I’ve always been fascinated by the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Not fascinated enough to buy one, of course, although I think that even I – an unemployed blogger who wears pants at least two days per week – could qualify for financing through Mitsubishi Credit. Presumably, this would depend on whether I arrived at the dealership wearing pants.
No, what’s fascinated me about the Evo is the car’s most unique aspect. I know what you’re thinking: he’s going to make Asian jokes! But I’m not. (Some of you are now thinking: then why am I reading this?) I’m not even going to call out the Evo for its tuner drivers who believe a car’s quality is judged by the number of elderly people it can piss off with a loud exhaust. After all, this isn’t especially unique, since the E46 BMW M3 exists.
Instead, the Evo’s most unique aspect is the fact that it’s based on the Mitsubishi Lancer. I find it hard to wrap my mind around this. The Evo – commonly considered to be a pretty damn good performance car – is based on a $16,000 compact sedan that plays in a segment of cars you’d buy for your teenage daughter whose sole criteria is: I want blue, daddy! Even more unbelievably, it’s actually near the bottom of this segment, except among people whose credit scores roughly equal a linebacker’s jersey number.
As I thought about this, I realized something: the Lancer is probably the car with the single greatest gap between the base model and the performance model. No one who’s swayed by the economy of a 148-horsepower, base-level Lancer will want to drive an Evo. And Evo owners view Lancer drivers with the same contempt as that friend we all had with an SRT-4 who would always correct people who called it a Neon.
Before writing a story about the unparalleled gap between the Lancer and the Evo, I decided to do some research to see if any other cars had similar divides. Primarily, this involved staring out my window at cars that drove by, thinking things like: “Eh, Hyundai Sonata, no performance model,” or “Who still buys the Volvo XC70?” or “Does that car still have those Christmas reindeer antlers on?”
The Bigger Gap
Eventually, something drove by that does have a bigger gap than the Evo between its base model and its performance variants: the Mercedes-Benz CLK.
In the past, I’ve gotten in trouble with the Best and Brightest for making generalizations about car owners. Actually, I’ve only gotten in trouble for making generalizations about Subaru owners, who I now know are not all lesbians, do not solely live in the northeast, and eat a wide variety of food that may include grape nuts, but doesn’t always.
But I think we can all agree on this generalization: virtually everyone who drives the Mercedes CLK is a woman. Sure, sure: occasionally, men drive it too. Like the technician at the Mercedes dealer who’s diagnosing the fourth electrical issue this week. But mainly, women are attracted to the car’s soft lines, its smooth ride, and the rear seats, which are perfect for those tiny dogs with bows in their hair.
But believe it or not, the CLK has actually produced some pretty good performance models.
The Wild CLKs
Witness the 2003-2006 CLK55 AMG, and later the 2007-2009 CLK63 AMG, which only came as a convertible. Those hauled ass, and they did it in a manner far more subtle than any other AMG Mercedes or BMW M model of the time. The CLK63, for instance, had 475 horsepower and did 0-to-60 in less than 4.5 seconds. That’s pretty good for a four-seat ragtop “woman’s car.”
Of course, Mercedes makes AMG versions of everything. So why is the CLK special? Fine: forget about the base-level AMG model. Focus instead on the CLK63 AMG Black Series. The CLK63 Black reaches 60 in four seconds flat, hits 186 mph and looks like a touring car built for the road. And the rear seat is deleted to save weight, which leaves no room for dogs. Or purses.
But the CLK63 Black Series is child’s play compared to the CLK-DTM. Built to resemble the actual German DTM race car, the CLK-DTM road car used a wider rear track and a supercharged V8 with 582 horsepower. Mercedes sold just 180 of these: 100 coupes and 80 convertibles. They all reached 60 in 3.8 seconds, and they cost around $300,000. Needless to say, the gap widened further.
But we’re still not to the top of the food chain. That would be the CLK-GTR, which looks like the Batmobile, if the Batmobile was the size of a formal dining room. Of course, by now, virtually nothing is shared with the actual CLK except, oddly, the taillights. Indeed, the CLK-GTR was created for GT1-class homologation purposes and built in small numbers: they made just 35 units, including, bizarrely, six convertibles. The reason it was so big is because Mercedes had to stuff wings and air inlets in every possible place; this proved particularly important in the 1999 season when the similar CLR race car actually took off at LeMans. Look this up on YouTube. It’s awesome.
The CLK-GTR was not just the ultimate CLK, but the ultimate Mercedes: pricing started at $1.5 million and power increased to more than 600 horses. Today, they’re only seen on a sunny day in Dubai (that’s every day in Dubai) or a warm summer afternoon in Monaco. It’s a long way from the race tracks they were built for – but it’s even further from the base-level CLK320s that cart expensive handbags around Beverly Hills.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.