Richard Meaden tests the 10th generation Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and finds it builds on the extraordinary ability of its fierce forebears
Formula One might be regarded as the pinnacle of motorsport but, if your enthusiasm for cars truly runs deep, it's rally cars that fire the imagination. Cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X.
X factor: the latest Lancer Evo adds versatility and refinement to the breed
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 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 wouldn't 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 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's 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'll 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 doesn't 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's 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 (see Motoring, December 1), the Evo has such latent potential that most customers can't 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, which are expected to account for the vast majority of future sales in the UK.
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're a real diehard it's difficult to fault the £1,500 TC SST 'box. When left in Drive, it shifts up and down with a level of intuition that's 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're actually doing a better job than the Evo's gearbox electronics is debatable.
Downside: the car's interior still looks and feels cheap
Driving the manual version is more engaging, as you're 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's no more or less satisfying, but much like comparing a stick-shift and paddle-shift Ferrari, you can't 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 Bloody Brilliant.
Combined with four-wheel drive and a set of super-sticky Yokohama tyres, it's 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 wet or dry tarmac, while the way in which S-AWC mediates between the assorted dynamics-enhancing systems means that, so long as you keep them all switched on, Evo X is flattering, blisteringly quick and virtually foolproof.
That said, it is possible to disengage the Active Stability Control in two stages. The first just relaxes the ASC's grip enough to feel like it's you and not the computers making all the decisions, while the second gives you all the freedom you need to spin into a hedge: a fact that should keep the gnarly old Evo purists happy, if not the insurance industry.
Whether Mitsubishi has succeeded in creating an Evo that appeals to a more mainstream customer on every level remains to be seen. It's certainly 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.
Sticking points will be the Evo's less than appealing interior plastics and Mitsubishi's lack of prestige and class, yet the Evo X's more rounded abilities make it a much more realistic everyday proposition without diluting its essential excitement. It's nothing like a £30,000 sports saloon from Audi or BMW, but for many potential buyers that's going to count in its favour. The Evo has come of age.
Price/availability: no prices have been confirmed, although the FQ-300 is expected to cost about £30,000, with the FQ-340 and FQ-360 models costing about £34,000 and £37,000. The optional TC SST transmission is expected to cost £1,500. Deposits are already being taken with the first cars due to arrive in the UK in March 2008.
Engine/transmission: 1,998cc all-aluminium-alloy, 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.
We like: Rally heritage, hardcore character, punchy performance, tremendous all-weather ability, paddle-shift transmission that brings newfound versatility.
We don't like: Interior still looks and feels cheap, engine sounds bland, lacks prestige of Audi or BMW.
Alternatives: Subaru Impreza WRX STi, from about £30,000. Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 V6 Q4, from £27,050. Vauxhall Vectra VXR, from £24,395. BMW 335i M Sport, from £34,095. Audi S4, from £36,590.
The man behind the myth
It's a mark of Finnish rally legend Tommi Mäkinen's achievements in Mitsubishi's Evo rally cars that the Japanese manufacturer named a model in his honour: the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition.
The name might have been clunky but the sentiment was spot-on, for it celebrated a spectacular run of success at the very highest level.
The combination of Mäkinen and four generations of Evo claimed an unprecedented four back-to-back titles in the World Rally Championships for drivers between 1996 and 1999. This total dominance was achieved in the face of extremely fierce competition from all-time greats such as Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol, Juha Kankkunen and Britain's sorely missed Richard Burns and Colin McRae. It propelled Mäkinen and the Lancer Evolution into world rallying's Hall of Fame. RM