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Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR

Brilliant at some things but average at a lot

by Julian Edgar, Pics by Mitsubishi and Julian Edgar

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The road is sinuous – and tight.

Bound on one side by a cliff and the other side by a guard rail, this stretch of bitumen is now largely disused. If you look right, the replacement freeway looms large - but there’s no time to look anywhere but the road. Your ears are filled with the howling of the engine, an aural accompaniment to the thrust of the active four wheel drive system hurling you forward.

The steering – the best aspect of the car, almost beyond reproach – is intuitive and tactile, and the twin clutch trans, configured now in Super Sport mode, is using every trick in its extensive repertoire. There’s automatic throttle blipping on down-changes and a map that keeps the engine at stratospheric revs all the time – but never lets the needle actually touch the rev cut. No one could drive a manual transmission like this and no traditional auto would be so precise and definite.

You turn-in and nail it, feeling the car yawing just fractionally as the torque split changes both longitudinally and laterally across the back wheels. Then the tyres grip and you’re simply flung out of the bend. But at the next corner you enter just a bit hard and things start getting ragged. In far faster time than it takes to say it, there’s a smidgin of understeer and then some throttle-lift oversteer – but almost before you can register the behaviours, the stability control has settled the car and it’s time to again simply push your foot right down and let the next corner telescope towards you.

Very few cars - and none we’ve driven in this price range – are as fast in these conditions, the Mitsubishi Evolution simply monstering this difficult road.

Same car, different place.

It’s a typical suburban main road, the two lanes heading each way separated by only an indented median strip through which you’re turning across the lines of oncoming cars. The radio is playing, the traffic is dense – but thankfully approaching in short, separated groups – and all you feel like doing is getting home to get out of work clothes and relax.

A gap appears and you judge its length. But hey, there’s no problem – after all, this is a turbo intercooled DOHC MIVEC Evo with Twin Clutch Sports Shift transmission system said to be the envy of the world. You mash your foot to the floor and the car starts forward.

But then there’s a slight hesitation as the trans – lacking a torque converter to give you that initial jump – lets the engine revs rise before fully engaging the clutch. Your nose is now on the wrong side of the road and the traffic’s bearing down on you. Further time passes – it feels like an eternity but it’s perhaps a quarter of a second – and then the revs rise and the electronics suddenly makes the decision: it’s time to go.

But the large turbo, working with only a 2 litre engine, has still to spin up, develop boost – and then the engine has to propel forwards a car weighing over 1.6 tonnes. This time, the process takes as long as it does to read the sentence: eyes widening, the side glass filled with headlights and windscreens, you suddenly and involuntarily gasp out loud: “Christ come on!”

Then boost finally arrives and you scurry out from under the very noses of the oncoming cars, swearing to never, ever try that trick again.

It's something an automatic V6 Commodore would have done with contemptuous ease.

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As an all-round road car, the Lancer Evolution (usually called the Evo X) is severely flawed. It can do some things brilliantly, but at other aspects it is terrible.

The steering is perhaps the best steering of any car I have ever driven. It has a ratio to die for: direct but never nervous; weight that is always perfect; and feel that lets you sense road and grip nuances while (almost) never tramlining. The Brembo brakes – apparently on the Mitsubishi press car fitted with non-standard pads – squeal and squeak in urban conditions, but when required to haul off speed, do so with nonchalant ease, accompanied by a pedal pressure and travel that never varies. After driving hard down a steep and winding country road, I pulled into a drive-through and opened the window to make my order - only by the smell could I then tell how much work those mighty brakes had been doing.

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At half throttle in urban conditions, the driveline works beautifully. The engines revs rise and snap-snap-snap, the gearbox changes upwards. It’s not the slurring change of an epicylic auto; instead it’s like the quickest manual gearbox change you ever felt. Impressive? You betcha. But it is only in those conditions that the Normal setting on the trans control is really good. At slow speeds - say in just-moving traffic – there’s a perceptible jerk every time you get on and off the throttle. In heavy traffic, a conventional auto trans just kills the new tech trans.

And when you put your foot down, there can be that agonising delay. The pause varies in length but in one situation I could actually count aloud ‘one, two, three’ before there was decent acceleration – despite the accelerator pedal being floored. That was a rolling start after I’d slowed behind a truck turning off a country road.

Left in Normal mode, the Evo is almost undriveable in a sporty manner – the combination of trans lag and turbo lag mean you’ll miss every apex by many, many metres. In terms of response, a well-mapped standard auto – especially one in a current Honda – would walk all over the Evo.

