500rpm. Five-speed manual or six-speed double-clutch SST paddle-shift gearbox. Four-wheel drive.
Performance: top speed 155mph, 0-60mph in 4.9sec (SST 5.2sec), EU Urban fuel consumption (estimated) 19.9mpg, C02 emissions n/a. (The Daily Telegraph)