Once THE rally car star, the Evo is soon to be extinct. Can it still hack it against its arch-rival?
2016 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Final Edition v 2016 Subaru WRX STi Premium
It’s a classic, cult-led comparison: Evo versus STi. For over 20 years they’ve fought for market traction, initially as homologation specials but latterly as a last bastion of all-paw turbo sedans that combine supercar-matching B-road pace with day-to-day practicality. Now, the Evo line heads for extinction with a final flourish, with more power and limited-build cachet. But has the latest STI moved the game beyond its grasp?
As masters of mixed-surface progress, there’s been little to touch Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution and Subaru’s WRX STi over the last two decades.
With both nameplates conceived to allow Group A homologation for the World Rally Championship, the 1990s allowed both models to flourish in a performance landscape that included a range of flawed supercars and before advanced suspension designs, tricky diffs and modern electronics made front-drive hot hatches serious contenders to their all-weather performance.
Towards the end of the 1990s, a move to WRCar regulations rendered the homologation process largely obsolete; no longer were 5000 production units required to rally at the highest level… and with it went a true sense of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’.
Nevertheless, both Evolution and STi nameplates soldiered on in road car form, long after both teams bit the bullet and officially withdrew from world championship stages.
These days, their stars have waned in the face of all-wheel drive hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf R and the best of the modern front-drivers such as the Renault Megane RS.
It’s come at a cost, too; the Lancer you see here is the final in a long line, spanning 10 Evolutions.
Released way back in late 2007, the Evolution X has been somewhat refined over the last eight-plus years.
At release, the talk was of its new engine; dismissing with the venerable ‘4G63’ in favour of the aluminium-block 4B11, though still 2.0 litres, four cylinders and turbocharged.
Beyond that, weight was an issue. Racers will tell you the Evolution X’s increased chassis stiffness makes it a better basis for its suspension to work with, but the lighter Evolution IX with its six-speed manual gearbox (the X came with a sturdier five-speed or optional twin-clutch six-speed that added weight and complexity) remained a near-consensus for on-road ability.
Mitsubishi has now paired the manual gearbox with some increased firepower to create the Final Edition, with only 150 units slated for Australia.
Power is boosted to 226kW – a 9kW rise – but more importantly torque climbs to 414Nm; a 44Nm increase. Also importantly, it lifts the Final Edition above its arch-rival’s 221kW/407Nm…
For your $53,700 plus on-road costs, Mitsubishi specified the Final Edition with the best bits from the Evolution parts bin, including Eibach springs, Bilstein shocks, Brembo brakes and (heated) Recaro seats, creating a smorgasbord of motorsport-proven kit to go with its full-time, multi-mode all-wheel drive system with three preset centre differential modes, limited-slip rear differential and new 18-inch BBS alloy wheels with gold centres.
Outside the Final Edition also gains gloss black bonnet outlets and central front bumper section, dark chrome grille surround and a black-painted roof, with a Final Edition badge on the bootlid for good measure.
Open up and you are greeted with combined cloth/leather trim for the stocky Recaros along with a liberal use of leather trims: the steering wheel, park brake and shift knob covered in it.
Final Edition floor mats, a reversing camera, red stitching and black pillars further differentiate the Final Edition, but the dated 6.1-inch infotainment screen, lack of satellite-navigation and reach-adjustable steering and a column-mounted switch that requires a twist to fire up the Evo reveal its age.
The latest-generation WRX STi dropped the name of its donor vehicle when introduced in 2014, and it’s proven more than capable of standing on its own four wheels.
A six-speed manual remains the sole transmission option, a Torsen limited-slip differential sits in the rear axle, there’s active torque vectoring and the STi’s all-wheel drive system offers a range of centre differential settings designed to maximise traction via 18-inch alloys. It’s a return to form for the STi halo… and its strong sales suggest the market has lapped it up.
The aforementioned 221kW/407Nm outputs are produced by a larger 2.5-litre engine, of traditional flat-four configuration.
In tested STi Premium trim, it is priced from $55,690 plus on-roads with the high wing seen here.
A recent upgrade sees the STi gain Subaru’s excellent Vision Assist technologies, including blind-spot monitoring, lane change assist, auto-dim rear-view mirror, high-beam assist, side-view monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and power-folding exterior mirrors.
A 7.0-inch infotainment system offers sat-nav and reversing camera capability as well as voice recognition and access to Pandora audio for MY16, adding to a host of equipment such as dual-zone climate-control, heated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver and keyless entry and starting.
Apples with apples?
There’s no doubt the Subaru presents far better value, despite being priced higher. Beyond the equipment levels, its interior ambience is far more modern, as is its packaging. Boot space, for example, is 460 litres in the Subaru against only 323 for the Mitsubishi.
Purists may argue that the Lancer’s boot space is partly reduced because it contains its battery and other ancillaries for improved weight distribution, but it’s a substantial difference nevertheless.
Where the Evo gains ground is in its intent; the Recaros are stiffer-framed and offer harness slots to really sell that stripped-out competition look. It’s only when you look at the spec sheets that you realise the Mitsubishi is heavier: 1565kg kerb weight versus 1537kg for the Subaru.
