Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR vs. Subaru WRX STi; by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase and James Bergeron

Photo Gallery:
Evo MR vs. WRX STi

Ottawa, Ontario – If ever there were two cars that are natural competitors, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STi are that pair: both borrow rally-tested technology, both are wickedly fast, and both are highly sought-after by performance car junkies.

They’re sought-after by automotive writers, too. Anticipation of the arrival of an STi in Ottawa from Subaru’s press fleet turned into sheer delight when we found out that we’d have a Lancer Evolution MR – known in car nut circles simply as the Evo – at the same time.

This kind of performance-car serendipity happens rarely, so we decided to do the only thing that made sense: a head-to-head comparison. That’s easy enough if the vehicles in question are family sedans or crossovers where interior comfort and cargo space are the benchmarks, but how to safely compare the abilities of two 300-horsepower, all-wheel drive performance cars?

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR vs. Subaru WRX STi; by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge

CarTalkCanada editor James Bergeron had the answer. He’s a member of the Motorsports Club of Ottawa (MCO), and participates in the organization’s regular autocross events. For those not in the know, autocross, or Solo 2, is a form of racing in which drivers navigate a “track” marked out with safety cones.

As racing goes, this is one of the safest forms there is: racers run the course one at a time, which eliminates the possibility of dangerous collisions. Also, speeds are lower than on a race-track, with the emphasis placed on handling and car control rather than a vehicle’s power and straight-line prowess. The most important elements are driver skill and tire choice; many autocrossers use grippy race-compound tires.

After getting permission from Mitsubishi and Subaru and an enthusiastic “heck-yeah!” from the MCO, we headed out to the race venue – the parking lot at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa’s west end.

The plan was simple – James and I would run the course three times in each car. The runs are timed to the thousandth of a second, but faster times don’t necessarily mean higher speeds, as handling and cornering grip are key. In other words, the less you have to slow down for the turns, the lower your times will be.

The competitors

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR (top) and Subaru WRX STi; photos by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

The Evo bolts a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 291 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque to a sophisticated all-wheel drive system. That drive system features an active centre differential, active yaw-control rear differential and an electronically-controlled hydraulic multi-plate clutch. The transmission is a six-speed sequential gearbox with twin automatic clutches. The driver can control shifting manually via the shift lever or steering column-mounted paddles. Alternately, there are three distinct automatic shifting programs.

The Lancer Evolution MR, like our tester, carries a starting MSRP of $47,498, and can be optioned with a $4,000 Premium Package that adds a nine-speaker stereo with subwoofer, Sirius satellite radio and a navigation system.

In the Subaru, the prime mover is a 2.5-litre, turbocharged horizontally-opposed (boxer) four-cylinder that produces 305 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque. The all-wheel drive system uses Subaru’s Driver Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD) to apportion torque front-to-rear; the driver can adjust it manually, or choose three automatic programs.

The STi starts at $44,995, and comes standard with navigation and a DVD player. Options are limited to colour, although Sirius satellite radio is a dealer-installed option, at $500.

Both cars have strong anti-lock brakes and fully defeatable stability and traction control systems.

After having driven both of these cars on the street previous to our showdown, I was surprised to learn that the Evo weighs about 200 pounds more than the STi. The Mitsubishi drives like a lighter car, while the STi feels more like a high-performance German car. Mitsu made an effort to keep the Evo’s weight balanced by putting the battery and windshield washer reservoir in the trunk.

On the track

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Subaru WRX STi (top) and 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo MR; photos by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

The Evo’s tighter feel on the road translated into better agility on the autocross course. James found the Mitsubishi transitioned better in turns than the Subaru, despite its weight disadvantage. He suspects the Evo has a stiffer rear suspension setup that allows the car to rotate more in hard corners, which allowed it to be driven more like a rear-wheel drive car.

The Evo would understeer if the driver carried too much speed into a turn, but it was easier to control than in the Subaru. James suspects tires that have stiffer sidewalls and offer more grip.

The STi tended to dive significantly under hard braking, with the anti-lock brakes working hard to keep the stock Dunlop tires from locking up as the car’s weight transferred forward. The STi’s slower transitions meant that the suspension often didn’t have time to take a set in some of the course’s faster corners. The Subaru was also more prone to understeering, with the rear end refusing to rotate unless the driver braked very late into a corner, or left-foot-braked at the apex of the turn.

