The Lancer Evolution is the hot-rod version of Mitsubishi's compact Lancer sedan. And when I say "hot rod", what I really mean is "holy [expletive deleted]" -- because in place of the front-wheel-drive Lancer's 152 horsepower engine, the Evolution gets a 291 hp turbocharged fire-breather driving all four wheels. 2008 sees the first all-new Evolution since the car was introduced to the US market in 2003, and the MR is the first to offer a self-shifting transmission. How does it work on the streets? Read on. $33,665 base, $38,965 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 16-17 MPG city, 22 MPG highway.
First Glance: Evolution defined
The old version of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution was, and still is, one of my favorite cars on the planet. Normally, I'm a little hesitant to drive an all-new version of a car I love. What if the manufacturer has totally screwed it up? Somehow, though, I knew that Mitsubishi wouldn't. There are plenty of things on which I think Mitsi has missed the mark, but the Lancer Evolution is the one car they've always done 100% right. I didn't expect that to change. (As it turns out, I was correct.)
For those who aren't familiar with the Lancer Evolution, allow me to give you a brief explanation. Imagine taking a run-of-the-mill compact sedan (like, oh, I don't know, a Mitsubishi Lancer) and handing it over to your best engineers -- the hard-core ones, guys who always button the top button on their shirts and never have girlfriends -- and saying "Make this go, turn and stop as fast as possible. Money is no object." And they do it, in classic engineering-unbounded, no-holds-barred, kiss-my-slide-rule style. That, in a nutshell, is the Lancer Evolution.
Like the Lancer on which it is based, the Evo is all-new for 2008. The old Evolution was an easy car to spot; it had scoops, strakes, spoilers and wings that distinguished it from the ordinary, bland-looking Lancer. The stylists had it much easier for 2008, as the basic Lancer is a much better looking car. Still, it's easy to pick out the Evo: Just look for the big, dark trapezoidal grille (link goes to photo) and the three hood scoops up front, and the big wing and Evolution badge out back.
In the Driver's Seat: Forget the interior, what's under the hood?
Inside, the Lancer Evolution is little different than the regular Lancer. The Evo gets deep Recaro bucket seats designed to hold you in place while cornering, though the high bolsters make getting in and out a bit awkward. The battery and windshield washer tank are mounted between the back seat and the trunk, which cuts cargo space and means the back seat can't be folded down. Not that any of this matters, because practicality is probably the last thing on the potential Evo buyer's mind. (That said, the roomy back seat and practical four-door body style are good points for convincing a reluctant spouse.)
What separates the Evo from lesser Lancers is what's under the hood and behind the wheels. Let's start with the former: A 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged and intercooled engine. (A turbocharger is a device that boosts the engine's power, and when I say "boosts", I mean "totally kicks into the stratosphere". For more on how turbos work, go here.) Output is 291 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. Let me put that into perspective: Back in the muscle car days, 1 horsepower per cubic inch was considered a magic number. The Evo makes almost 2.4 hp per cubic inch. Even the Corvette ZR1 produces only (only? Hah!) 1.7 hp per cubic inch.
The Evo is sold in GSR and MR models. Both employ all-wheel-drive, a new computerized center differential (the device that distributes power between front and rear axles), and improved brakes and suspension. The GSR is the hard-core Evo, while the MR's suspension is tuned for a more tolerable ride.
On the Road: Bear with me while I peel my brain off the back window
I tested the Evolution MR, the first Evo to feature an automatic transmission. Called the Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST), it's similar in concept to VW/Audi's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG). Essentially, it consists of two three-speed gearboxes with a clutch that switches between them. While one gearbox is engaged, the other pre-selects the next gear, so when it comes time to shift, all the transmission has to do is change from one gearbox to the other. Translated to English, that means the shifts are nearly instantaneous, and since it uses a mechanical clutch, like a stick-shift, there's none of the slushy feeling you get from a regular automatic. The TC-SST worked pretty well, though I often had to override the transmission's Sport mode by shifting manually with the steering-column paddles, something I rarely have to do with VW's DSG. For those who demand a third pedal, the Evolution GSR comes with a 5-speed stick.
TC-SST aside, the way this car drives is just magical. It feels like it's made out of caffeine. There's a bit of lag before the turbo starts producing power, but when it does, you'd better have a loooong strip of empty road ahead. The engine note sounds like a chainsaw designed by Ferrari. And the handling is unreal -- it's like being granted a temporary exemption from the laws of physics. I drove the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road like I was in a cartoon and barely scratched the surface of what the Evo can do. And yet I never felt worried that the Evo would turn on me -- it's like an evil killer robot that just happens to be on your side.
Journey's End: The harsh realities of life with Evo
So now that you know what the Evo can do, allow me to kill your buzz by relating some harsh realities. The Evo is expensive -- the GSR starts at $33,665, but the MR costs just shy of $39k; options and dealer accessories can drive that to nearly $50,000. Evos have a healthy appetite for brakes and tires (the original-equipment Yokohama ADVAN tires are a critical part of the handling equation, but they wear quickly and cost over a grand per set). Don't expect the Evo's four-cylinder engine to return four-cylinder fuel economy -- I averaged around 17 MPG in mixed driving, and wringing it out in the curves dropped that figure into the single digits. And because the Evo has the same 14.5 gallon as tank as the 30 MPG Lancer, you don't get very far -- I actually had to cut short my curvy-road driving because I was in danger of running out of gas.
Knowing all that, would I buy a Lancer Evolution? Hell yeah, I would! The Evo pushed my personal thrillometer past pricier cars like the BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG and Audi RS4. Hell, I could even live with the automatic trans -- a big concession from a die-hard stick-shifter like me. (The Evolution GSR gets a stick, but I still wish Mitsi would offer one in the smoother-riding MR.) The Lancer Evolution's chief competitor is the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, and to me, there's no comparison -- the Evo may not be as practical, but it's way more fun and way less scary when you push it. Bottom line: The Evo is still one hell of a car, and still one of my favorites. -- Aaron Gold