For decades, General Motors has teased the motoring world with a midengine Corvette, and for years the pushrod faithful have nervously awaited the day when their beloved goes off in this radically different direction.
What does this have to do with the 2008 Subaru WRX STI and 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X? Plenty. There has been a shift in priorities in the mission of the all-new Evo (or Evo X, as this is the 10th iteration) and STI. It doesn't quite equate to the philosophical about-face of said fiberglass two-seater, but both Subaru and Mitsubishi are keen to expand the appeal of these once-niche players.
As a result, the 2008 Subaru WRX STI is now a hatchback and the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X has cruise control. Both have stability control and offer navigation systems, proof positive that these are no longer the manic rally replicas they once were.
Don't fear change, people. For those concerned that these cars have lost their way, worry not. The Evo and STI remain among the quickest and most capable cars for anything near the money. And, crucially, their respective personalities carry the torch of their predecessors.
In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mixing It Up
Final pricing has not yet been announced for the Evo, but preliminary numbers released by Mitsubishi indicate that both versions of the Evo — the base $32,990 GSR model or the full-zoot (no price yet) MR edition — will squeak in for less dough than the STI, which starts at $35,640. Both of the Evos tested here are as close to U.S.-production specification as anyone has driven.
In addition to street driving and our usual round of performance testing — acceleration, braking, skid-pad grip and slalom — we ran hot laps of the Streets of Willow at Willow Springs International Raceway in the Subaru WRX STI and the two Mitsubishi Evos. Veteran tester Chris Walton has lapped this twisting 1.6-mile circuit so many times that his tongue looks like something out of an illustration by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Plus he's driven a lot of cars here, so he has a large database of impressions.
To complete our comparison, three editors submitted evaluation scores based on their driving impressions, which were balanced against the realities of price, performance and feature content. The results may surprise you.
The Dangers of Becoming Middle-Aged
On the surface, the tag-teaming Evos have 2-to-1 odds in this contest. They have the most to lose in contests of speed, however, since the STI trumps both in terms of power and weight.
The STI tips our scales at 3,351 pounds, nearly 200 fewer pounds than the 3,545-pound Evo GSR we used for performance testing. The fully loaded Evo MR is beefier still, as it carries more acoustic insulation and convenience equipment than the GSR, plus a heftier twin-clutch automated manual transmission with shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
Once you factor the STI's lighter weight with its higher horsepower (305 hp to the Evo's 291 hp), the Subaru has a distinct advantage over its three-diamond rivals.
Matting the throttle produces a major midrange wallop in the Subaru WRX STI that trails off gently as the 7,000-rpm redline approaches. This turbocharged, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder has lots of character, delivering plenty of punchy thrust and a trademark love-it-or-hate-it burble from its exhaust. We love it. Given full whack, it feels stronger than the Mitsubishi Evo's mill pretty much anywhere on the tach.
Precise control is something that's missing from the STI's powertrain when it's being modulated at part-throttle. Whether you're adjusting the balance of the car in a fast corner or just puttering along, the transient boost response is soggier than that of the Evos, and there's too much drivetrain lash besides.
Though the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 of the Mitsubishi Evo gives away a half-liter of displacement to the Subaru, its twin-scroll turbo and compact exhaust manifold lend the Evo a livelier disposition at part-throttle. This engine is deceptively quick to spin up to speed, as it goes about its business without calling much attention to the proceedings.
It's a pity the all-new 4B11T engine emits a reedy whoosh in lieu of something more satisfying. Mitsubishi would do well to borrow a Volkswagen GTI to experience just how melodic a turbocharged inline-4 can sound.
In Straight Lines
The advantage the Subaru WRX STI has on paper materializes at the drag strip with a lunge to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Its best quarter-mile result of 13.3 seconds at 100.3 mph eclipses the next quickest car in this test — the Mitsubishi Evo GSR — by a full 0.3 second.
Rapidity of this degree owes much to the STI's ability to blast away from a standstill like a howitzer shell. The Subaru simply launches harder and quicker than either of the Mitsubishis, and then maintains this gap all the way to the end of the 1320. Note, however, that the STI's trap speed is 2 mph slower than when we last tested this car, more ammunition for the notion that the output of Subaru's boosted boxer is highly sensitive to variations in fuel quality.
The Mitsubishi Evo GSR requires a bit of finesse at the launch to avoid bogging down or, conversely, boiling the clutch into a putrid haze. In the end, it covers 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 101.3 mph.
And where's the Mitsubishi Evo MR during all of this? A few tenths behind the others. Preliminary estimates indicate the Evo MR runs to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and through the quarter at 13.9 seconds at 98.8 mph, but this car did not yet have the final production calibration governing interaction between the twin-clutch gearbox and engine, so we think future tests might improve the MR's trap speed, especially as this car exhibited some grumpiness as the engine approached redline.
