There’s an industrial road outside Chicago that has more Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions per square mile than anywhere but the factory in Mizushima, Japan. There’s the drag race shop with several 600+hp, carbon- paneled versions vying for space. There’s the tuner shop where literally dozens of Evos flock to dyno. And there’s the rally shop that is widely considered the finest American skunkworks for this type of car. And as I stand in that shop, my own flame-spitting Evo IV rally car sitting on the hoist behind me, I stare at a brand-new charcoal Evo IX MR – the even-higher-performance-spec version – that has only 70 miles on it. And the perfect impression of a tree trunk, molded into the passenger’s side.
The sight is sobering. I mean, I’ve been driving my own Evo on dirt and snow rally roads for years, at speeds regularly over 120mph, and I’ve never hit a tree like this poor schmuck did. But then I’ve been rallying for a long time and have enough stupid crashes on my permanent record to know better than continue down that path (and over the forest and into the tree). Fortunately, there’s another near-new Evo IX MR sitting outside, and the owner foolishly throws me the keys.
I’m not a boy racer. I’m not even a boy. But boy, the IX MR is quite a car. It’s not particularly elegant; the best you could say is that the fender flares, sharp nose, deep chin, and hard-edged wing make it handsome and sinewy. The interior is downright plain for a $35k sports sedan (OK – the Recaro seats are awesome). Unmodified, it actually sits a little too high on its wheels. Unless you know what it is, you’d probably think this bewinged extrovert is like your little brother: high on bluster but slow on the delivery.
But this is your little brother who becomes the school track star and steals your girlfriend. Specs never tell the whole story, but 286hp, AWD with an active center differential, huge Brembo brakes, and all-aluminum suspension arms make for a good opening paragraph. The story continues when you fire up the 2.0L intercooled turbo engine – in the IX for the first time with variable valve timing – and it settles into a contented purr. It’s not until you really get into the throttle that the thing takes off like a scalded cat, albeit a scalded cat with its claws dug about two feet into the pavement.
I can tell you with some authority that this is one of the five best handling cars available in North America. Certainly it is one of two for less than $35k, and it has four doors and a trunk to boot. It’s better than the Subaru WRX STi – tighter, better balanced, transitions faster, feels lighter. The Subaru actually has a better drive layout, with the engine mass lower and the transmission further back, but by sheer bloody-minded suspension engineering the Evo wins hands down.
Yes, the ride is harsh and the appointments spare. But the turn-in is astonishing – sneeze and you’ll change three lanes – and once you’re sliding, you can drift the car in fourth gear, tires smoking, the world coming at you through the side window, correcting with your fingertips. Wanna feel like a superhero? This is your fastest ticket.
Except physics is a hard mistress, and trees are hard objects. Even the Evo can’t give you more run-out room when you simply went in too fast. In fact, it sort of cheats you: it allows you to go so close to the edge – even over the edge – then gather it all up again, time after time. Except that last time when nothing – not your skill, not your pleas to the heavens, and not even the Evo – can save you from being an idiot.
Anyway, the IX MR is that kind of car: a machine that goes so bloody quick so bloody easily that thoughts of death are necessary to prevent its occurrence. And no wonder: the IX MR is an evolution of an earlier Lancer and, before that, the Galant VR4 of the early 1990s. The Evo is, essentially, a Japanese Porsche 911, constantly honed with one thing in mind: dominant performance for a given drive layout. It’s amazing that a company still struggling to find its place in the North American market can produce a single model that is so focused, desirable and damn near perfect that they hardly need to market it.
And so, after having driven perhaps a dozen Evos in anger over the last few years, there’s a new Evo IX RS – the even-lighter-weight version – sitting in my shop, taunting me, about to be built into my next rally car. So much for trying not to be an idiot.