Editor's Note: While driving the Mitsubishi Evolution in the slush and snow of a Michigan winter is a fine enterprise, photographing it in such conditions is usually not fruitful. That's why you'll notice a slight disparity between our wintry text and sunny, Arizona-based photographs of the subject car. Rest assured, both the review vehicle and the photo car are of the same basic Evo GSR flavor.
It was a dreary, gray, barely sufferable winter morning in Ann Arbor, MI. Temperatures hovering just over 30 degrees allowed for snow or rain or some combination thereof at a moment's notice, and the thickly clouded sky hinted at dark secrets while promising nothing. I've never been a rally driver but I couldn't help but feel that this murky, imprecise day was good winter rally weather. I'll admit: I don't usually wake up and look out the window to judge which kind of racing would be best just then, but the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X GSR delivered to my house the day before was coloring the mood of the hour; most of my thoughts ran to where I was going to drive it, when, and how fast.
The Evo sitting in my crumbling suburban driveway sounded like a rifle shot when I first turned the engine over at 5:00 AM – exhaust meted out in cranky blats every time I tiptoed on the throttle. I was up early on a winter's Saturday for a few reasons, number one being that I'm oddly inhabited by the insomniac spirit of an octogenarian for a 34-year-old, and I wake up even if I don't have to. Number two was all about the Mitsubishi.
This is a brutal, crashing, whining, visceral, explosive mean little kidney-punch of a car. Let's not forget that. In 2007 when the Evo X made its debut, there was enough rhetoric from the media about the car being "softer" than its Evo IX predecessor that sometimes I think people who haven't driven one still believe that it is some tame thing that happens to be pretty quick. Over the course of the last few years, it's very possible that I've driven the Evo more – more trims and individual test cars, in more driving situations, if not more miles – than any other single vehicle. In part, that's because I'm a lucky sonnabitch who's had the access and opportunity to drive quite a lot of great cars from the last decade. But also because, despite its now-advanced age, the Evo can't help but be a car that readers and reviewers want more time with, more video of and more comparisons against. It's a singular automotive thing, as well as a very good-to-drive, very fast thing.
This is a brutal, crashing, whining, visceral, explosive mean little kidney-punch of a car.
The Evo X is also – and this was critical on the morning in question – a car that is quite possibly never going to be the same again, when Mitsu finally lays this tenth iteration to rest. The company has been steadfast in its claim that the next Lancer Evolution, still far from pinned down in terms of launch timing, will make use of some of the electrification technology used in the i-MiEV. So, the Evo XI could be a saber-toothed EV, or even a hybrid. What's more, we're not sure what the next basic Lancer will be all about, or whether a struggling Mitsubishi will find cause to bring it and/or its racy permutations back to the US market.
The threat of a Lancer retreat from North America is a bit troubling to me, though the idea of an Evo that has been in some way electrified does not. Mitsubishi is a quirky company, for certain, but it's been consistent over the years in building Evolutions that are remarkably good to drive – I've no doubt they'll keep those core values in place, no matter how high-tech the driveline becomes.
The future may hold excitement for the marque, but the next version will be nothing like this turbocharged grindhouse.
But... I really like this Evo. As much as the future may hold excitement for the marque, the clear truth is that the next version will be nothing like this turbocharged grindhouse of an economy sedan. So, I let myself wake up, way too early on my day off, because I wanted to make sure that I had ample time to drive the tires off of this sucker before I had to hand back the keys with tremulous, tear-wiped fingers.
If there were an Evo X to go out on though, I'd wager that this bare-bones GSR tester was a good way to do it. I've always had a lot of love for Mitsubishi's fast-as-shit SST dual-clutch transmission, with its ultra-aggressive shift programing and superb, column-mounted paddle shifters. And, in fact, the only other five-speed manual GSR that I'd driven had left me a bit disappointed, after spending only about 20 minutes with the thing way back in 2008.
I'd thought of the GSR's five-speed with some derision – possibly because I found the SST system to be so satisfying.
For some reason, probably revisionist in thinking, I'd thought of the GSR's five-speed with some little amount of derision – possibly because I found the SST system to be so satisfying. As it turned out though, more than four years after my first sampling of it, this time around I found the 5MT to be really nicely matched to the total character of the powertrain. The gearbox was notchy and really stiff to operate, especially when cold, true. But once I warmed up the Evo with a few dozen miles of fast driving, the cog-swapper felt better and better – light enough to throw in time with rapidly needed upshifts from first to second, second to third, and precise enough not to bungle a hot downshift before a quick corner. Yeah, a sixth ratio was badly missed at certain points during my one week with the car (more on that in a little bit), but for the meat and potatoes of the kind of driving that the Evo lives for, the 5MT wasn't bad at all.
