We Americans live in tumultuous times, or so say the mainstream media outlets. On any given day, we're asked to consider the possibility of war abroad and the threat of terrorism, unemployment and adult obesity at home. Fortunately, if you're a driving enthusiast with a steady day job, a bountiful crop of affordable sports cars could provide a much needed distraction in 2003. We're not talking about econosport sedans or hot little hatchbacks, either, rather serious performance machines that aren't super cheap but can at least be had by those who don't pull down a six-figure salary. Candidates include the Nissan 350Z (and the six-speed Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe), Mazda RX-8 and the two rally car rivals, Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution and Subaru's Impreza WRX STi.
The 350Z and RX-8 are rekindlings of old flames (300ZX and RX-7) that were smothered by flagging sales and, in the Mazda's case, tightening emissions requirements in the mid-1990s. But unless you're an enthusiast, an automotive journalist and/or a hard-core gamer who's played all the racing titles on the video game consoles, you probably don't know much about the Lancer Evolution and WRX, all-wheel-drive cars that were built to do battle on the world rally circuit. Various iterations were sold in Japan and Europe but never in the United States until the current WRX arrived in 2001.
And two years later, the 227-horsepower WRX remains an excellent buy. Compared with most other cars, it drives like a racecar. But this WRX makes compromises the biggest of these being a suspension that's compliant enough for weekday commutes and an available automatic transmission and that's why Subaru has sold so many of them. But there is a population of serious drivers who aren't willing to trade away a shred of performance for comfort (especially if the car in question isn't their primary transportation), and perhaps they're willing to pay a little more to get even more power. These are the people Mitsubishi hopes will buy the U.S.-spec Lancer Evolution.
If you're a site regular, you know that we got a sneak preview of the Evo in the form of a 2002 German-spec Evolution VII GSR that we pitted against a completely stock WRX in a quick comparison test. We've acknowledged that this matchup was a bit unfair to the Subaru, which had neither the power nor the race-ready running gear to keep up with the Evo when traffic cleared out. But keep in mind that we weren't looking for a hard-and-fast winner; instead, we wanted to get an idea of where the eventual U.S. Evo would fall in the sports car world in terms of performance and day-to-day livability. After two days of intensive driving, we concluded that the Mitsubishi was far superior to the WRX in every measurable performance category but that it would be tough to take as a daily driver.
The 2003 Evolution (just "Evolution," not "Evolution VIII" since the previous seven cars were never sold here) is still a sport sedan that makes very few compromises for the everyday grind. It's still based on the Lancer economy sedan, so dimensions are the same inside and out. It looks much the same as the Evolution VII as well, though its front fascia has been resculpted to include Mitsubishi's new corporate style, the split-grille with prominent nose and a stronger bumper that meets the 2.5-mph impact requirement in the U.S. Inlets remain numerous so that the intercooler gets as much fresh air as possible. Standard HID headlights allow the driver to look down the road at any time of day; taillights are of the clear-lens variety.
A low-profile GT-type rear spoiler is supposed to come standard, but judging by the prototype examples at the press introduction, it's fair to say that Mitsubishi expects most buyers to go for the optional large, aggressive rear wing. The only other option initially available on the Evo will be a sunroof.
Inside, the Evo looks much like the German-spec Evo VII and indeed the regular Lancer sedan. The control layout is user-friendly, but liberal use of hard plastic gives away its economy origins. At least it's all put together solidly. Mitsubishi did make one change to the cabin that we noticed right away: The body-hugging Recaro seats have been widened to accommodate bigger American butts. This extra seat room, along with the '03 Evo's larger gas tank (14 gallons as opposed to 12.7), should make the car much more tolerable as a daily driver.
Mechanically, little has changed in the transition from the Evolution VII. The computer-controlled Active Center Differential with driver-selectable terrain settings didn't make it to the U.S. production car, but only the most advanced drivers are apt to find fault with the less sophisticated viscous coupling unit. Under ideal traction conditions, the front/rear torque split is 50/50, and the ratio is automatically adjusted when slippage occurs. A limited-slip rear differential is standard.
The U.S. Evo's turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four is rated for a bit less horsepower and torque 271 hp at 6,500 rpm and 273 at 3,500 rpm versus 276 and 283, respectively, at the same rpm but our initial driving impressions suggest that the engine continues to pull hard at just about any speed. Of course, with redline falling at 7,000 on the 9,000-rpm tach, it definitely wants to rev, and power comes on strong near the top end. Mitsubishi is promising acceleration times on par with the 5.3-second 0-to-60 and 13.8-second quarter-mile we got out of the Evo VII. So despite the differences on paper, drivers won't lose out in the real world.
A five-speed manual will be the sole transmission choice on the Evo. Gearing is identical to that of the Evo VII's, though the first and second gears have been fitted with an additional synchro each for smoother engagement and better feel during high-speed shifts, as well as greater durability.
Other hardware carries over directly, including the large Brembo brakes (12.7-inch rotors in front, 11.8 inches in back), lightweight 17-inch Enkei wheels and specially designed Yokohama Advan A046 tires, sized 235/45WR17. Mitsubishi even threw in the water sprayer that automatically gives the intercooler a spritz during high operating temperatures. A competition-oriented Sports ABS system incorporates sensors that measure steering wheel angle, wheel speed and lateral and longitudinal G-forces to regulate the braking force applied to each wheel. The idea is to give the driver more control when entering a turn on a road course or his favorite twisty two-lane. Electronic Brakeforce Distribution is also part of the deal.
Our initial opportunity to drive the Evolution on a road course proved all too brief, but enjoyable nonetheless. As we noted in our comparison test, the steering is ultraquick few cars on the market can match this kind of response and it took a few laps before we felt comfortable with it. Road feel through the wheel was superb, perfectly communicating how our actions in the cockpit were affecting the tires.
Around turns, the firm suspension (struts in the front, a multilink-modified wishbone design in the rear) did all the work, yielding flat body attitude and perfect balance when exiting turns. Meanwhile, the tires offered progressive levels of howl, such that we knew well in advance when we were approaching the breakaway point.
Good as the Evo is, your confidence when driving it on a track (or a public road) has much to do with your own skill. Less experienced drivers who buy this car should strongly consider a performance driving course in order to get the most fun possible out of their purchase.
Although Mitsubishi has invested a great deal of importance into the Evo's arrival in the U.S., the company's first-year sales estimate is modest just 6,500 units to a 90-percent male, enthusiast-oriented customer base. The company hopes that the very existence of the car will motivate the less inclined (in terms of performance driving or monetary resources) to consider other models in the lineup, particularly the standard Lancer. (And with the introduction of the 160-hp '04 Lancer Ralliart at the 2003 Chicago Auto Show, Mitsubishi has potentially given cash-strapped enthusiasts a reasonable alternative.)
Now that everyone knows the WRX STi will feed off a larger-displacement 300-hp motor, those who have put down a deposit for an Evo may be having second thoughts. And since we haven't driven this STi yet, we can't tell you which way to go. A few things to keep in mind, though: 1) The Evo is a fantastic car in its own right; 2) the Mitsu should be the less expensive route for enthusiasts. It starts at $28,987, while the STi's larger engine and computer-controlled AWD system will probably command a base MSRP upwards of $30,000.
Three? If you can hold off on your purchase for a few months, we'll put ourselves through the agony of an Evo-versus-STi rematch. After we recover, we'll tell you which of these street-legal rally cars most deserves a spot in your driveway.