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Driven – Mitsubishi Evo X

Written on:October 19, 2011
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The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ-300 GSR SST (or ‘Evo’) is a car that troubled me more than anything I’ve driven this year. Not, I hasten to add, because it is a bad car, because it isn’t. In fact, I was troubled precisely because it’s such a very good car in so many ways. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first Evo, built way back in 1992, boasted ‘only’ 244hp, which was a tidy amount then. It’s only serious rival was the Subaru Impreza and the two joggled for supremacy over the next twenty years gaining power and controllability along the way (and giving rise to the standard motoring journalist’s cliche of ‘no faster way to get from A to B’ too). The winner these days is less clear and fans seem split tribally with few concessions being made on objective grounds; you’re Scooby or Evo and never the twain shall meet.

This isn’t a Subaru v. Mitsubishi group test, though. When I approached Mitsubishi I suggested that the Evo X would make a good car to compare with the iconic Crown Victoria Police P71 Interceptor that we drove earlier in the year, given that’s the one most likely to be driven by UK police forces for interceptor duties.

But that was a daft idea, obviously. The Evo was developed at least 20 years after the Interceptor (it feels more like 50) and it shows in every single fibre of its being. Any challenge that you care to set would see the Evo romping home in first place – with the sole exception of fuel consumption, in which the 4.6-litre V8 yank-tank proves to be more environmentally considerate than its 2.0-litre turbo-charged European rival.

The fastest Lancer built so far looks the part. A big, snarly face, flared wings, wide wheels; it all comes together in a slightly Chav-way. As my wife pointed out, it did get the most attention from the sort of young man that you wouldn’t want your daughter to bring home, but I liked it, so there.

Inside it has everything that you need and nothing that you don’t. The Recaros are deeply sculpted and supportive and while I would have liked a touch more lumbar support I never found them uncomfortable. The driving position is good and everything felt sturdy and reliable. My only other niggle is an overly complex entertainment/Sat Nav/phone interface but I expect that a month’s use would see complete familiarity replace my occasional frustration. Oh, and the Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS) was a neat little touch that had me twirling the wheel just to watch it kick in.

The steering is direct and positive and the damping is utterly sublime. Bump damping is excellent but it is in rebound that the Evo excels with the body remaining in control no matter how clumsy the driver inputs become. High-speed damping (damper piston not road) is also very good with the car remaining settled and free of harshness. The steering is perfectly weighted, free of torque steer and as accurate as you could wish for.

If we are assessing dynamic competence then the Evo is up there with the best of them with vice-free, neutral handling, except in extremis, when very slight understeer can be swapped for very slight oversteer. In situations where your buttocks are clenched and your stomach is sinking the Evo shifts around subtly beneath you, as the differentials shuffle and manage torque to keep you pointing in the right direction. It isn’t a nice feeling or even a reassuring one, but it is safe and can be minimised by judicious (manual) use of the excellent SST gearbox. Super All Wheel Control (S-AWC), Active Yaw Control (AYC), Active Stability Control (ASC), and the Active Centre Differential (ACD) really do work, they aren’t just acronyms that have been constructed by the marketing department (which the ‘FQ’ moniker might be; I doubt very much that it really does stand for “F*cking Quick” as they claim, even if it is). Switch the electronic aids off and it’s very controllable with oversteer available. Not faster necessarily, just more fun.

It isn’t involving with the safety aids turned on though. Anyone could have driven as fast as I did over wonderfully challenging Welsh roads where the only requirement was bravery and a leaden right foot. Free of speed cameras and traffic police I had a couple of drives in it that I will remember for a long, long time. I doubt that I could have driven anything faster over the mountains – yet I didn’t experience any adrenaline; it was a computer game on the road. Consumer expectation (and its idiot savant twin brother, litigation) means that the Evo is utterly foolproof. Sure, you can switch the electronic intervention off but I want a fast car to protect me in a subtle way, in a loving and caring way that helps me to have fun – not as a benign but joyless dictator.

On one of my test routes is a barnstormer of a corner; almost 180°, constant radius, perfect camber, smooth surface. On a steady throttle and with single-input steering most cars can sweep around it at, er, 70mph or so showing mild understeer. The Evo, under exactly the same circumstances, was twitching and shifting underneath me. It was very subtle but it was there. I can only think of two reasons why this might be so: one is that the Mitsubishi’s suspension is so poorly designed and set-up that it is incapable of cornering at the same speed as the majority of the cars that I’ve driven round there without electronic intervention to steady it. Or the electronic intervention is designed to be triggered much earlier than necessary. I don’t think that it is the former for one moment, which only leaves the latter.