After warming up to the manual gearbox, I started to warm up to the GSR base car as a whole. One of the big knocks on the Evo X has been that, despite its tremendous ability on the road, it represents precious little "car for the money." In other words, it has proved hard for many folks to fork over more than forty grand for a car that offers Lancer-levels of refinement and luxury. My GSR helped to right size that thinking, by providing the Evo experience of a thrill at every corner, without the pretentious price tag.
It has proved hard for many folks to fork over forty grand for a car that offers Lancer-levels of refinement and luxury.
Ok, I know you're going to look at our Vital Stats panel and cry, "but it's still $39,885! Waaah!" That's very true, but that price does include a couple of options packages that are not mission critical for a driving enthusiast, to be sure. Certainly the $2,295 navigation package can be axed, right off the bat. The navi system is passable but not great, and the 40GB music server that comes with it is another feature that doesn't make much sense to me in this car. A stronger argument can be made for the $2,100 "Sight & Sound Package" as it adds HID headlights, keyless start and a more-banging stereo system. The brighter HIDs are functional and good to have, and you'll absolutely want the louder sound system if you intend to listen to music at all, but none of that really helps you if your simple goal is to feel like a rally stage hero.
So, lop off the extras, and the distilled GSR runs just $35,490, while you can still buy it. $35k is about what the last Mini Countryman I had cost, too, with the primary difference being I'm not likely to tell my grandkids about the last Countryman I ever drove.
Lop off the extras and the distilled GSR runs just $35,490, while you can still buy it.
And, returning to our story, I wouldn't have headed out to do 150 miles of my favorite Michigan back roads in the Mini CUV, either. Roads over which, with snow seeping melt water onto the low corners and steeply pitched downhill lefthanders flowing through to short straights over bridges and small hills, the Evo X is a titan. No car that I've ever driven has had quite so potent a version of this combination: thrust from low speed, powerful brakes, overall grip, fast turn-in, fast rotation and excellent road feel through the steering and the seat of your pants. A lot of cars get a lot of that right, some even do it better than can the Mitsu – certainly there are cars that are grippier or faster to accelerate, and tons of cars have far more impressive top-end speed.
But, for all the crap that gets heaped on the Evolution's economy-car origin, it's the short wheelbase donated by the Lancer that helps to set the car apart when it comes to moving through tightly wound roads with grace and pace. Nothing on sale today goes down a technical stretch of slippery road like the Evo – including the directly competing Subaru WRX STI, which feels downright floaty by comparison. Certain Lotuses and a couple of Porsches are gamers in the Evo's class here, but few of them match the all-wheel-drive grip and all-weather-fast of the Mitsubishi.
Nothing on sale today goes down a technical stretch of slippery road like the Evo – including the Subaru WRX STI.
However, any competitor you choose based on performance, price or form factor is better than the Evo X in terms of daily, boring driving. It isn't as stirring a tale to tell as my dawn drive in the Evo, but during the time I had the car I also paid a visit to my folks out in Muskegon, MI – about 175 miles from my house in Ann Arbor. Let me tell you, that's a long, straight, listless drive in the best of conditions and vehicles, and in the Evolution it was downright painful. Remember that five-speed transmission and the pointed exhaust note? Well, those both transformed the Evo into a booming resonance chamber on the highway, whether you chose to burn the miles at 60 per hour or 80.
And don't forget about all the gas you'll burn, too. Even with a light touch on the throttle (thanks to my splitting headache), I was just able to beat 20 miles per gallon on my almost-all-highway-driving round trip of 350 miles. Sure, that's better than the 14 mpg or so I was seeing when driving hard through the country and in town, but it's also a bit worse than I managed in our 4,471-pound, 7-passenger long-term Nissan Pathfinder over a journey of a similar sort. Adding insult to injury here, the Evo's trunk space is hilariously bad – a 6.9-cubic-foot joke of a shoebox that will have you asking your Smart ForTwo-owning friend if he can help to bring your groceries home.
This current and quickly fading-away Evo X is so far from the perfect car that I can't ever hope to defend its faults from folks a lot more sensible than I. It is an anachronism, and a barely tamed version of Evo models that were sold to the public to support a rallying program, with little sense poured into segment research, by a company that has never really understood what American shoppers want to buy. For all that I love it, even its enthusiast driving sweet spot is so narrow as to render it almost obsolete by scads of more comfortable, economical and/or powerful vehicles. The Evo X's best days have most certainly passed it by. And yet, there aren't too many cars left that I'd feel moved to write this kind of love letter for. There aren't a lot of sedans that will wake me up, and keep me up, in the bitter cold of the best morning of the winter; to go for a drive I'll remember.
There aren't too many cars left that I'd feel moved to write this kind of love letter for.