By on May 1, 2013

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.

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69 Comments on “Mercedes CLK and Mitsubishi Lancer: The Big Gap...”


  • avatar
    Fordson

    I think the VW Golf through GTI up to Golf R is a pretty big gap, too. A base Golf is something like $17k and a loaded Golf R is around $36.5k.

    The Golf R wears the upgrade better though…the Lancer starts out with the interior and refinement of a $16k car and the base Golf starts out with the interior and refinement of a $25k car. The Evo has more outright performance than the R, but in everyday driving, the R is a much more plausible mid-$30s vehicle.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    A lot of regular Lancer owners are people who wanted the EVO but couldn’t afford it. I would go as far as to say most male regular Lancer owners fit in this category.

    I think another good one was any Mustang in which the base model was the 4.0L V6. Bottom end you had midwestern college chicks and moms. Top end you had baby boomer retirees and drag racers. There was zero overlap, and I am pretty sure from the bottom to the top horsepower almost tripled. Rustang has range.

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      This is true. Bottom end on a new Mustang V6 is like what…$24k? And a GT500 is over $60k, I think. HP goes from 305 to 662.

      Good news now that the 4.0 Cologne is gone is that there are NO slow Mustangs. Even a V6 with all-season tires and the auto tranny is running the quarter in the high 13s.

      • 0 avatar
        Aqua225

        The Cologne V6 was not bad. It just gave out in the upper rev range. Out of the hole, it would hang with a Z6 until about 50mph with a auto. I know this personally (no I don’t own one or the other). It was a good motor for the base car buyer, IMO. Good low range torque.

    • 0 avatar

      Oooh – good point. Mustang has a huge gap from the base model to the top-end version.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      When I was in high school, the Ford Mustang was probably the single most popular new car in the student lot. Starting with the 1987 model year, they were available two ways. Gone were the indifferent I6 and V6 models of the early Fox years. Dead was the awful turbo four. That left two engines: the 2.3 liter I4 that made the Mustang one of the slower non-diesel cars on the road, and the injected 302 V8 that made it one of the fastest. Fox Mustangs were already about as dated as Volvo 240s by the late ’80s, so there were plenty of used ones with four cylinders and four speeds being driven by the less spoiled members of the student body, but the new four cylinder ones were automatics driven by daddies’ girls. The new V8s were driven by guys that had real jobs and no college aspirations. I’m sure the girls would have rather had Rabbit cabrios, but that wouldn’t have suited their Lincoln driving fathers. I think the blue collar guys with the GTs were pretty happy that Ford had figured out cheap performance again.

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        Awful Turbo 4? Was it available on anything but the SVO? My understanding was that it was wildly overpriced (turbo 4 SVOs cost more than V8 GTs, but couldn’t keep up), but compared to typical “awful” engines that seems a minor crime.

      • 0 avatar
        ...m...

        …excellent characterisation: i don’t believe i’ve ever read a more-adroit assessment of my high school parking lot twenty-five years ago…

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      See my comment further below.

    • 0 avatar
      jeffredo

      /sheepishly raises hand. Yeah, I have a 2010 Lancer Sportback GTS. I know full well what an EVO is and would love to have one… but I have a 30 year old subdivision house in need of constant work (since all the original 1982 stuff is starting to going south). I got the Sportback for $17,000 out-the-door since the large Orange County CA dealer was so desperate to move them. For when I bought it in 2011 the only other car that cheap might have been a Chevy Aveo. An EVO would have been twice that.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    “most unique” . . . . oh puhleez!

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Of course not all Subaru owners are lesbians living in the Northeast – a lot of them are lesbians living in Colorado!

  • avatar
    hp

    Interesting article, spot on too.

  • avatar
    Mazda Monkey

    C6 Corvettes also have a big gap: from the 2005 4 speed auto base models to the ZR1. Same with with the “base” 911 all the way up to the racing models you can buy through a dealer (and that old GT1). Not a perfect comparison to the CLK though, even base Vettes and 911s are very legitimate sports cars.

  • avatar
    Summicron

    The topic touches nothing I care about but the writing of it delights me.
    Just like Baruth.

  • avatar
    Synchromesh

    My friend’s wife had an ’05 Lancer (non-Evo) she bought new. It was a complete piece of junk. Not that it was unreliable but it was quite weak and had pretty awful fuel mileage for its size and power. Driving it wasn’t fun at all. Really turned me off Mitsubishi. Hopefully Evo is much better but they just tend to be so expensive.