Power, though, is never less than adequate. ‘My’ Evo was the baby of the range with just 300hp but that was always enough and meant that pretty much any overtaking opportunity becomes fair game rather than a shall-I-or-shan’t-I? Other models are available; the 330hp-version has dealer-fit options that boost it by 30hp and there is a 360hp version straight from the factory in which you lose the lovely semi-automatic gearbox. I’d avoid both because you want SST and you don’t need more power. No, honestly, you just don’t need any more.

Fuel consumption was, I think, pretty good at around 20mpg over a week’s mixed use. Others disagree, which is indicative of what I found so troubling about the Mitsubishi.

The Evo is, and always has been, a very fast road car. And very fast road cars are not economical. They are not comfortable, cheap to run, or nice to use in heavy traffic. They are not, in short, good commuting cars and technology can only go so far in trying to attain the unreasonably high expectations that consumers have of them.

The battery is mounted in the boot for better weight distribution, which eats into the space for your shopping and, because it’s lightweight gel version, you have to have it charged at the main dealer. The doors close with a tinny ‘twang’ instead of a satisfyingly expensive ‘thunk’. The carpet trim is a thin piece of material rather than thick carpet. This is the price that you pay – along with 20mpg and a poor steering lock – and it is worth it.

To achieve an average of 20mpg from a car that can hit 60mph in well under 5 seconds is remarkable. The Evo would have been one of the fastest cars in the world twenty years ago and no one would have complained about its small boot, appalling steering lock or poor fuel consumption. They would have reveled in its roadholding, its manners, it performance and its sheer ability. Its day-to-day usability is astonishing and to access it there is a price to pay: take what you want, and pay for it, as the Arabs so wisely put it.

Some costs are too high though. The TC-SST gearbox (essentially two three-speed gearboxes joined together) is, as I’ve hinted, a great one. Instantaneous, full-throttle changes can be made that are seamless and almost undetectable. But. The dead hand of the ill-educated legislator can be felt in both ‘Normal’ and ‘Sport’ modes.

In normal it will change into 6th at city speeds in an attempt to meet the official extra-urban fuel consumption figure of 33.6mpg, dulling the performance and making it unpleasant and tardy to drive. There is no point in shifting it into sport either, because that will hang onto the gears for far longer than you would like, leading to a high-revving engine that draws too much of the wrong attention. This, by way of comparison, is consumer driven and just as undesirable. The result? You end up using it as a manual, which is a waste of a fine piece of engineering.

Oh, for a company that refuses to listen to idiots and builds a good car, simply. The Evo doesn’t need two road-going modes (three, if you include ‘Super-Sport’, a mode that can only be accessed when the car is stationary and which holds onto the gears until the redline). What it needs is just one mode that can differentiate between small throttle open pootling and full-bore honing.

None of this should be taken as criticism of the Evo or Mitsubishi. We are not apologists for car manufacturers here at Motoring Journo; Lord knows we’ve upset enough of them in the past. It’s just that we get concerned when a manufacturer makes a model that is marketed as being suitable for everyone and every use because something is inevitably lost when they do.

The Evo is a sublime and accomplished road car that is almost spoiled by trying to fool us into thinking that it can be far more practical and economical than it really is. If you want one then please don’t try to justify it as an economically conservative purchase or a car that won’t kill you if you drive it like you do on Grand Turismo; you are paying less than £32,000 and for such a small sum there will be some compromises – and you’d better get used to them, because if you don’t then future versions will be even more corrupted by your unreasonable demands and the Pavlovian responses of the marketing and legal departments.

I liked the Evo X a lot and if I was in the market for a £35k car to go very fast in then it would be on a list of two (Vauxhall’s Insignia VXR would be the other, since you ask). If Mitsubishi could sort out the gearbox settings and inject a bit more fun into the chassis (even at the cost of ultimate grip) then it would be a car that I’d probably find a way to buy with my own money.

Like: Accessible performance, foolproof handling, staggering roadholding

Dislike: Gearbox programming, charmless chassis

Summary: Addictive but could be so much better

Images: Carlton Boyce

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