- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Mitsubishi’s new sports sedan, the Lancer Evolution, is a car for the motor sports cognoscenti, the insiders who are founts of technical knowledge about the machines that roar around racing and rally circuits worldwide.

To everybody else, it looks like a tarted-up economy sedan with spidery alloy wheels and a giant rear spoiler that could have been installed by a youth who bought it at the local car parts store. It is not that, of course, though it is based on the Lancer, which occupies the low end of the Mitsubishi sedan lineup. What it is, neighbors, is a thinly disguised race car that can nevertheless carry four persons in comfort and ply the highways and byways as a daily commuter.

Consider: Not too long ago, it was an engineering achievement to dredge 100 horsepower from 1.0 liter of piston displacement. So it’s a fairly big deal to find a 2.0-liter engine with 200 horsepower on a production car.

The 2003 Lancer Evolution has an engine that, with turbocharging and an intercooler, churns out 271 horsepower from 2.0 liters. That’s more than 135 horsepower per liter.

The engine is beneath an aluminum hood (with front fenders of the same material) and is linked to a five-speed manual gearbox and a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that uses three differentials to maintain power to all four wheels.

The Evolution, or Evo as it is nicknamed, has a host of other enhancements that make it ready for the racetrack. Folks at Mitsubishi say all it needs to be race-ready is the installation of a roll bar. Though it starts out as a Lancer, the Evo gets a lot of tweaking at the factory to make the body and chassis rigid enough to handle the cornering forces and weight shifts that happen at high speeds.

They also install antilock disc brakes manufactured by Brembo, a manufacturer of competition braking systems. You can spot the Brembo’s bright calipers through the Evolution’s alloy wheels — at least until the brake dust and dirt cover the shiny red finish.

Inside, the Evo gets racing enrichments from other famed specialty manufacturers. The steering wheel comes from Momo, and the front bucket seats were designed specifically for the Evolution by Recaro. The seats are as good as anything you can find anywhere, both for long-distance touring and for snuggling the driver in place through the twists and turns of a road-racing course. They deliver support and comfort in a totally unobtrusive way. You only notice how capable they are when you move to an ordinary seat.

Mitsubishi has built the Evolution for more than a decade, but this is the first time the Japanese manufacturer has met the safety and emissions requirements to bring it to the United States. Seven previous versions were sold elsewhere.

Other than its sticky handling characteristics, a quick hint that the Evo is race-oriented comes when you look at the instruments. The big dial right smack in the middle is a tachometer, not a speedometer, so you can monitor engine revolutions — although the truth is most race drivers do that aurally and through tactile sensations. The speedometer is off to the left.

Though the engine is a bit lumpy at idle — testimony to the power it is ready to deliver — the Evo is eminently easy to drive in workaday traffic. The five-speed’s shift linkage is tight and a bit stiff, not unexpected in a car with this much power. But shifts are positive and accurate, and the clutch and brake pedals are optimally located for severe braking and rapid downshifting going into corners.

As expected, this sort of sophistication does not come cheap. The Evolution’s base price of $29,558 is more than $13,000 higher than that of the Lancer O-Z Rally, which has the looks of a high-performance car but the innards of a wimpy economy car. It also is about $3,000 more than a comparably equipped 227-horsepower Subaru WRX, also a hot all-wheel-drive sports sedan and the Evo’s closest competitor.

The Evo’s base price includes all of the aforementioned race tuning and parts. In addition, it comes equipped with such amenities as air conditioning, an audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, power windows and mirrors, remote locking, high-intensity headlights and even a rear wiper — an oddity on a sedan.

There are only two options: A motorized sunroof ($750) and the huge, trunk-mounted spoiler ($480), which does help keep the Evolution planted but only at speeds above 100 mph. The inclination here would be to skip both options. The sunroof adds weight, and the spoiler detracts from the Evo’s stealth nature.

With a zero-to-60 acceleration time of a whiff over five seconds, a spoiler-free owner could sneak up on a lot of street racers who think they have muscle. Humiliation awaits in the stoplight sprints as they suck wind in the Evo’s wake.

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