But of course you don’t need to leave the trans in Normal. Instead there’s Sport mode, available a pusbutton press away. But I didn’t think much of Sport mode either. Revs are kept higher and the trans changes with greater shift-shock – but the engine can still easily fall off boost from corner to corner.

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And that brings us to the engine. For a new engine with a technological list of features as long as your arm, the engine drives poorly. Useable boost really only occurs from about 2800 rpm and peak torque is at a high 3500 rpm; to put this another way, you need to be above 3000 rpm to have throttle response that isn’t well below average. With a redline of 7000 rpm, the performance rev range isn’t bad – but by the same token, neither is it anything special. Simply, the turbo feels far too big for the engine.

The part-throttle mapping of the boost control is also poor. An example? At around 2500 rpm and say one-third throttle, the driver will find themselves having to lift off as boost arrives – a characteristic that makes keeping station in urban traffic difficult. It’s a trait now banished in most turbo cars.

Without a torque converter to cover the hole in throttle response generated by the over-large turbo, and with the non-linear ‘swelling’ boost curve, response and driveability below 3000 rpm are poor.

And that brings us back to Super Sport mode. To engage this mode, the car must be stopped and the button pressed for four seconds. (This is not a mode than can be easily selected when you see some corners coming up.) In this mode the trans keeps revs high – really, really high! Like, the revs might drop below 5000 rpm occasionally, but not by much! Drive in this mode and the transmission changes at the redline, the six ratios keeping the engine and turbo constantly on the boil. So yes, that’s when you (finally!) get really quick and strong throttle response, and can start using that wonderful steering and those awesome brakes.

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So it’s either Super Sports mode - or have a car that in anything but very conservative driving, is doughy and unresponsive. And really, who can drive around in Super Sports mode, the engine screaming its head off the whole time?

The Lancer Evo simply can’t do the things a well-rounded, high performance sporting road car should be able to. We timed it to 100 km/h – left in Standard mode and just nailed off the line – and it took an amazingly slow (well, slow for a car of this apparent calibre) 6.5 seconds. (Sure, use the [not disclosed but apparently present] launch mode and no doubt you’d be much faster. But just nailed off a set of traffic lights, the time is in the mid sixes....)

But then, with 217kW and 1625kg, perhaps that acceleration is not all that surprising - do the kW/kg calculation and the Evo is simply nothing special in terms of its power/weight ratio.

Fuel consumption suggests a car with a poor aerodynamic drag coefficient, high mass and hard working engine with an overly large turbo. The absolute best you’ll see on a country cruise is 10 litres/100km, and it’s easy to be around 14-15 litres in city conditions. Start driving it even moderately hard and that becomes 18-19 litres/100km. As someone who samples the car on a regular basis said to us: “Three hundred kays and then you’re filling it up again with ninety-eight...”

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Other bad points? The lack of a fold-down rear seat, a pitifully small boot – literally tighter than many small hatchbacks – and no spare wheel at all (that’s right – none, just a puncture repair kit) make touring in the Evo pretty well an impossibility.

The Recaro seats – magnificent for comfort and support – are placed low and have no height adjustment. Small people simply won’t feel happy with their limited vision. The colour LCD unit protrudes from the dash and looks all the world like an aftermarket unit that has been shoe-horned into place.

And apart from the seats, gear lever and the LCD torque split gauge (the latter able to be brought up on the instrument display), nothing in the cabin looks befitting a car of this AUD$71,690 expense.

On the other hand, the ride is much better than you might expect. There’s plenty of impact harshness from the Dunlop 245/40 tyres but the actual spring and damper rates are quite benign, and the suspension travel is excellent.

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It’s easy to be enormously impressed by the Evo. Set in Super Sports mode and caned around a tight road – or track – and all you can do is say in admiration... wow!

And make no mistake, it’s an exclamation that’s utterly deserved.

But as a sporting car to drive in normal road conditions, it’s a poor machine. At minimum the turbo should be smaller and the trans needs refinement. But even then, you’d still be carting around a helluva lot of kilograms – so perhaps it needs the bigger 2.4 litre engine as well.

With this car, Mitsubishi has lost its way. And that’s from someone who says the Lancer Evo VII is his number one pick for a sporting road sedan...

The Lancer Evolution was provided for this test by Mitsubishi Australia.

See Mitsubishi's Outstanding Lancer Evolution on Sale in Australia for details on the available cars.

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