Mitsubishi officials figure most buyers of the first Lancer Evolution limited-production sedan to arrive in the States will use it as a second or third car. "It will be reserved for special occasion drives," said Dick Kelley, senior manager of media relations.
Once I had a chance behind the wheel of this rally-racing-ready four door, I didn't want to drive anything else. The car had so much character and was just so much fun.
Cult car overseas
The 2003 Lancer Evolution is the latest version of a sporty all-wheel-drive cult car that has been sold in Japan and Europe for years.
In fact, it's known as the Evo VIII there because it's actually in its eighth generation.
Until now, American driving enthusiasts have been left out, unless you count video games that feature the Evo in dramatic rally racing adventures.
Nothing beats the real-world adventures that await in the real-deal Evolution with a 271-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine.
Looks the part
The test car, in bright racing yellow, looked as if it already had been tuned by the best aftermarket folks.
There was the optional carbon fiber rear wing way up on the rear deck, and the prominent vent in the aluminum hood. Underneath the bumper, a front air dam barely covered the intercooler and helped direct air toward the Brembo brakes.
Seventeen-inch Yokohama tires on all Evolutions are specially made for the Evolution and have a specific tread and rubber compound.
Mitsubishi spokesman Maurice Durand assured a driving enthusiast can get 20,000 miles out of them. I hope so because they likely won't be cheap to replace.
Snug seats in front
Inside, the Evolution comes standard with sculpted Recaro sport seats in front. If you're like many Americans, you should expect to feel snugly seated in them since they seem quite narrow. The truth is, Mitsubishi actually installs slightly wider front buckets in the Evolution than they do in the Japan-market Evo VIIIs to try to accommodate wider-girth Americans.
There's no height adjustment for either front seat, so I sat low in the car, and the non-slip material covering these seats held me and my passenger securely, no matter how I drove.
The same black and bright blue pattern and material is on the regular-looking back seat, too.
While the dashboard and instrument panel keep the look of a regular Lancer sedan, a plastic-looking titanium finish is added. Unfortunately, it seems to have a cheapness about it, in my view.
I did like the illumination of the Evolution gauges at night in a sporty red.
There's no turbo boost gauge among the gauges. Durand said it's not needed as it can encourage drivers to needlessly elevate the turbo boost.
Only a 5-speed manual is available in the Evolution, and to help it engage, the first and second gears have triple syncros.
Engaging the gears wasn't the problem for me, although staying within speed limits was difficult.
The Evolution can go from standstill to 60 miles an hour in just 5 seconds. It's easy to snap your head back.
I had to back off the accelerator a lot, shocked to find my speed was way up there quickly.
The car feels as if it's creeping along at even 40 or 45 miles an hour. Sure, I managed to drive it that way and surprisingly, it felt okay, albeit quite stiff on city street bumps. The yearning for speed was palpable.
The engine can sound a bit buzzy at high rpms—goodness, the tachometer goes to 9000 rpm, but the rev limiter comes in around 7500. I heard a high whine at times, but it all seemed perfectly in harmony in this car, where peak torque is an amazing 273 lb-ft at 3500 rpm.
The rack-and-pinion steering is amazingly quick. I basically moved the wheel a bit and the car felt like it tiptoed immediately over to the next lane. Mitsubishi advises drivers to "keep holding the steering wheel tightly with both hands" as they drive because of the "high-performance tires and quick steering ratio." The ratio, by the way is 13.0:1.
The best way to experience the Evolution is on a road course. It was the only place I drove where I didn't have to keep a close eye on the speedometer. Here, the Evolution happily showed its stuff, flicking through the curves, easily managing itself with a bit more throttle here, a bit more turn of the steering there. I had an ear-to-ear grin that wouldn't quit.
With full-time all-wheel drive, the Evolution travels normally with half the power sent to the front wheels and half to the back. When wheel slippage is detected, power is automatically redirected where needed.
Note that premium gasoline is the fuel here and pricey synthetic engine oil is mandatory.
Since the Evolution can and does run hard and fast, it comes with what Durand called "a strong maintenance program" for which dealer personnel are being specially trained.
As a result, owners can opt for one of two PitPass service contracts that help with the hefty maintenance needed for this kind of car. One PitPass is for "regular" maintenance with service such as tire rotation and 27-point inspection done every 5 months or 5,000 miles. The other for "severe" maintenance provides service every four months or 3,500 miles.
Buyers who have the carbon fiber rear spoiler installed on the Evolution are also advised to keep the spoiler waxed with a UV-protective material to prevent the wing from turning yellow over time.
Durand added that not all 639 Mitsubishi dealers will get the car. Sales are going to be low volume, in the 4,500 to 6,500 range annually.
When asked about insurance, Durand's comment was "ouch." Enough said.