Evo VIII Impressions
This 2003 Mitsubishi Evolution VIII is, without a doubt, the best sports car I've ever owned. Foremost, the Evo's seam-welded chassis with added gusseting has the rigidity to keep the suspension hard points where the designers put them in order for the stiff, fully-independent suspension to do its job properly. These two aspects combine to give the Evo a predictable, fun, easy-to-drive handling. The turbocharged engine puts the power through a simple, mechanical all-wheel drive system that, unlike most, provides a very neutral balance going from understeer to oversteer easily…provided you built up enough energy to break the tires loose at all. It's so easy to drive fast it makes me look like a hero despite my meager skills.
My first virtual experience with an Evo was driving one in the first Gran Turismo driving simulator. It was clearly the cheater car the way it stuck to the track like an arcade racer and was easily modded to big horsepower, so my buddies and I eschewed it for more realistic racing. (Well, that and the Escudo.) I realized when I drove my first US-spec Evo VIII that, in fact, GT modelled it accurately. So, yes, the Evo is like driving an arcade game.
It's been a great car: more reliable and cheaper to operate (and modify) than the Porsches. Other than top-speed, it's easily faster in every respect. It inspires confidence at the limits making it so easy to drive — I changed nothing on the suspension beyond tires.
Unlike previous cars, I was able to add plenty of power to it. With the tricky-to-launch AWD and peaky boost curve, I wouldn't call it a dragster by any means. But I liked to say I'd accept any race offered; you could choose the time or the place. The AWD was a huge advantage in low traction situations. Even approaching 500 bhp, I could floor it at most intersections in the rain and leave any 2WD car behind.
Yeah, AWD makes for spectacular drag-race launches with a minimum of power-wasting tire smoke. However, everyone who's driven one knows the nature of internal combustion gasoline engines is that they don't make power linearly relative to RPM. At very low engine speed, a gasoline engine makes very little torque. Usually torque ramps very quickly as the RPMs come up and then levels off from there to the maximum usable RPM. Ideally you want to launch your drag racer from a stop at an engine RPM at somewhere at or approaching that flat torque curve. There's two ways you can do it: start at a roll (car is already moving) or something has to slip to allow the engine to spin at the ideal RPM when the car is still moving very slowly.
A brief, initial slip is in the clutch or torque converter. RWD drag racers then spin the rear tires to get the engine into its torque band. Too much spin and the tires never "hook up" (transition to not spinning against the track surface). Too little spin and the tires hook up too soon causing the engine RPM to drop out of the ideal torque band ("bogging"). (No, this and myriad other details make drag racing more complicated than just mashing the gas pedal and driving in a straight line.) The problem with an AWD car is that having twice the number of contact patches between the drive wheels and the track surface narrows the gap between too much and too little wheelspin. That just means you can handle more torque, right? Tires, especially drag slicks, are pretty good, actually. The extra traction in AWD makes it more likely other parts are going to give way instead of spinning the tires. I.e., the clutch will slip, differentials or CV/U-joints will break, etc.
The peaky power curve of the big turbo / small displacement make finding the right balance of torque vs. slip even more difficult. Too much RPM and the car gets into the boost quickly resulting in a clutch slipping so badly as to make a layer of vaporous friction material between pressure plate, disk and flywheel surfaces, eliminating contact. (Despite three such mistakes, my factory clutch somehow lasted almost 90,000 miles.) Too little RPM and boost spools up so slowly as to compound the bog seen with large displacement, naturally-aspirated engines.
That's not to say there aren't quick Evo quarter mile cars and drivers out there. It's just not me. While I can appreciate it, I'm not really into drag racing any vehicle. I liked to say I would race anytime or anywhere. The reasoning is that as long as I can choose conditions like rain on tarmac or location like a dirt road, 2WD cars don't have much of a chance against AWD. At a rainy stoplight, with a quick but smooth clutch engagement I could launch under full power. But on a dry road, the Evo (especially with me driving it) is pretty much toast. Perhaps I'm too old for stoplight games and a legitimate dragstrip never appealed to me. Unlike other applications, the Evo really didn't encourage it.
Sorry for the length. Seems to take a lot of words to describe what it does badly. On the other hand…
Road Racing / Autocross
I'm biased, but the Evo is entirely at home on a road course or autocross. The stability of the chassis combined with the balance between AWD traction and the RWD-like ability to rotate the car make it so easy to drive near the limits. Even on public roads I could lift off the throttle to rotate the car and then mash it back to the floor to stick it back to the road. Even deep into a sharp turn the front tires would bite and yank the front end through. All the controls are immediate and precise. The cable shift linkage was better than the solid linkage in the Porsches. The clutch pedal effort was high but short (quick). The brake pedal was hard but that and its placement made it great for heel-and-toe downshifts with the accelerator. (I learned it on that car.) I thought the steering was a bit light but direct and lightning quick; truly a sneeze-and-die control.
My (admittedly older) 928 had far more capability than its driver at TWS but this car was a step above. Honestly, were I to get back to the track I would do it in a low-powered, light-weight Miata or something else cheap, slow and tossable. The idea is to learn how to drive through those turns before cranking up the performance. I mean, any doofus with a big wallet can power out of a turn. Entering fast with an underpowered car is a skill. And keeping the energy down is a good idea, especially for a poor n00b like me.
Rally racing and other low traction performance is where this car lives. Or would if I weren't too chicken to beat it up on rough, dirt tracks hurtling through the woods sideways. The Mitsubishi Evo model began life as the public sale Lancer WRC race car back when homologation was part of the rules (and Mitsubishi was winning rallies…). Add ground clearance and dirt tires and you're good to go. Certainly the fun of sliding around off the paved road makes cleaning the dirt out of your wheels worth the effort. But I always kept mine set up for tarmac.
Function this car has in spades. It has aggressive, wide fenders with big arches for wide, sticky tires, big, purposeful intakes to flow cool air into all the huge radiators and a big hole in the hood to vent the heat right off the exhaust manifold and turbo, a radical, goofy wing out back that actually functions to keep the rear end planted on the road above 80 mph, loud exhaust and look-at-me-yellow paint, etc. Everything about it is manual — it invites conscious action.
But it's never been a pretty car…. All the harsh angles desperately trying to break up the big slabs of sheet metal are not what you might call a timeless design. Personally, I prefer the long, sloping fastback of a coupe or the long roof of a wagon. Three-box sedans were never really my thing, but the boy-racer wing helped break up the trunk lines. I really prefer long, low and sleek over the upright and boxy brick-with-race-car-muscles.
So what's missing? Why did I never truly love this car? What would endear this amazing machine to me raw performance could not? I didn't realize it until a few cars later when I purchased an old, slow, ill-regarded economy car:
I'm not sure how to define it. Nothing about the Evo invites me to wash it just to caress a body line. I'm not inspired to join an Evo car club to share my joy. Even when I used to see more fellow Evos on the road or even a Lancer OZ Rally, I hardly ever got a wave back. (WRX owners were usually pretty good about a wave or a flash, though.) I don't yammer about it online (well, except here and that wasn't until after I sold it). It doesn't break my heart when it's down for repairs or inspire the same joy when it emerges better than before. The Evo is a precision scalpel for carving corners with the greatest of ease. But it's just that: an excellent tool to be put back in the toolbox when the day is done.
But I never let it bother me even once. This car always had it where it counts.
It certainly held its value better than anything I've ever owned. Clearly someone loves them. Deservedly so.