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A beast in the 'burbs

Watch out, neighbor: Mitsubishi's Evolution is a growling race car disguised as a family sedan.

June 16, 2004|DAN NEIL

There are many things to enjoy about the Lancer Evolution, Mitsubishi's egregiously overpowered perversion of its four-door family sedan: its swallow-your-tongue acceleration (0-60 mph in about 5 seconds); its Power Rangers-on-meth face; the prospect that, in Kansas and Florida, state law requires that you call it the Lancer Creationism.

My absolute favorite is the child-seat anchor system in the back. Taking baby Cody to the Whole Foods in this thing would be as wild as a ride in the clothes dryer.

This car is a Size 14 foot crammed in a Size 8 pump, 50 pounds of smack in a 5-pound gob, a 105-millimeter Howitzer round crammed into a .25-caliber Beretta. Or maybe it's another piece of munitions entirely: You don't drive the Evo so much as pull the pin, count to three, and throw. "One ... two ... BOOM."

For a test drive, drag your recliner up to the nearest PlayStation 2. Digital versions of the Evo and its direct competitor, the Subaru WRX Sti, slug it out on Sony's World Rally Championship 3 video game with screamers like the Peugeot 206, Citroen Xsara and Ford Focus RS.

An aside: I am amazed that WRC racing is not more popular in the United States (the races are shown on a cable channel called Speed TV). In these timed-stage rally races held around the world, highly modified compact cars with all-wheel-drive rocket over hill and dale and, occasionally, off cliffs. Rally racing requires consummate car control and no detectable levels of self-preservation. You think eating worms has a fear factor? I once asked Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher -- no coward in a race car -- if he thought maybe he would like to try world rally. "Certainly not!" he said. "In a formula car there are only a few places on a track where bad things can happen. In rally, bad things can happen everywhere."

The Evolution VIII -- the heraldic numerology denotes the eighth iteration of the Evo, though the car came to the U.S. in 2003 -- is a reasonably civilized version of the race car. The full-race Evo is about 557 pounds lighter and 30 horsepower more puissant. The race car has bigger brakes and wheels, full-race suspension and an interior stripped to the steel walls.

Even so, the street-legal Evo feels plenty racy, from its tooth-chipping ride to its deep-bolstered Recaro seats that grab you around the ribs like King Kong cuddling Fay Wray. The steering feel is darty and hypersensitive, like that of a big go-kart, requiring only two turns from full left to full right lock. The ventilated Brembo brakes -- with their showy red calipers peeking from behind the Enkei alloy wheels -- are amazing, precise and powerful. This car looks naked without a big number decal on the door.

First impression: The car is as solid as a granite headstone. Every panel in the unitized steel body is seam welded -- as compared to spot welded, the practice in the regular Lancer -- and the chassis is heavily reinforced from the suspension mountings to the floor pan. When you slam the door the sound is like a sledge striking a tractor tire -- doompf.

The Evo's styling is similarly like a sledge, right between the peepers. Cops will follow it like it's trolling with doughnuts. From the windshield forward the bodywork is Evo-specific -- the swollen fenders and hood are aluminum, not steel, and the lower front fascia has three oversized inlets. Behind the center aperture you can see the huge air-to-air intercooler that helps chill air being fed from the turbocharger (cooler air is denser and nets more horsepower).

One of the Evo's unique features is its water-spray system. You can spritz the intercooler by way of a console-mounted switch to help lower engine intake air temps -- it's also fun if you want to spray people in the crosswalk. And for those whose doctors recommend more carbon fiber in their diet, a foot-high spoiler is an option.

Beautiful? Heavens, no. It's a pig in a tracksuit.

Inside, the Evo is pretty straight-ahead, a cheerless, black-and-gray arrangement of climate and audio controls in the central stack (the "RS" competition package deletes the stereo system in the interests of weight saving). A small competition-style Momo steering wheel and handball-sized gearshift knob enhance the go-fast ambience.

None of which prepares you, really, for the moment you spark the fuse of the Evo. Under the hood is Mitsubishi's 2.0-liter dual-overhead-cam four-banger (alloy head, iron block), race-prepped with forged aluminum connecting rods and pistons churning a forged steel crank. Under the magnesium valve covers, most of the valve train has been lightened to reduce reciprocating masses and increase revs. A twin-scroll turbocharger force-feeds air into the engine like it's making horsepower pate.

It all adds up to 271 horsepower that comes on with the gentle modulation of a Dremmel tool -- zzzziiiIINNNGG!!!!

Never has ugly been so fast.

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