- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

If it weren’t for the giant wing, the nondescript gray Mitsubishi Lancer might well have drawn no more attention than any other compact commuter car.

But there it was, towering above the tail end of the four-door sedan, piquing the interest of the knowing and unknowing alike.

To the enthusiasts who encountered the car on the open road, the wing signaled the presence of the very special, relatively rare Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX SE — a near clone of cars that the Japanese manufacturer campaigns in the World Rally Championship.

To the rest of the folks who passed by in a few mall parking lots, well, I couldn’t actually tell if they were impressed by the sheer audacity of that wing or if they were simply amused at the sight of what appeared to be some gray-haired old goat maneuvering (OK, struggling) to get over the rigid Recaro seat bolsters on his way in and out of the car.

Whatever the reaction, I’m pretty certain that all got the message this was not an everyday car designed and built for the ordinary driver.

In fact, the Evo is an unforgiving, hard-edged, brutally fast sedan that was conceived and constructed for a narrow, almost cultlike segment of the automotive market.

Maurice Durand, Mitsubishi product communications manager, has the statistics. He identified the typical buyer as a college-educated, 28-to-38-year-old male with an income in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.

“The Evo is for someone with an awareness of motor sports and enthusiast driving,” he explained. “A lot of people buy them as a second, or even a third car. Some enthusiasts use them as daily drivers and then enter them in weekend competition.”

Obviously, the most important demographics cited by Mr. Durand do not fit my profile, a fact I was able to confirm after only a few miles behind the wheel.

This is not the car for the weak of kidney. It is engineered to survive crater-size potholes at high speeds, twisting and bending over severely uneven terrain, and sudden, sharp turns at high speeds on rough, unpaved dirt and gravel. All of this I am certain it does superbly.

I am also certain that ride comfort appeared near the bottom, if at all, on the list of priorities. All potholes are conquered rudely and without pity for the passengers. Even tar strips and other minor road imperfections are telegraphed harshly into the cabin. It seemed at first as if the builders had forgotten to install the shock absorbers — and the springs.

Fortunately, time has a way of putting things into proper perspective.

So, it wasn’t too long before I understood that this car’s overall competence would have been seriously diminished if compromises had been engineered into it to attract an older, more comfort-oriented buyer such as myself.

When that happened, the issue of ride quality slipped not so quietly into the background and I was able to concentrate more on the truly awesome performance that has been built into the Evo IX, the last of a unique breed.

This car, this Lancer of all things, can embarrass some of the fastest cars on the road and it does it with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine.

OK, it’s not just any four-cylinder engine. Strengthened, turbocharged and intercooled, it generates an exhilarating 286 horsepower and 289 foot-pounds of torque.

That translates to 0-60 mph times in the 4.5-second range and a top speed electronically limited to 155 mph.

But there’s a lot more to this car than lightning speed — a lot more. The Evo has the goods to handle that power on the road, on the track and in the outback.

The centerpiece of the car’s amazing tenacity is an all-wheel-drive system with an active center differential that optimizes torque to the wheel with the most grip during cornering.

Enter a sharp bend at speeds that seem to defy the laws of physics and the system will send a proper balance of power to the wheels, then pull the car safely and quickly around the turn. Three settings — tarmac, gravel and snow — adjust the differential to accommodate different road conditions.

When you combine that amazing traction with razor-sharp steering; ventilated, multipiston Brembo disc brakes; a short-throw, close-ratio five-speed manual transmission; and the tightly tuned independent suspension you’ve got a vehicle that can seem magical in the hands of a skilled driver.

And let’s not forget a few other important, Mitsubishi-supplied assistants, some of which are part of a Special Edition package. Included on the test car were heavily bolstered Recaro buckets seats that hold driver and front-seat passenger snugly in place as the forces of gravity mount; 17-inch alloy wheels with high-performance tires; projector-type, high-intensity-discharge headlights; a grippy Momo steering wheel; a functional front air dam; and, yes, the monster wing that contributes down forces to keep the car firmly planted on the ground at high speeds.

As you may have already figured out, a driver must push the Evo toward its limit on the track or off-road to fully experience and understand its capabilities. Obviously, I did neither since my time with the car was confined to public roads, where that sort of exuberant driving not only attracts the attention of highway patrolmen, it is downright dangerous. So, truth to tell, much of the information I’m passing along is information I got from others.

Still, I got some sense of the acceleration and the superb passing power, and I was able to hit the freeway exit ramps at speeds much higher than I would normally be comfortable with. But, no, I never approached any of the Evo’s limits.

I did get more familiar with its practicality as an everyday driver, and the basics (ride quality excluded) are on a par with most of the other well equipped compacts — room for four, air conditioning, six-speaker sound system, adequate trunk, and power windows, locks and exterior mirrors.

While the car’s superb handling ability is its primary safety feature in the hands of an expert driver, the Evo also comes with dual front air bags, crumple zones, child-seat latches and child-proof door locks.

The 2007 Lancer Evolution is available in three forms: the bare-bones RS, the well-equipped SE, and an even better-equipped MR. The SE that I drove retails for $33,874, including the $1,850 Special Edition package and a $625 delivery charge.

It’s a real performance bargain, if not quite the family car of the year.

After 14 evolutions over 14 years, the Evo IX marks the end of an era. But the excitement is far from over.

A new, redesigned and much-improved Lancer is due out in March and it will be followed in about nine months by the next awe-inspiring road rocket, the Evolution X.

There is even some buzz that there may be a more user-friendly version of the hot compact for those of us who generally do not have the opportunity to venture off the beaten path.

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