Thursday, April 20, 2006

So, you’ve got some boy-racer blood pounding through your veins. Putting yourself into a set of wheels capable of satisfying those enthusiast urges isn’t difficult; all it takes is money, moolah, dinero, cabbage, scratch.

A Corvette Z06 will set you back $65,000, while a Porsche 911 commands around $81,000. A Dodge Viper is right up there too at $82,000.

Located farther down the sticker food chain, but far from cheap are hard chargers such as the BMW M3 at $57,000 and the Cadillac CTS-V at $51,000. It’s frustrating being in the hunt for a sub-five second 0-60 mph time when you suffer from undercapitalization.

Well, wring your hands no more. For less than $30,000 the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution holds the line on price, while providing atom-splitting off-the-line acceleration.

The 2006 Evo advances the generation count by one to IX. Although it isn’t a total redesign, the latest version received enough exterior, interior and performance enhancements over the Evo VIII to give the IX designation legitimacy. And don’t let the Lancer part of its name fool you. This is no Lancer decked out with a few appearance and suspension upgrades. Other than their shared roofline, and grill design, they barely resemble one another. Lancer simply provided the shell around which the Evo was engineered. There are very few similarities and the differences are huge.

Three Evo versions offer some serious differences in price and content. Anchoring the lineup is the $29,274 RS. Designated as the most race-ready of the models, the RS comes stripped of such superfluous fineries as power windows and door locks. A few other adjustments to jettison weight have also been made. All Evos feature aluminum hood, front fenders and roof panel, but the RS also sports thinner sheetmetal in some areas. Considered the base edition — the baseline edition would be more appropriate — the IX comes standard with power windows/door locks, air conditioning, audio system with CD player and 17-inch light-weight Enkei wheels, as well as a $31,994 price tag.

The top-end version is the Evolution MR at $35,784. Inflating the price over the base model are such upgrades as Bilstein shocks, BBS wheels and HID headlamps.

Powering every 2006 Evo is a turbocharged 2-liter inline four. Horsepower is up by 10 from last year to 286 and low-end response is improved through the incorporation of variable valve timing. If you don’t want to stir the transmission by hand, forget the Evo. Two manual transmissions are available to hand off engine output to all four wheels. The IX and RS use a five-speed gearbox, while the MR has a six-speed. Although a driver-shiftable automatic might well boost sales, the rally-bred Evo has so far remained loyal to it roots. For a typical four-banger, the Evo’s fuel economy numbers are less than impressive; however; for a sedan with its performance chops, the Evo posts OK fuel stats. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 18 miles per gallon in town and 24 on the open road.

Like a thoroughbred nervously prancing in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, the Evo wants to run. The high-revving four demands you push it toward its redline. Slowly easing out the clutch while adding a bit of throttle is all that’s necessary to spark a serious reaction.

Basically the Evo has two speeds: stop and go, go, go. It is, quite simply, a blast to drive. Grippy Yokohama rubber makes good use of the all-wheel drive. Staying out of trouble, particularly in the corners, remains the responsibility of the driver, but the AWD certainly makes that job easier.

The all-wheel independent forged aluminum suspension provides a solid and well-balanced foundation. The ride is firm, but civilized. Body roll, squat and dive aren’t words found in Evo’s lexicon and for good reason: They have been all but eliminated. The four-wheel antilock disc brake system features Brembo grabbers and includes electronic brake-force distribution.

Much more like a cockpit than a cabin, Evo’s interior is also engineered for competition. The Recaro Alcantara reclining bucket seats reach around the front-seat occupants, firmly holding them in place.

A leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel serves as the helm. In the background, a large round tachometer takes center stage in the gauge pod with a smaller speedometer flanking it on the left.

This is not a particularly sensible arrangement for normal driving, but a nod to Evo’s heritage of competition. Aluminum pedals complete the rally car look. Controls for the six-speaker audio system with CD player and climate control are located high on the center dashboard, which is smartly styled.

The MR is the most tricked-out of the three Evo editions, but spending an addition $1,000 or so will add a number of upgrades such as an aluminum shift knob, boost gauge kit, carbon fiber/aluminum handbrake grip, wheel locks, and a front air dam.

High performance on a budget, the Mitsubishi Evo treats boy-racer fever at a generic prescription price.

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