As if on cue, I first climb into the Evo Final Edition as rain bursts from the clouds. Climb is the correct word, too; the stiff bolstering is capable of bruising thighs if you’re not careful.
Once behind the feelsome leather-trimmed steering wheel, I note the under-thigh support is a little on the shallow side but the sides keep the body nicely in check.
It’s odd in this day and age to see a shifter numbered only to five, but the dimpled three-pedal set-up proves nicely spaced as I dip the clutch and select first gear.
Less convincing is the turning circle, which sits at 11.8m; a round metre higher than the WRX STi.
Pushing through the tail-end of peak hour on greasy roads the Evo reveals its short-spaced gearing and relative lack of fireworks at low revs. It can do docile, but you quickly gain the impression that it would rather be hitting its 3500rpm peak torque and rocketing to its 6500rpm power peak as you grab the next gear… and the next one.
The shift action itself is short, but you need to be precise to avoid any grinding.
At any rate, the combined 4.687 final drive ratio and 0.761 fifth gear see the Evo engine spinning at 2800rpm during 100km/h cruising, further adding to its high-strung feel. It rides bumps stiffly and there’s a decent slug of road noise transmitted, too.
Pivot off the straight and narrow, however, and the Evo quickly demonstrates its primary purpose. Its ride is nothing less than stiff, but beyond the initially jolting sensation is finely-tuned body control. The Evo may thump and writhe, but it rarely loses surface contact.
At speed, the diminutive steering wheel and quick rack (with its 2.3 turns lock-to-lock) make more sense and the motorsport-derived hardware also warms to the task, the Brembo brakes finding impressive bite with the increased temperature. It’s the same story for the 245/40-series Dunlop SP Sport 600 tyres, which initially feel nervous on slick surfaces but work well once temperature builds.
With the all-wheel drive mode set to ‘Tarmac’ and providing a 50:50 torque split (the other modes, ‘Gravel’ and ‘Snow’ are largely redundant in Australia) there can be a little scrabble through the steering as you turn that hints at understeer, but if you’re more aggressive with your input the Evo pivots towards the apex, awaits a full throttle application to demonstrate just how effective its yaw control, limited-slip diff and all-wheel drive combination is at pulling you off any given corner with impressive speed.
Once 4000rpm is breached, the uptake in power and torque make themselves known as the boosted four-pot hungrily inhales the mountain air.
Driving the Evolution X well is more challenging than the ‘like a Play Station game’ adage might suggest. It’s like a RenaultSport Megane in that sense: gelling with its movements takes time, but once you get your head around the experience it can produce adrenalin-spiked results.
After the near trinket-free Mitsubishi cabin, the STi feels far more modern.
It’s larger infotainment screen with the convenience of sat-nav, as well as an additional screen above that displays a range of data including boost pressure and fuel consumption also lend it a more technically advanced ambience… and that’s even before we’ve come to the active safety inclusions.
The interior also clues you in onto the Subaru’s less hardcore focus. The ‘leather’ seats are more comfortable and lack harness slots, as well as providing less side and leg bolstering.
The Subaru’s six-speed shifter sits higher than the Evo’s, has a longer throw and feels slightly rubbery, meaning you have to be quite deliberate when shifting to be smooth.
Beyond the gravelly tone of the flat-four the interior space is more refined, the steering and ride both more relaxed than the Mitsubishi’s. This is relative, however; both remain sharp enough for most.
Although it can cruise far more happily than the Evo, the larger-capacity STi also wants revs to perform at its best. The delivery never really smooths out but over 4000rpm the STi remains highly entertaining.
Dynamically, the softer edge remains throughout, beginning with the 245/40-series Dunlop Sport Maxx RT tyres, which feel surer on from cold than the SP Sports on the Mitsubishi. The brake pedal also needs less pressure, but ultimate retardation (and repeatability of such) remains behind the Evo.
The suspension allows more wheel movement and the nose feels more willing to wash wide under power and slightly less willing to tighten its line if you add lock or modulate the throttle.
Thankfully, the steering rack rattle experienced in several iterations of MY15 STi (and not just by us) over bumpy corner exits has been eradicated in this example, although – again – it lacks the immediacy of the Mitsubishi’s steering.
Traction is also strong. A locked 50:50 drive split can be dialled in, but winding the centre diff control to its most rearward setting can alter that to 41 per cent front, 59 per cent rear. On the road, you’d be hard-picked to feel the difference.
Master of one… or jack of all?
In selecting a vehicle that combines day-to-day convenience with a harder edge to enjoy on weekends or the occasional track day, it’s the STi that makes more sense.
Slightly more expensive, it nevertheless offers more comfort and convenience, better safety, higher cruising ability and similar performance.
But if you’re looking for a collectable weekender that won’t wilt under more concerted hard driving, the Lancer Evolution X in Final Edition guise is more up to the task.
If you had to, could you live with its lack of cruising ability, hard seats and ride and below-par low-speed manoeuvrability if it meant a more engaging back-road or track drive?
It’s a highly personal question… but for this writer the answer is yes.
2016 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Final Edition pricing and specifications:
Price: $53,700 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel: 10.2L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 243g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star (ANCAP)
2016 Subaru WRX STi Premium pricing and specifications:
Price: $55,690 (with high wing, plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 10.4L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 242g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star (ANCAP)