    As for Mercedes – I never liked those. No manual transmission means I wouldn’t touch it regardless of how fast it is.

    • 0 avatar
      mvoss

      I disagree that I wouldn’t touch a car without manual, but seeing as manuals seem to be dying out, I’m taking all the chance I can get now to drive stick.

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      I own a (bought used) 2004 Lancer Sportback Ralliart (I laugh every time somebody comments on my owning a “Ralliart.” It’s in name only…). While the 160 HP is not too shabby, it’s held back by the rather useless 4 speed AT slushbox. I bought it cheap three years ago, and it’s now sitting at close to 130k with no issues, other than regular maintenance and replacement of belts/tires, etc. I will readily agree that the fuel economy is horrid for a 4 pot, as I’m lucky to get 25 MPG on the highway. But for that, I still think my car is relatively solid. Would I have bought new? Probably not. My next truly new car will hopefully be something as “American” as I can wrap my hands around, but that’s several years off.
      I do find the discussion about HP gap between models of a line to be interesting. Not that I’d sneeze at a “base” Mustang now with 305 HP…:)

    • 0 avatar
      LeeK

      I drove a 2003 Evo VIII every day for five years and 52,000 miles. It performed flawlessly the entire time. I replaced the brake pads at 40,000 miles, and when I sold it the original clutch was still working perfectly. Of all the cars I have owned, only the two 2006 Honda Elements I own now have been as reliable as that Evo.

  • avatar
    ninjacoco

    Hey, now. Not all Lancer owners are financial ‘tards. Mine was paid for at the time of purchase. (By my parents. Shaddup!)

    Still, let me be “that guy” who’ll argue that not all of the sporting pretensions of the Evo were lost on its little bro. It has fairly decent handling out of the box and if you opt for the 2.4L engine, it’s decently peppy. I have ’10, though, so I can’t speak for the older models.

    TBH, I’ve given up on the idea of trading up for the Evo. With more power comes less reliability. Although the Evo’s a great car, the only thing that’s really gone out on my Lancer has been the front struts, and I’ve been tracking the dang thing because hey–free car. (Also, only car for most of its life.) I’ve been impressed enough with it to say that Mitsu ought to get off their butts and prep some for B-Spec.

    I saved my moment of financial irresponsibility for the LeMons car, dang it. Geez, get it right–*944* owners are financially ‘tarded!

    • 0 avatar

      Great post! Although I would argue it’s 944 Turbo owners who are the financially crazy among us. People who own 944s still have some good sense.

      • 0 avatar
        ninjacoco

        True, true–people keep saying that my ’83 NA will be soooo expensive to run, but it has two financial advantages over the Lulzcer already: widespread aftermarket support and 15″ wheels. Z2s on the Porsche are a full $400 less than they are for the 18″ Lulzcer wheels, plus if something breaks, other people actually track the thing and can give advice, heh.

        (See? This is why Mitsu needs a B-Spec car. Coco needs more “because racecar” aftermarket love. Grumble grumble custom-order race pads grumble.)

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Dunno about this one. 944T’s cost a little more to fix than plain 944s, but they go a whole lot faster. We 924S owners are the ones needing cranial examination, cost just as much to fix as a 944, worth a whole lot less.

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      The current generation Lancer is at least decent to look at, and in GTS trim you could even mistake one at a quick glance (at a distance…as long as the engine wasn’t running) for the Evo X…they have improved the marketability of that model to the point where I do see more of them on the road by far than the “VIII” or “IX” generation Lancer. Conversely, I see almost ZERO Mitsubishi Evo X’s on the road. I’d go so far as to say that I see GT-R’s or Aston Martin’s with greater regularity. Maybe it’s just this part of the country…AWD sells better in areas with more severe winters than we normally get in the ATL.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    I just spotted a pristine JDM Evo 5 up here in Edmonton, Canada. I instantly felt a moment of lust after spotting my dream car from my early 20′s. Of course I’ve moved on, and my tastes are more mature. Hmm, maybe it’s time to import a Toyota Century…

  • avatar
    JasontheF

    There are bigger gaps….

    There’s the Nissan R34 Skyline which is quite a sensible choice most of the time when its fitted with a non-turbocharged engine. When Nismo got a chance to buy some second hand ones, they ended up with the Z-Tune with 500 hp.

