A touch of Evolution: Bidding farewell to Mitsubishi’s rally racer

Today, we mark the end of Evolution. New pressures have some to bear, and the survival of the fittest no longer has a place for the survival of the fastest: the mighty Mitsubishi Evo is no more.

After a long run squawking around the rally stages of the world, Mitsubishi’s last truly interesting car has run up the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It has, regrettably, snuffed it, and Mitsubishi’s vague talk of a hybrid sport coupe to be released at some unknown future date holds little comfort for fans of the Diamond-Star brand; mate, this thing wouldn’t vroom if you put ten million volts through it.

In the battle between the Impreza WRX STI and the Lancer Evolution, we must now pass the performance laurels onto the Subaru. Mitsubishi’s new Lancer will likely be built in partnership with Renault, and will focus on green technologies and a comfortable ride. There is no spot for a banzai all-wheel-drive rally-rocket in Mitsu’s new kinder, gentler, greener lineup.

Gallery: Subaru and Mitsubishi’s rally rivalry through the years

Happily, the latest STI is pretty much a Lancer Evo with a Subaru pancake-four swapped in. The new car steals some of that razor-sharp steering and chassis input from its closest rival, and finds its character changed. The old Subaru STIs were a bit like golden retrievers, friendly, a bit slobbery, and most at home in the mud. The new one is a tarmac weapon. It’s good, and Subaru ought to leave a bundle of red-and-white roses on the Evo’s tombstone every year as tribute. Like James Hunt and Nikki Lauda, or Snake Prudhomme and Mongoose McEwen, the STI and the Evo defined and improved each other by their fierce rivalry.

The Lancer’s story, however, starts far ahead of the Subaru’s. At first a humble, compact Japanese sedan and coupe, the first generation car came alive when a twin Mikuni-carb 1,600 cc motor was swapped in; weighing less than 900 kilograms, the 1973 Lancer 1600GSR powered its way to victory with just 169 horsepower. Canadians got the base car badged as the Plymouth Colt which – as you’d expect from the name – had literally less horsepower, but was at least good on gas.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution I.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution I.
Handout, Mitsubishi

Drivers like Andrew Gowan and Joginder Singh gave the Lancer its first rally victories, competing in the gruelling Australian Southern Cross rally, and the Safari Rally in Eastern Africa. While the Lancers were light and fragile, they were also very nimble, and made the most of their power.

Later, in the 1980s, the Lancer would get proper turbocharged power with the 2000EX Turbo. Just like the BMW 2002 Turbo of the 1970s, this rear-drive drifting machine had an airdam emblazoned with reversed lettering so that drivers in front could glance in the rearview mirror, see what you were packing and then get the heck out of the way. A real hooligan’s car, it made up to 280 horsepower in rally-trim, and was the first time the iconic 4G63T four-cylinder engine would be mated to a Lancer chassis. Mitsubishi never sold the car here, and didn’t make another hot Lancer for a full decade.

When they returned, it was with a vengeance and a very old recipe. While the Lancer had soldiered on through the ’80s as a humdrum workaday appliance, the larger Galant had been competitive in rally with Mitsubishi’s VR-4 viscous all-wheel-drive system, and that 4G63T turbocharged engine. With the World Rally Championship (WRC) Group A series, there was the chance to continue to victory by simply swapping the drivetrain of the big car into the new platform of the little one.

However, this was not to be a one-off factory special. Homologation rules required that Mitsubishi build 2,500 street-going examples to prevent them entering a ringer. As it happened, the company built and sold 5,000 cars, for the Japanese home market only. They called it the Lancer Evolution I. You could buy the first Evo one of two ways: either in a stripped-out version called the RS, which had roll-up windows and no ABS; or in the GSR, which was about 70 kilograms heavier and loaded with power seats and the like. The former was really a starter kit for privateer teams to begin building their own rally entries.

The spec-sheet of the Evo I makes for an interesting read, especially compared to modern cars. It weighed just 1,238 kilograms (1,168 in RS trim), and sat on skinny 195-series tires. Power was a stout 244 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, with torque slightly less at 228 lb.-ft. @ 3,000 rpm.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV.
Handout, Mitsubishi

Part of what made the first nine generations of Evos so great was their forced-induction heart, the 4G63T. This same engine would show up over here in cars like the Eagle Talon, with smaller turbos and a little less power. With double overhead camshafts in an four-valve-per-cylinder head, and a stout, cast-iron block, the 4G63T was born to be boosted. By the time the third generation of Evo rolled around, the new 16G turbo – also to become a code that tripped off the tongue of import-tuning gearheads – was helping the 4G63T push out over 270hp.

This was enough for Mitsubishi to claim WRC victory an unheard-of four consecutive times between 1996 and 1999. Each year, the Evo would receive a tweak or two, and gain an extra Roman numeral, evolving from the Evo III to the Evo VI.

Along the way, a few key Mitsubishi technologies showed up that would imbue the Lancer Evo with on-tarmac prowess its rivals could simply not replicate. The first of these was active yaw control, an electronically-controlled system that’s capable of monitoring the angle of attack of the car and shunting the power to the correct wheel through a rear differential. In the rallying world, where cars slingshot through the turns leaving blackened pavement and deafened spectators in their wake, it gave the Evo a killing edge.

