By KORMACK DUNNE
“TO DRIVE YOUR BEST,” a former Formula One champion said, “requires tremendous concentration, superior confidence and an unwavering will to win.”
He also said you’ve got to have the right setup to maximize a vehicle’s track potential. He was talking about the proper tires, the right delivery of engine power, enough aero for downforce, and a blend of speed and balance. “These are tools to help yourself reach peak performance,” he said. “The right tool for the right job makes all the difference.”
Standing trackside at Thailand’s Prince Bira race course, strapping on a helmet and taking final instructions for the 1.2-mile road course, this former champ’s words floated back like a high-performance mantra: “The right tool for the right job makes all the difference.”
The drive at Bira was in Mitsubishi’s all-new Lancer Evolution, the hottest tool in the Mitsu box. Equipped with a 271-horsepower engine, all-wheel drive, specially designed Yokohama tires and massive Brembo brakes, it’s clear what task Mitsubishi had in mind when creating the Lancer Evolution: super speed and super performance. The good news is the Evolution is the right tool for the job.
The Lancer Evolution is the eighth derivative in a line of small-displacement, high- performance supercars created by Mitsubishi—starting in 1992—in conjunction with its venerable rally race teams. The Evolution, this one dubbed internally as Evo 8, previously only available in Japan and in certain export markets, makes its way this month to our shores. We are without doubt that it will scream off showroom floors around the country.
These pocket-rocket racers aren’t new to us. In the last several years Subaru sharpened its cult image with the potent WRX rally racer for the street. Not only did the company get a great grassroots following with the car, it also earned numerous awards, serious fan accolades and probably more than a little profit on the high performers. All counted as reasons enough for Mitsubishi to take a look at—finally—bringing Evolution to the United States.
No small task, but that responsibility fell to Bryan Arnett, a product strategy manager at Mitsubishi.
Arnett lived, breathed and ate these supercars while studying whether Mitsubishi wanted in on the same playground. While most of Mitsu’s vehicles are developed around customer preferences defined through research, that didn’t happen for the Lancer Evolution.
“We developed the Evo 8 with one overriding criterion, and that’s performance,” says Arnett. “The car was developed for enthusiasts who don’t want compromise in their vehicle. That was the target.”
Judging by a half day of hot laps around Bira, the Evolution hits its target in the red section of the bull’s-eye.
Mitsubishi claims performance numbers for the Evo 8 place it among the fastest factory-made four-door sedans on the market: 0 to 60 mph in five seconds flat, the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. All we can say is Whoo-wheee! The final turn at Prince Bira is a tight right-hander that feeds onto a quarter-mile-long start/finish straight. With 2002 SCCA ProRally Group 2 champion Laughlin O’Sullivan as co-pilot, attacking the corner came with some gusto.
“You’ll want to roll on the power as we exit the corner,” he said, “and after that, go as hard as you want, run it all the way through the gears.” As instructed, we began the Evolution of man with machine: a blast of power, a stiffening chassis, hunkered down and rocketing along the track.
The Evolution is powered by a performance version of Mitsubishi’s 4G63 four-cylinder engine. The architecture for the 4G63 dates to 1973, when it was introduced as a 1.6-liter eight-valve engine in the first rally-going Lancer sedan, and the same basic structure appeared on the first Mitsubishi Eclipse coupes. For the engine to earn its current stripes—271 hp at 6500 rpm and 273 lb-ft at 3500 rpm—improvements were made over the ensuing years. These included bumping displacement to 2.0 liters, adding a turbo with intercooler, and myriad material and design changes to reduce the engine’s weight, increase its rev-ability and pump up durability.
Most changes were to the valvetrain, including alumi-num cylinder heads and magnesium valve covers, and hollowed-out intake and exhaust camshafts to reduce weight and increase revs. Some production materials also were improved to withstand the greater engine heat that accompanies higher revs. The engine is impressive, especially rocketing along this track. If there is one complaint with it, it might be that it only has four cylinders. That is not a negative, because matched against other four-cylinders it stands up well. In terms of smoothness, though, you know this is working hard. Refinement? No. You don’t expect that with a boy racer like this Evo, and it does not disappoint. The tip-in to the throttle is quick and imme-diate, and we hold on for joy and pleasure, lap after lap.