    Over here, the BMW 3 series gives the CLK a run for the money where the gap is concerned. They do make a tax dodge model for that car for countries where anything above 2.0 liters is taxed. So, the most basic model of the E90 was the 318i with a 2 liter 4 cylinder. That’s been followed up by the 316i with a 1.6 liter 4 cylinder.

    There’s also the Ferrari 208 and 308, but I think that the gap is not so big because they are both Ferraris at the end of the day…

    Also, I liked the article and it made me pick my brains about these cars. So, thanks for that, Doug.

    • 0 avatar

      Appreciate the kind words! I actually think you’re on track with the Ferrari gap, but there’s a bigger one than you mentioned: the 288 GTO was actually based on the 208/308 platform. It’s a loooooooooong walk to get from the 208 to the 288 GTO!

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        As was the F40, for that matter. It was basically a 288GTO with rice, built by Ferrari because he was ticked off that the speculators made more off the 288GTO than he did.

  • avatar
    mvoss

    Nice article, Doug! Very interesting topic. It seems that most automakers try to make the base and performance models somewhat comparable to maintain demand across all levels (no one would want to absolutely hate their low-performance variant, unless you’re driving a base Camaro).

    MB did it perfectly with the CLK because it geared (perhaps unintentionally) the base CLK to women with poodles in their purses and geared the CLK63 to manly men.

    You could make the same argument for a 328i where the highest performance version is a homologated M3 GT4, but still pales in comparison to CLK to CLK-GTR (I also like that there are only three letters to distinguish the difference in the name).

  • avatar
    onyxtape

    Another really big gap:

    Corolla —–> IS F.

    (Yes, I know it’s not the same platform, despite what the German steel owners keep saying)

  • avatar
    Tim_Turbo

    Another obvious one is Subaru…from a base Impreza ($18,600) to the STI, that with the right package (Limited w/Nav) can almost hit 40K.

    Although it might not meet the criteria, as the STI is actually based on the previous generation Impreza, not the one that is currently on sale…..

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      That’s a good one for this thread, because as cliched as it is, you can never escape the Evo/STI comparison. At least the base Impreza has AWD.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Mama

    Another Mercedes iteration that spawned an impressive variety of variants was the W126. I had an ’81 300sd, a turbo diesel that coddled me in comfort with great AC and heated seats but was never in much of a hurry to get anywhere. This same platform also hosted various AMG iterations as well as the sublime 560SEC that wrapped up production in ’91. Original msrp spanned $34k to $82k for this platform. You could buy the least expensive variant confident that you were getting the same world class engineering that went into cars at more than double the cost.

  • avatar
    markholli

    Interesting topic, Doug. Got me thinking about full-size trucks. There is a huge gap between the base model, 2WD commercial grade versions, and the fully cowboyed-out leather-’n-wood 4×4 Diesel dually version.

    I was playing around on Ford’s website a minute ago and was able to option an F-450 up to $75,274 (that’s just 72 easy payments of $1087!!). Same story with Silverados and Rams. Base models in the low 20′s, top shelf models in the 70k range.

    • 0 avatar

      Holy crap. I knew those high-end full-sizers got expensive, but I didn’t realize $75k expensive. This sounds like it deserves an article all on its own…

      • 0 avatar
        MrFixit1599

        And this would be why the Ford Raptor is one of the best truly Do-It-All automotive bargains currently available to anyone, and it even has a factory warranty.

        Seats 5 comfortably, can tow a trailer or a boat, can haul mulch or firewood, rides sorta like a Panther down the highway, and then you can go run a rally across a desert in it. Granted it’s gonna run around 57K, but what’s not to love?

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          What’s not to love about a Ford Raptor? Parking it. Feeding it. Being seen in it. Repairing the bent frame after going rapidly off-road. An ability that is useless around here, too many trees in the way. And going down a paved road like a Panther is NOT something to be proud of.

          Sure seems like any old beatup truck can do most of what a Raptor does (for a while), except for the price you could have a dozen or more of them. “Hold my beer”

  • avatar
    Ltd783

    Porsches might win this, but not just for performance variants, just on options. I know its possible to option up a V6 Cayenne or non-S Cayman to well over $100k.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      The Cayenne diesel that Porsche sent MT for a comparison test was $93K with a base price of $56,550. It was in the ballpark with the Mercedes, Jeep and VW at base price, but pulled out a new Taurus sized gap with options.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        This is true of most of the Germans. My 328i wagon started at ~$36K, but you could tick all the boxes including one of the silly-priced wheel/tire upgrades and pay nearly $60K for one. And that is BEFORE delving into the world of “BMW Individual”. Add another $10-15K for some special paint, wood, and leather?

