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Mitsubishi's Okazaki proving grounds is hallowed real estate, sacred ground. It's the Yankee Stadium of the sport compact performance-car world, a place where legends were born.
Located a half hour southeast of Nagoya, the massive facility is where every Mitsubishi Evolution since the 1993 Evo II has been developed, where five generations of Lancer sedans have become seven of the world's all-time greatest street cars. And it's there — hidden behind a huge wall of rock, cement and tall, lush trees — where the new, more powerful 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX was waiting for us.
Two actually. Mitsu had a blue 2006 Evo IX and a silver 2006 Evo IX MR for us to drive. Both U.S. spec. The RS (the stripper/no-frills version) will still be offered, but was not made available to us.
This fall, the IX will replace the Evolution VIII, which was the first Evo sold in the U.S. But the IX is not an all-new car, which is what the Evo X is promised to be. Instead, it's a mechanical and aesthetic face-lift of the VIII. And it's really well done.
First of all, the car looks better. The headlights and taillights have been smoked dark and the split grille, which was always a bit too Pontiac for our taste, has been replaced with one large opening like Mitsubishi had on the Evo VII.
Underneath the front bumper are larger, reshaped openings that more tightly surround the huge front-mounted intercooler and two small circular air scoops, which direct air to the intake plumbing to cool the intake charge. The cars we sampled were also equipped with a front air dam extension that will be packaged in the accessories catalog with a Gurney Flap for the trailing edge of the rear spoiler.
Hiroshi Fujii, the platform manager for the Evo in Mitsubishi's research and development department, tells us the air dam extension enhances front downforce by expanding a lower pressure area under the car, and the Gurney Flap improves rear downforce. The result, according to "Dr. Evo," which is what they call him, is greater high-speed stability, driving linearity, steering response, yaw damping and steering feedback.
We confirmed this on a huge oval track with ridiculously steep banking, where we played Jeff Gordon and Little "E" at over 135 mph and experienced none of that dreaded aero push those boys are always complaining about. At that speed you can actually feel the centrifugal force pulling the blood out of your brain, and most passengers were ready to hurl after just a lap or two. But the IX was so locked in, even when running up next to the guardrail, that it could be driven with one hand.
The last of the exterior changes are new double-spoke Enkei wheels, which are 5 ounces lighter than the very lightweight rims they replace. The BBS wheels on the MR version are unchanged.
With some revisions, Dr. Evo and his team of evil engineers squeezed another 10 horsepower and 3 pound-feet of torque from the Evo's 2.0-liter double-overhead-cam four-cylinder. Total output is up to 286 hp at 6,500 rpm and 289 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Those revisions are a larger turbo, which reduces lag by 5 percent, new spark plugs with longer threads that help cool combustion chamber temperatures, a timing belt now made of rubber and nylon fiber for added strength and durability, a new magnesium center cover and a reshaped oil ring that the good doctor says will reduce oil consumption by 10 percent.
MIVEC, or Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control, has also been added to the mix. It's Mitsubishi's variable valve timing system, and it has improved the midrange torque of the 4G63 engine. Its 7,000-rpm redline is unchanged.
To make use of the engine's flatter torque curve, the five-speed in the RS and straight IX has been given tighter ratios. The six-speed in the MR is unchanged, as are the suspension, brakes and all-wheel-drive system on all three models.
Sadly, so is the 5,500-rpm rev limiter in first gear, which is active only if the car isn't moving. Mitsubishi says this is to protect the front pinion shaft in American market cars, which are 100 pounds heavier to meet U.S. crash standards and fitted with stickier tires than European or Japanese market Evos.
Although the engine and transmission mods may improve acceleration times, the real benefits are better around-town drivability and more yank accelerating out of slow second-gear corners. On the proving grounds road course, which included two hairpins, a 110-mph straightaway and a jump, the blue IX felt a bit quicker pulling out of the hairpins than the silver MR.
Only real Evoheads will notice this stuff, but the Momo steering wheel now has dark titanium spokes instead of silver, the seats are covered in suedelike Alcantara with leather side bolsters and the IX and MR, but not the RS, get aluminum pedals and a carbon-fiber-style instrument panel.
We Want One
The Evo was already the greatest performance-car buy on the market, with starting prices of $28,504 for the RS, $31,274 for the straight VIII and $35,274 for the MR. The revised 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX is better and should cost just $500 more across the board. Make ours a black MR with a Gurney Flap.
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