Credit where it's due: Tommi Makinen also helped the Lancer Evolution establish its reputation on the rally stage.

Credit where it’s due: Tommi Makinen also helped the Lancer Evolution establish its reputation on the rally stage.
Handout, Mitsubishi

Some of the credit, though, does have to go to the rally-car’s icy pilot. Tommi Mäkinen is one of the most successful WRC rally drivers of all time, ranking second in wins only behind Citroën driver Sébastien Loeb, who everyone knows is some sort of Cylon plant anyway. His four straight championship wins lit a fire for Mitsubishi enthusiasts everywhere, and it resulted in a very special car.

The sixth Lancer Evo came in several special editions, one of which was painted in the red-and-white livery of Makinen’s rally car, and fitted with the same white Enkei wheels as the tarmac-spec version of the racer. These must have been a real pain to keep clean, but they looked great. The car was now officially making 280 horsepower, with torque swelled to match, and turbo lag was cut down by innovations such as twin-scroll technology and a titanium impeller turbine, the first seen on a road-going car.

While a so-called gentleman’s agreement kept any Japanese manufacturer from building a car with more than 280 horsepower, it was widely accepted that the Evo was putting down more power than the spec sheet indicated. Just like the muscle cars of the 1960s, Mitsubishi was playing coy with its output figures, and backyard tuners were making monster power with just a tweak or two.

It was about this time that the Gran Turismo series of games starting becoming commonplace for the Playstation system, and thus a wider North American audience was introduced to the STI and the Evo. They had two questions: “When can I buy one of those?” and “How about now?”

The first Lancer Evolution to show up in North America was the eight-generation model. Sadly, it was exclusive to the U.S., but they found their way to Canada eventually.

The first Lancer Evolution to show up in North America was the eight-generation model. Sadly, it was exclusive to the U.S., but they found their way to Canada eventually.
Handout, Mitsubishi

The first Evo to show up in the U.S. – and not Canada, thanks to that massive front intercooler coming up against our bumper regulations – was the Evo VIII. If you’re starting to feel like this car’s naming conventions were based on Rocky, you’re not alone.

The USDM car wasn’t anywhere as cool as the Japanese car. It had a five-speed transmission instead of six, there was no active yaw control and there were no special edition models. Even so, in 2003, the mighty STI had yet to show up, so the Evo was king, far faster than the “bugeye” WRX of the time. Then the ’04 STI showed up and the Evo was still capable of giving the Subaru a hard time. Off road, the Subie was tougher, but on the track the Evo was razor-sharp. The battle-lines were drawn.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world got some seriously looney-tunes versions of the Evo. In the UK, British tuners released a factory-backed version of the Evo VIII with over 400 horsepower. Here was a four-door compact sedan that could easily smoke a Ferrari, on the street, or (preferably) at the track. Plus you could load up the trunk with the week’s groceries. Considering what a hyperactive car it was, that’s probably just three cases of Red Bull and a vat of creatine powder, but still.

A rare sight to behold -- at one point, Mitsubishi offered an Evolution wagon in Japan.

A rare sight to behold — at one point, Mitsubishi offered an Evolution wagon in Japan.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

If that wasn’t enough haulage prowess for you, Mitsubishi also build a very rare wagon version. Another Japan-only special, these were offered with an optional automatic transmission, and they only built 2,500 of them.

The Evo IX was the last hurrah for the 4G63T, now with MIVEC valve-timing for better responsiveness, and perhaps the last time you could buy a truly raw version of the car. It was also the last time you could buy an Evo with a six-speed manual transmission, and by “you”, I mean, “you American.”

The Evo finally arrived in Canada in 2008 – though earlier models have been known to trickle across the border by way of private importation. This was the tenth-generation car, and it was larger, more polished, and available with an automatic. Happily, the latter was a quick-shifting dual-clutch system on the MR model that made the Evo X worthy of its cool rear badging. Better yet, this model had the active yaw control and adjustable centre differential missing from previous North American models.

The latest, 10th generation Lancer Evolution is heavier than its predecessors, but that doesn't mean it's dull.

The latest, 10th generation Lancer Evolution is heavier than its predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it’s dull.
Handout, Mitsubishi

While a little heavier than any previous generation of Evo, the Evo X is still an amazing car on the track, and has a high degree of tuneability. Even today, six years after it first showed up on our shores, it’s still capable of embarrassing much more expensive machinery at the track.

But not anymore. While this current generation will probably stay in production for at least one more year, it’s not going to be replaced. Mitsubishi is finished with their rally experiment, and is leaving the hoonery to Subaru. That’s a real shame. While it was never as popular or as common a sight as a WRX on our roads, the Evo was always a special car. It was a bit of a scorcher, a bit of a boy racer. It was a car that handled like it had retractable claws, and looked happiest in the paddock waiting for a turn on the track.

We’ll miss it. I want to say I can see a future where it still exists, maybe a little more compact and lightweight, maybe with a cleaner-running engine. Trouble is, I can’t help feeling that such a vision is just a mirage.

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