        • 0 avatar
          CJinSD

          In this particular case, the Mercedes had $12,400 in options and VW had $6,200. The Porsche pretty much knocked it out of the park with over $36K in options without being spackled with Exclusive bling. A look at the configurator shows you can add $102K in options to the Cayenne Diesel if you’re so inclined.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The R32 Nissan Skyline would be in there. Model lineup went from the GXi (90hp throttle-body injected 4 cylinder) all the way up to the GT-R with almost half a dozen steps in between.

  • avatar
    Marko

    The Ford Fox platform certainly spanned a wide range, from the lowly Fairmont to the Lincoln Mark VII to the Cobra R. Even more impressive is the fact that it started out as an economy car (the Fairmont/Zephyr) in ’78 and worked its way up over the years, arguably to 2004. Did anyone ever expect it to last more than a quarter-century?

  • avatar
    MLS

    Though not as extreme a gap as some of the others cited here, the performance spread on the previous generation Chrysler 300 was notable. Consider the difference between the sludge-prone 190-hp 2.7L V6 base model and the 425-hp 6.2L Hemi V8 SRT8. What’s worse, the former was mated to an antiquated four-speed automatic.

    • 0 avatar
      MLS

      It seems the edit function isn’t working, so I’ve been forced into the dubious practice of replying to myself.

      Anyway, another huge Chrysler Group gap for your consideration: 2004 Dodge Ram (210-hp 3.7L V6) vs. similar vintage Ram SRT10 (510-hp 8.3L V10).

  • avatar
    corntrollio

    The Chrysler 300 has a decent size spread — you can go from maybe 25K to 50K, if I remember correctly. There are probably other Mercedes vehicles with big spreads — e.g. SL350 diesel vs. SL65 AMG Black Series (over $300K loaded). I think the S-class has a decent spread between the S280/250CDI (not sure what the cost is) and the S65 AMG, which could probably be 200K fully loaded.

    I was thinking virtually all pickup trucks belong on the list for having even bigger spreads. You can get a regular cab work truck or a King Ranch blingmobile. Or maybe even pedestrian Dodge Ram vs. Dodge Ram SRT10 back in the day.

    Here’s an obscure one — Audi Q7. In 2009, I believe the base model was under $44K in the US. However, in Europe, you could also get the 6.0L V12 TDI (twin-turbo) with 738 lb-ft of torque for the equivalent of $185K in the same year. Those prices aren’t apples to apples, of course, since cars are cheaper in the US relative to Europe.

    As usual, great column, Doug.

  • avatar
    LALoser

    Just bought my second Ralliart 4 days ago. Traded in an ’11 for a ’13. For me they are great cars for the money.

    • 0 avatar
      300zx_guy

      just curious, why did you trade from the ’11 to the ’13?

      • 0 avatar
        LALoser

        Good questin. The ’11 was my “entry” into a toy I could sell my wife on. It was very spartan, and I loved it. After a year and a half…and at 7400 miles..we took it in for a oil last Saturday, and they had a beautiful Mercury grey with all the options…and a lip spoiler instead of the tall one. She liked it, gave me approval, so I grabbed while grabbing was good.

  • avatar
    fabriced28

    You can also increase the spread towards the bottom on the CLK: it was offered with a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder in Europe as the CLK200K. A good deal cheaper than a CLK320…

    You’ll find a nice spread between a Renault Clio 1.2 60 hp and a Renault Clio V6, about 1 to 4.

  • avatar
    cannyfriar

    This is a great, thought-provoking theme! For me, it provoked the comparison Toyota / Scion IQ and the Aston Martin Cygnet. I know it’s not a fair comparison, as you need to be an AML customer to buy a Cygnet – but it’s still a fair old gap for basically one car.

  • avatar
    yaymx5

    “even I – an unemployed blogger who wears pants at least two days per week.”

    If this isn’t a joke, then could someone please pay Doug to keep doing what he’s doing? Doug is clearly the next Clarkson.


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