Power output is likely the number an enthusiast spouts when bragging on the Evolution. But get behind the wheel and the tools that convert that power to motion stick in a driver’s mind.
There is little loss of engine speed or power thanks to the close-ratio five-speed transmission. Acceleration is immediate; at redline in any gear it does not stumble, but begs for a longer leash to run.
The Evolution’s full-time four-wheel-drive system delivers power 50-50 between the front and rear wheels. A viscous coupling unit—lifted from Mitsu’s rally experience—adjusts for uneven torque needs on slippery, low-adhesion surfaces or in hard cornering situations. This becomes evident here on track, where the car remains balanced with all wheels chugging, even when pushed near its limit. The brakes, 12.6-inch Brembo discs that give a powerful bite, also provide a sense of security and bring Evo back to earth quickly from high speeds.
While externally the Evolution resembles its Lancer progenitor, it is in reality quite different. The only exterior body panels this Evolution shares with the stock Lancer are the front doors’ outer sheetmetal. All else is new. The hood and front quarter- panels are stamped in alumi-num that aids in reducing weight and helps give the car a 60/40 weight distribution. A large hood-integrated air dam aids engine cooling, while the lower front fascia has been formed to reduce lift and deliver greater airflow to the intercooler and to the disc brakes. The Evolution rides on 17-inch Enkei one-piece aluminum wheels fitted to 235/45ZR tires developed for this car by Yokohama. The car’s rear fender blister is integrated into the body, and a 10-inch-tall spoiler is fashioned from lightweight carbon fiber.
This massive, rally-style rear spoiler is not for show, says Mitsubishi’s Arnett. He expects 80 percent of Evolution buyers will choose the high-flying wing (a shorter, more discreet spoiler is an option), and that it will be put to use. “If you want the best performance, you will want the taller wing,” he says.
Inside Evo, Mitsubishi’s no-compromise performance theme continues. Its front seats are designed and made by Recaro specifically for this car and the U.S. market. They feature a slender profile to maximize interior space and reduce weight, and they provide good lumbar support. They’re accented with slightly extended hip and side bolsters to lock occupants in place. Recaro added width to the lower part of the seats, to accommodate typically larger average American consumers.
The steering wheel is a simple three-spoke MOMO design, leather-wrapped, and small in diameter for better feel and control. The three spokes are of titanium-colored metal; it is a stark, purposeful design. The Evolution’s gear-shift—configured with short, performance-oriented throws as the goal—is also swathed in leather.
A surprising aspect of the Evo 8—considering its nature—is the sizable passenger room. Initial familiarization laps were with four aboard, and there was headroom and legroom to spare.
While superior performance is the Evo’s ultimate goal, it does not lack for luxury touches. The car comes with power windows, locks and mirrors; a 140-watt six-speaker CD system; keyless entry system and anti-theft immobilizer; a power slide and tilt sunroof; four cupholders and rear safety anchors for children’s seats.
“We expect many buyers to be in their thirties and forties, and this will be their second or third car,” says Arnett. “Some of them will have families, and we want to make sure we take care of their needs, too.”
Mitsubishi has a lot riding on the Lancer Evolution, but not in terms of dollars and cents. The forecast is for 6500 sales in 2003, at prices slightly less than $30,000; obviously, Evo 8 is not expected to be a big money spinner for the corporate coffers.
The intangible benefits are what Mitsubishi aims to earn from this evolutionary step—generating the cult impact Subaru has enjoyed with WRX would be nice. With the demise of its only sports cars—the Eclipse GT and 3000 GT—Mitsubishi pins the reestablishment of an advanced technology image on the car. Simply, the evolution of car and car company is the responsibility of this Lancer Evolution.
2003 MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION
ON SALE: Mid-February
BASE PRICE: $30,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 2.0-liter, 271-hp, 273-lb-ft turbocharged four-cylinder; awd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3298 pounds
0-60 MPH: 5.0 seconds (mfr.)
2001 CL Type S
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