Japan’s greatest rally special. The M5 for the Playstation generation. The only decent car Mitsubishi ever made. Different people associate the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution with different enthusiast tropes. For me, the Evo will always be inextricably linked to heartbreak.
Early in my career as an automotive journalist, I managed to wrangle a red Evo MR (above) for a week-long road test. A weekend trip to visit my then girlfriend ended in a very humiliating public breakup, and a 100 mile drove home in near-blizzard conditions.
The breakup, though minor in retrospect, served as a trigger for the kind of emotional anguish that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I was an animated example of every post-breakup cliche: unable to listen to certain songs, all too able to ingest excess amounts of alcohol, unwilling to get out of bed in the morning, incapable of focusing on my work or personal responsibilities. I steadfastly avoided anything that had even the slightest association with my ex. Except the Evo.
For some unknown reason, the local press fleet manager had another Evo, an MR model in the dark graphite color that was so popular a few years ago. Nobody seemed to want it. When I’d check for available cars, the Evo was always kicking around, and I was always there to borrow it. I ended up driving on three different week long stints, and it never lost its lustre.
On the continuum of “superlative performance cars with humble origins”, the Evo is somewhere between an Integra Type-R and an Escort Cosworth. It still retains the vestigial shape, drivetrain configuration and hard points as the regular Lancer, but beyond that, there is little commonality.
The base Lancer is meant to be cheap, practical transportation for global C-segment consumers. The Evo is not cheap to buy or to own (thanks to a small tank and a thirsty powertrain, good luck getting above 12 mpg). About the only concession to practicality it makes is the fact that it has two doors and a barely passable rear seat. Between the fuel tank, the all-wheel drive system, the pureile subwoofer and the battery, the trunk can barely hold more than a carry-on suitcase. The interior is an embarrassment and the Mitsubishi brand – from the dealer experience to the name itself to having to tell people you drive one – is dismal.
In return, you get one of the most visceral, thrilling driving experiences available at any prices. The Evo is not a rival to a Subaru WRX or a Focus ST or a Golf R. It would not be hyperbolic to liken its qualitative traits to something exotic. The steering is more similar to a Lotus Evora than anything else, while the handling defies verbal explanation. Dynamically, it’s as capable as a Nissan GT-R, but without the clinical, disconnected personality, and the turbocharged 4-cylinder powertrain, with its overwhelming induction noise and unrefined dual-clutch gearbox, is the welterweight version of the GT-R’s mighty twin turbo V6.
No wonder it’s going to be put to sleep. In a marketplace full of commoditized boxes with in-dash iPads, CAFE-driven two-point-oh-tee engines and reverse teardrop styling, the Evo is a relic of a time when performance wasn’t equated with profligacy and planetary destruction. There’s simply no place for the Evo anymore.
But that’s nothing new either. When I penned my earlier piece for TTAC, it looked like the Evo was on its way out as well. At the time, I felt it was a fitting metaphor for a particular stage in my life, one that took supreme importance to me at the age of 22, but was long in the past for most of the B&B. Now that I’m a little older and a little more experienced, I think about the Evo’s demise in its proper context, as the last of a particular breed of Japanese performance car – one ungoverned by profit & loss, economies of scale and other realities for auto makers doing business in the 21st century.
The new crop will look a lot different – a new hybrid NSX, a Supra built with BMW, a Nissan sports coupe with only a CVT. But it won’t look too different either. We still have the FR-S, the new WRX, and a Miata that will be as light as it was in 1990. But there won’t be an Evo. And we’re worse off for that.