Braking proved to be a dead heat among all three entrants, with the Mitsubishi Evo GSR and the Subaru WRX STI stopping from 60 mph in 112 feet and the Mitsubishi Evo MR a scant 1 foot shorter.
Bend the Subaru WRX STI into its first corner and you're rewarded with steering that is more direct and talkative than ever before. Its new rear suspension gracefully soaks up road imperfections and thanks to plenty of mechanical grip on tap, the STI proved to be a blast on the local back roads with their old, broken pavement.
It easily devours miles of blacktop no matter whether it's a ribbon in a dusty canyon or a superslab freeway. Driven in isolation, you can't imagine how a car could be more confidence-inspiring than this STI.
Then you drive a Mitsubishi Evo and wonder why the Subaru STI's chassis quivers and why its steering isn't sharper. There's less understeer in the Evo and a more pronounced willingness to change direction. Where the STI punches with the substance of a middleweight, the Evo drives like a lithe flyweight.
This new Evo platform is hugely rigid, an advantage the car exploits with suspension tuning that provides pointier turn-in than the STI without a commensurate penalty in ride quality. Between these two Evos, the MR trades a bit of the GSR's sharpness for an even plusher ride.
Though the Mitsubishi Evo X might be missing the hair-trigger steering response of previous Evos, this turns out not to be a big deal after all. The new car upholds the Evo legacy of keen steering precision and then adds superior on-center feel compared to its progenitors.
Handling by the Numbers
Circumstances dictated that we could not test these cars at our usual venue, and the slalom course we used is particularly nasty — bumpy, pockmarked with weeds and full of grit. But the results you see here are directly comparable, as all three cars were tested in the same place on the same day.
In terms of ultimate grip, the Evo GSR is astonishing, circling the skid pad at a neck-straining 0.99g. The heavier Evo MR manages a very respectable result of 0.96g, and the WRX STI understeers its way to 0.90g.
The Evo's Super All Wheel Control (S-AWC) all-wheel-drive system deserves mention here for its ability to simultaneously find cornering grip and forward traction and then use it to devastating effect on the skid pad. It's the automotive equivalent of rubbing your tummy while patting your head.
By the same token, S-AWC might have been a liability in the slalom. Although the Evo GSR registers a best-in-test result of 70.7 mph, the impression from the driver seat is that S-AWC's real-time redistribution of torque from wheel to wheel could not quite keep up with the rapid changes in the car's attitude as it rounded the cones.
The Subaru WRX STI behaves more honestly, if fractionally less nimbly at 70.2 mph, and the Evo MR's softer damping restricted it to a best run of 68.8 mph.
These results left us keen to determine if our observations from the artificial environment of performance testing would manifest themselves on the Streets of Willow.
At the Streets of Willow
In a word, they didn't. Cutting right to the chase, the results around the Streets of Willow were as follows:
#2: Evo MR — 1:32.42
#3: Evo GSR — 1:32.51
#4: WRX STI — 1:32.68
The standout here is the Evo X MR. Here is a car that gets smoked in every category of our instrumented testing and had some high-rpm hiccups, yet still manages to out-quick the Evo GSR and the WRX STI over the course of our 1.6-mile lap.
A few advantages allow the Evo MR to pip the others around the road course. Its twin-clutch gearbox really proves its worth on this twisting, highly technical layout, delivering consistently fast gearchanges in a gearbox with closer ratios than the Evo GSR's conventional manual transmission. The MR's improved suspension compliance (and less unsprung mass) also allows power to be funneled continuously to the tarmac without upsetting the chassis.
S-AWC behaved far more transparently here, and none of the delayed reactions that were observed in the slalom cropped up on the road course, where the directional changes occurred at greater intervals.
At the other end of this closely spaced band of lap times was the WRX STI. Softer chassis responses, terminal understeer and a lack of grip relative to the Evos took their toll on the big-chested Subaru.
Still, the time gap among these cars at this venue proved small. Three-tenths of a second isn't a huge difference on a 1.6-mile circuit, yet the results illustrate that the elements of the driving experience must gel together cohesively for a car to lap quickly. You don't drive cold, hard performance numbers.
No. 1 at Willow
You'll notice that the No. 1 car is missing from the lap times listed above. It's not a typo. We brought along a fourth car, a 2006 Lancer Evolution IX MR, to serve as a reality check.
From behind the wheel, the Evo IX is terrifically eager, accelerating from apex to apex like no other car here. It fidgets a bit more over midcorner bumps than the new Evo, but since it's a full 250 pounds lighter than the Evo X GSR, it proved unbeatable around the Streets of Willow.
