Cast as an underdog from Day One, the Lancer Evolution has quickly turned the tables and become the top dog in the rapidly changing world of replica rally racers. Upon introduction, its 271 horsepower seemed almost meager compared to the 300 ponies offered by Subaru's WRX STi, but since then it has gone on to demonstrate that when it comes to all-wheel-drive sport sedans, power isn't always everything. In a head-to-head shootout, we were more impressed with the Evo's tenacious grip and predictable handling than the STi's monster motor, ultimately crowning the Evo the winner.
As well received as the Evo has been by the press and enthusiasts alike, Mitsubishi hasn't exactly kicked back to savor its surprising competitiveness. Late last year it introduced the Evolution RS, a stripped-down, low-budget model designed for the weekend racer who could do without a radio and air conditioning in return for an Evo that weighs as little as possible. It was a determined and unlikely gesture from a major manufacturer, one that hearkened back to the days of the no-options muscle cars from the Big Three, but it also proved to be a tough sell given that most buyers do more than just autocross on the weekends.
For its latest addition to the Evo lineup, Mitsubishi took a different tack. Lightweight was again a focus point, but instead of achieving lost pounds through options attrition, the new MR sheds weight through high-tech components that push it to the top of the Evo food chain. A retuned suspension, lightweight bodywork and an extra cog in the gearbox are just some of the features that were added to the MR to give it that extra edge that enthusiasts crave. We drove it back to back with a standard model on the street and at the track to see just how much better an Evo can get. Is it one of the best handling sedans you can buy? Definitely. Is it worth the extra cost over the already nearly perfect standard model? We're not quite so sure just yet.
The bulk of the MR's upgrades lie within the drivetrain, although even there, the improvements are more subtle than substantive. The switch to a six-speed gearbox is a noticeable change but more so in feel than in flexibility. Gear spacing is nearly identical to the five-speed but the final drive ratio was upped slightly from 4.52 to 4.58 in the MR. Teflon-lined shift cables and shift-stroke stoppers were added to give a more fluid feel between gears and more positive engagements once you find the right gate.
Further on down the line, the MR (as well as all Evos for 2005) uses Mitsubishi's Active Center Differential (ACD) to manage the power between the front and rear wheels. Employing a center differential and a new hydraulic multiplate clutch, the ACD system is able to adjust the front and rear torque output for maximum traction based on numerous inputs like steering angle, throttle input, wheel speeds and slip angle. A dashboard switch allows you to choose between three different settings (tarmac, gravel and snow) that vary how much power is sent through the system. The MR also includes a helical front limited-slip differential like the one that debuted in the RS model last year.
A wet test track gave us the chance to try the new system out, but between a combination of ominous retaining walls and our lack of any serious rallying skills, we were barely able to detect much difference between the three settings. Fortunately, the revamped gearbox doesn't require WRC experience to appreciate, as its improvements are instantly apparent. There's good physical spacing between the gates and slamming it into gear returns a reassuring thunk. With nearly identical gear spacing to the five-speed box, there's not much of a difference in the overall speeds between the MR and the standard model. Slightly more aggressive gearing might make the six-speed more worthwhile, but as it is, there's not much to complain about.
The MR's list of upgrades doesn't stop there, however, as Mitsubishi sought to enhance the Evo's ride quality with a set of Bilstein shocks, lighter BBS wheels and an aluminum roof panel designed to lower the car's center of gravity. Between the wheels and the roof, the MR weighs in about 25 pounds less than a standard model. And like all Evos for 2005, the MR is motivated by a 276-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine — a 5-hp bump over last year's engine.
Like the gearbox, the changes to the MR's chassis tuning are subtle at best and invisible at worst. Mitsubishi's engineers tuned the MR on Germany's grueling Nurburgring test track in hopes of getting the MR dialed in just right. While we applaud the effort, toying with a car that already displays nearly perfect driving dynamics is a risky proposition. That said, when driven back to back with the standard model, we considered the MR a little sharper in transitions and slightly easier to predict at the limit. There were, however, other drivers on the same track who said they still preferred the overall feel of the base model over the MR.
All in attendance agreed that the Evo in either form is one of the most capable and entertaining track cars available today. The learning curve is as short as they come given that the car reacts with quick, predictable movements at every turn. With its fast steering ratio and minimal body roll, lining up the apexes is a point-and-shoot operation — and with so much stick, there's isn't a lot of tail swinging to keep control of. Thrashing the brakes does little to diminish their performance, and even the seats are perfectly formed to hold you in tight.
As focused as the MR is on performance, Mitsubishi saw to it that it also had a few exclusive cosmetic enhancements as well. On the inside, all MRs get an aluminum shift knob, aluminum pedals and a brake lever handle that incorporates both aluminum and carbon fiber. There's also an auxiliary gauge kit that resides just under the radio and includes dials for turbo boost, voltage and oil pressure. On the outside, the MR gets the option of an exclusive Graphite Gray paint color in addition to the lightweight BBS wheels (17-inch) and a unique vortex generator that resides on the back of the roof section. Contrary to its complex-sounding name, the vortex generator is merely a strip of specially designed fins that are designed to flow more air to the rear spoiler for added downforce.
Will you notice the added downforce behind the wheel? Not likely, unless you do some serious high-speed track running on a daily basis. Will you notice the MR's litany of other minor enhancements? That's a little more subjective. There's no doubt that the six-speed shifter serves up a much improved feel through the gears, but the likelihood that you'll get much out of the slightly reduced weight and retuned suspension is comparatively slim. If you're into exclusivity, the MR's special interior trim and exclusive gray color might get you some attention, but don't expect anyone but a hard-core Evo fan to notice. Since no pricing was announced at the time of our drive, we can't say for sure whether the new MR is worth the extra money, but for those who will do anything to get their hands on the ultimate Evo, the couple extra grand (est.) probably won't be much of a deterrent.