The STi’s main advantage was its engine. Though its peak torque number is lower than the Mitsubishi’s, there was more power available at lower engine speeds, which meant better throttle response when accelerating out of a turn. The Evo’s motor needs to be revving higher to produce its torque, which made the car feel flat-footed in a few of the course’s slower corners.

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Are we having fun yet? Photo by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

The Evo’s sequential transmission was a real asset to the car in this comparison, particularly given the motor’s peaky nature. The super-sport automatic mode holds each gear until the engine reaches redline, no matter how the car is being driven. This helped to keep the engine on the boil most of the time, and the automatic shifting allowed the driver to concentrate on corners: where the Subaru had enough low-end torque to power out of corners in second gear, the Evo needed a quick dip into first gear in a couple of places, so the aggressive auto shifting setting helped.

The Subaru’s manual gearbox is a nice transmission to use, but the tightly-spaced ratios require a shift to third just beyond 80 km/h, which slowed the car down slightly in the course’s two straights, in which both cars easily reached three-digit speeds.

In the cockpit, the Evo’s Recaro seats are far more supportive, with stiff side bolsters that kept us firmly in place. The STi’s seats were much more comfortable for street driving, but the relative lack of lateral support meant more work for the driver to stay put.

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo MR. Photo by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

As mentioned, both James and I made three runs in each car, but I’m only including James’ numbers. His experience (he regularly competes in his own Honda S2000, while I’m an autocross novice) meant his times were far more consistent than mine, and a better gauge of each car’s abilities.

James’ fastest time in the Mitsubishi was 62.73 seconds, while the best he could manage in the Subaru was 65.403 seconds. His average times in each car were 64.18 seconds in the Mitsubishi – including one “slow” run at 66.487, where leaving stability control engaged slowed him down significantly – and 65.69 seconds in the Subaru.

Straight-line performance

Going in, we thought the STi’s gearing, and the need to shift to third to reach 100 km/h, would hamper it in straight-line performance; our theory was that the Evo’s trick transmission and a launch-control system would give the Mitsu an advantage.

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
Photos by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

Well, that might have been the case had we known the correct procedure for activating the launch control feature. Without it, we couldn’t do better than 6.1 seconds to 96 km/h (60 mph) in the Mitsu, thanks to the engine’s lack of low-end torque.

In the STi, on the other hand, revving the big flat-four to about 5,000 rpm and dumping the clutch resulted in a rather violent, but very effective, launch. Using this technique (which we figure would be a great way to wreck the drivetrain, too), 96 km/h (60 mph) came in 5.2 seconds.

In drag racing, the 60-foot time (the time it takes to travel 60 feet from the starting line) is a good indicator of a car’s off-the-line performance. In our hands, the STi’s best 60-foot time was 1.8 seconds, while the launch-control-less Evo took about 2.5 seconds to cross the 60-foot mark.

Had we been able to figure out the Evo’s launch control sequence (we have since found the correct method, but sadly, the car is long gone; not surprisingly, this feature isn’t mentioned in the owner’s manual), we figure the Evo should have been able to at least match the STi’s 0-96 km/h time. We’ve seen published figures of five seconds flat for the STi, and an educated guess that the Evo MR should be good for about 4.5 seconds, with 60-foot times of about 1.5 seconds.

On the street

As much as these two cars are engineered for performance, both proved reasonably livable in day-to-day driving. The STi is the better daily driver, though, for a few reasons. The hatchback makes it more practical right off the bat; this car is as useful, cargo-wise, as any other Impreza hatch.

Comparison Test: Mitsubishi Evo MR vs. Subaru WRX STi  car comparisons
2008 Subaru WRX STi. Photo by Frank Rizzuti. Click image to enlarge

The Evo, on the other hand, has fixed rear seats, and compartments in the trunk for the battery and windshield washer reservoir reduce the trunk to about two-thirds the size of that in the regular Lancer.

The front seats were a deciding factor, too. The Mitsubishi’s Recaros are great on the track, but the Subaru’s softer side bolsters are much nicer for commuting and shopping runs.

Also, the STi’s extra low-end torque makes it easier to drive in stop-and-go traffic, and the Subaru burned significantly less fuel (about 12.5 litres, versus close to 14 litres in the Evo) for every 100 km travelled in city driving.

Conclusion

The Subaru’s more comfortable and practical demeanour makes it easy to prefer the the STi as a daily driver. These cars weren’t designed for sedate motoring, however, so the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution’s superiority in our competitive comparison makes it the winner in this contest.