In fact, it covered the next quickest car, the Evo X MR, by more than a half-second:
#1: Evo IX MR — 1:31.89
To this we say: Bring on a lighter Evo X. As capable as the new platform is, it has gained enough weight to prevent it from quite unseating its leaner, more sharply focused brother when it comes to stringing together all the elements of a fast lap.
We Add It All Up
Our final tally after scoring all the elements of this comparison coincidentally produces a finishing order that mirrors the results of our driving test at the Streets of Willow.
Bringing up the rear is the Subaru WRX STI, a comprehensively equipped and surprisingly practical car that offers sheer velocity that cannot be ignored. It's good — damn good — but not quite as playful as either of the two Mitsubishi Evos, or even the outgoing STI. You can revel in its character every day without guilt as long as you're willing to concede a certain amount of compromise in your feeling of involvement with the car.
Second place goes to the Mitsubishi Evo GSR, which sweeps five of our six scoring categories. It tops the evaluation scores of all three editors, plus nabs top honors as the one car they'd most like to own and recommend to others. The thing is just loads of fun, delivering decisive handling with extreme cornering limits, a simple but rewarding conventional manual transmission and the lowest entry price by thousands. The Evo GSR comes up short, however, in the "stuff" category relative to the Evo MR or Subaru WRX STI, a factor that erodes its lead in dynamic scoring.
Playing the part of the dark horse in this test, the Mitsubishi Evo MR works both sides of the street in the sport/luxury equation to its advantage. The twin-clutch transmission swaps ratios brilliantly when you're going balls out or when you want to turn your brain off and leave it in "D." The Evo MR rides more comfortably than its GSR stablemate, yet clicks off superior lap times. And it offers more equipment than an Office Depot at a price that is projected to undercut the STI. What's not to love?
There's more diversity in the Evo vs. STI rivalry than ever before. If none of these choices is for you, maybe you should just wait for a midengine Corvette. It's sure to be right around the corner.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says:
In a prior life I was the editor in chief of a magazine called Sport Compact Car. As a result, I have more miles logged in Evos and STIs than any other journalist in the lower 48. I lived in the things, both stock examples and tuned-up versions.
I preferred the Evo. It was easier to drive, a good bit more refined (especially in MR trim) and much more comfortable. The Subaru was fast and fun, but it always felt like a car that hadn't quite been finished. Its driver seat was too wide, its shifter too vague and its ride too rough. Oddly enough, I preferred the look of the STI, especially when we painted one flat black in my home garage with a can of Krylon and dubbed it the Flat Black Terror.
Some things never change.
These are two (three?) all-new cars. The 2008 Evo X and 2008 WRX STI have very little hardware in common with their predecessors. Yet my assessment of the two machines is the same.
I prefer the Evo. It's easier to drive, a good bit more refined (especially in MR trim) and much more comfortable. The Subaru is fast and fun, but it always feels like a car they didn't quite finish. Its driver seat is too wide, its shifter too vague and its ride too rough. Oddly enough, I prefer the look of the STI, especially if I paint it flat black in my home garage with a can of Krylon and dub it the Flat Black Terror.
Given the choice between these two Evo models, I would buy the GSR. It might not be as quick on a racetrack, but I live on the street where the GSR with its five-speed manual is quicker, more durable and simply more fun. Plus, it costs less, which means I'd have money left over for some tough-looking wheels, a little bit of shop labor to remove the big rear spoiler and a nice meal.
Normally a raft of high-end options wouldn't be found on performance-oriented cars like these, but the pressure of mass appeal in the marketplace has pushed the automakers to offer more equipment than ever for the Evo and STI. Whether this is a good thing depends on whether you think convenience should outweigh purity of purpose.
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI
N/A: Not Available
HID headlights: These cars are fast enough that it's easy to out-drive your headlights. HIDs offer illumination superior to conventional halogens.
Keyless ignition: You can dispense with having to fish a key or fob out of your pocket or purse when you have keyless ignition. Just walk up to the car, open the door and turn the ignition switch.
Navigation system: Likewise, this is a boon to locating your favorite canyon road and will help you find your way home when you get "lost."
Satellite radio: When you drive as hard as these cars allow, you'll end up in remote areas. You'll want to be able to enjoy your favorite songs, jokes, sports and news no matter where you end up.
Personal Rating (5%): Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.
Recommended Rating (5%): After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.
27-Point Evaluation (20%): Each participating editor ranked each vehicle based on a comprehensive 27-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.
Feature Content (20%): For this category, the editors picked the top four features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the amount of actual features it had versus the total possible. Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.
Performance Testing (25%): All three cars were subjected to all of our standardized instrumented tests: acceleration (0-60 time and quarter-mile elapsed time and trap speed), braking distance (60-0), slalom speed (600 feet) and skid pad (200-foot diameter). Points were awarded using a percentage calculation, with the best performing car receiving 100 percent in each test.
Price (25%): The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.