The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is a polarizing vehicle, which is an odd thing to say about a 4-cylinder car that will seat five people comfortably while making forward progress through all manner of terrain.
1. Designed for performance enthusiasts on a budget, the SE trim is essentially a base-model GSR, but with the MR’s dual-clutch transmission, Bilstein shocks, Eibach springs and upgraded Brembo brakes.
2. Priced at $34,550 the SE trim is roughly $2,000 more than the GSR, but $3,000 less than the MR.
3. Offered in the 2010 model year, Mitsubishi hasn’t announced the SE model for 2011 yet, but we’re crossing our fingers.
4. All EVO models come powered by a 291-hp 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder.
Over the course of our weeklong test, we drove the Evo around Los Angeles in traffic, on the open road in the Nevada desert, and on the track at Spring Mountain in the hopes of learning whether this hopped-up family sedan could truly be all things to all people. What we learned was this: everything good comes at a price.
SE TRIM LEVEL OFFERS BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
The Evo is available in three trim levels in the U.S. All three come with the same 291 horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and AWD system. All three come with a wider body than the base lancer, and excellent Recaro front seats. The entry-level GSR provides a 5-speed manual transmission and not much else. The top-tier MR model adds the 6-speed SST Twin-Clutch transmission, bigger wheels, upgraded suspension, and boy-racer bodywork, including the trademark gigantic rear wing.
Our test car, the SE model, slots in between the two, combining the best performance bits from the MR package, including the transmission, with the GSR’s bodywork and interior plus a lower-profile “touring lip” spoiler. It truly is the best of both worlds in the Evo universe.
At first glance (and first drive), it seems that yes, the Evo just might be one of the few cars that can do it all. Five adults can fit somewhat comfortably. It’s properly quick, able to hit 60 in 4.6 seconds on the way to a 13.2 second ¼ mile at 103 mph. And its all-wheel drive system comes with different pre-programmed settings for Tarmac (pavement), Gravel, and Snow, which is great for those who live in northern climates or have rally racing aspirations. And the twin-clutch transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, but also works well as an automatic when cruising around urban Los Angeles streets or while stuck in traffic.
DAILY DRIVING SHOWS EVO’S FLAWS
In order to fully evaluate the Evo’s potential as a daily-drivable performance car, we took a road trip 280 miles to Pahrump, Nevada, home of Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, a beautiful, private race track where we could run the Evo at ten-tenths in a safe environment. Almost immediately, problems arose.
First, the engine: As you’d expect, there’s plenty of turbo lag, which is fine, but when left in automatic (non-sport) mode, the ECU keeps the engine spinning quite a bit faster than we’re used to, producing an awful droning sound throughout the cabin. Worse, when stopped and idling, there’s a clearly audible “flutter” sound transmitted directly into the driver’s ear canal, which sounds like someone’s grinding a stiletto heel into a canary. Why the engine has to idle at 1500 rpm, we’ll never know. It’s not a very good sounding engine, this, until you reach about 5000 rpm and are rewarded with a turbo “whoosh” that lasts until the 7000 rpm redline.
A base Evo SE costs $34,550 with no additional options (our test car was so equipped). It’s clear to us that about $33,000 was spent on the drivetrain, with the remaining $1,550 invested in body and interior. The dash, while simple and straightforward, must have been styled by the same people who designed the back of my Mitsubishi television. It even looks like they used the same materials.
CHEAP INTERIOR, BRUTAL FUEL ECONOMY
With the exception of the steering wheel, shifter, and Recaro seats, everything else in the interior is ‘80s GM-grade awful. The radio is basic, doesn’t sound very good, and resets to FM mode even if left in Auxiliary mode at shutoff. That Auxiliary mode requires an RCA cable, not even a USB or headphone jack. What is this, 1987? Everything else is as analog as can be. The center tunnel surrounding the shifter and parking brake is so cheap that simply by pushing on it, it’s possible to shift the entire tunnel about an inch to the right.
And then there’s the fuel economy: it sucks. You’d think that with a 2.0-liter engine, 25-30 mpg would be a no-brainer on an open freeway. Wrong. At a steady cruising speed of 80 mph on the way to Pahrump, in automatic mode, we averaged 15 mpg. Mitsubishi quotes the fuel capacity for the Evo at 14.5 gallons, which means if we ran the tank completely dry, we would have made it 217 miles.
Starting from full, we drove 130 miles before the fuel gauge started flashing “low” at us. Either the gauge is particularly conservative, or the tank is more like 12 gallons. Either way, when driving at a more brisk pace in the canyons or on the track, a full tank will only last about 80 miles.
The 280 mile drive from Los Angeles to Pahrump required two fuel stops. Furthermore, although the Evo has plenty of seating space for five, the trunk has barely enough luggage space for overnight bags for two. With our two backpacks and helmets, the trunk was completely full.
On a more positive note, the Evo’s excellent seats are not only supportive, but quite comfortable for a road trip. The adjustable Bilstein struts and Eibach springs, standard with the SE, are tuned for sporty driving but aren’t overly harsh except on the worst roads, and inspire confidence when taking freeway exit ramps at ridiculously high speed. The huge Brembo brakes scrub off speed as well as many exotics, great for sport driving as well as safety.
OK, so the Evo isn’t exactly ideal for a road trip, but what about its performance on the track?
A TRACK MASTER IF EVER THERE WAS ONE
The second we pulled out of pit exit onto Spring Mountain’s 3.4 mile, 24 turn road course, everything we didn’t like about the Evo was forgotten. On the track, the Evo is a rock star. It remains perfectly composed through every corner. Under hard braking and turn-in, the Evo is happy to rotate its back end into the apex, and mashing the gas early allows its AWD system to sort out where the power goes, enabling wonderful four-wheel drifts to turn exit.
Keeping the turbo spooled up is easy with the SST Transmission’s paddles, and there’s just the right amount of power to get you from corner to corner quickly. High-speed bends can be taken flat-out while the car puts up zero fuss, and last-minute braking becomes the norm after three or four laps. It’s a rare thing that a street car comes with more braking power than it needs, especially at this price point, and it took a full ten laps around Spring Mountain (that’s 35 miles of serious driving) to notice any fading at all.
As a testament to how easy it is to drive fast and keep the car facing forward on pavement, we will say this: This author has never, ever, in my whole history of driving cars on race tracks, spent so much time at full throttle or under full threshold braking.
Considering how easy it is to extract even more performance from the Evo using simple bolt-on parts and software, we’d have to say that the Evo is the perfect ‘beginner’ track car in stock form. As the driver’s skills improve, he could upgrade the car to suit his needs. Plus, on the track, things like interior build quality, styling, trunk space, and fuel range mean absolutely nothing.
We walked away from our track session sweating, smiling, and amazed at just how good the Evo is when pushed to its limits, and how high those limits actually are.
So, is the Evo perfect, as so many teenagers would have you believe? No, certainly not.
It’s track prowess and canyon carving ability, unfortunately, are overshadowed by dismal interior quality, poor fuel economy and range, and questionable styling. However, if we someday find ourselves with a spare $20,000 to spend on a private track membership at Spring Mountain, we’d sell our own souls to the Devil to put one in our trackside garage.