Review and photos by Laurance Yap

Sometimes you really have to pinch yourself in this job. Here I was in one of the only Mitsubishi Lancer Evos in Canada, riding along a snow-covered back road, in cold pursuit of a $47,000 Subaru STi. The two cars (sticking to the speed limit, which was tough in these conditions) were kicking up a storm cloud of snow, their engines were humming and whooshing in their turbocharged power bands, performance winter radials clawed at the ground, and I was having the time of my life. A cold January morning in the ultimate, not-available-here forbidden fruit rally special and its mortal enemy: life didn’t get much better than this.

They pay me for this stuff, you know.

Tom McGeer with Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (left)and Subaru STi
Tom McGeer with Evo and STi

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

Subaru STi

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (left)and Subaru STi
Click image to enlarge

The whole Evo-versus-STi thing was a natural, partly because it’s been done so many times before by the Americans in warm climates. How would the two cars fare in Canadian conditions, on the type of roads often used in winter rallies? How different would they drive on the road rather than on the track? How brightly would their rally heritage shine through? And, above all, was the Evo really the bees-knees car that I’d been reading about, or would it be a case of the hype overwhelming the reality? Inquiring minds wanted to know, but Subaru didn’t have an STi press car on their winter fleet. D’oh!

Clearly, I would be needing help with this, but help was just a phone call away. A brief ring to friend and sometimes-IT client (also Subaru Rally Team Canada hot shoe) Tom McGeer sorted it all out. A free day was found, a couple more phone calls were made, and a day later – how’d he do that? – a World Rally Blue STi showed up magically in his driveway. Running on summer tires. No matter: another couple of calls and a quick run to Subaru of Mississauga saw a brand-new set of Blizzaks installed in record time. “It’s nice to have pull,” Tom deadpanned as the dealership’s service department emptied out, all of the technicians wanting a peek under the Evo’s hood.

The conditions really couldn’t have been any better; the highways had been plowed, the back roads were covered with a fresh dusting of snow from the night before, and the sun helped mitigate some of the record-cold temperatures. We set off in the Lancer first, Tom openly curious about the car that has, until now, been his primary competitor in the Canadian Rally Championship. First impressions? That it’s a lighter-feeling, less-substantial car – “more of a tourer,” he says. The 2.0-litre engine produces 271 hp compared to the STi’s 300, but the real difference is in the way it delivers its power: the Evo’s speed builds linearly until somewhere around the tach you realize how fast you’re going; it has none of the initial thump delivered by the STi’s larger, 2.5-litre engine. They sound pretty similar though, a smooth four-cylinder thrum overlaid by the restless whooshing of a turbo’s wastegate.

We head up north to find some closed roads where Tom can do “a little bit of sideways,” and he immediately notices the Lancer’s sharper turn-in and its super-quick steering. But it’s a bit of an illusion. “On exit, you find that the car’s rear end actually washes wide. In the STi, you have to drive a bit harder through the understeer on turn-in, but once you’re set up for the corner, the limited-slip front differential really hauls you out.” Indeed, when I have a go a few minutes later, I find myself driving quite slowly indeed: the Evo feels exceptionally confident on turn-in, but once you’re on the gas, its rear gets pretty lively. I can see how the American magazines have rated it as more fun: it feels alive and nervous in a way a Subaru never does.

Engines
Click image to enlarge

In the STi, Tom’s markedly faster throughout our entire road loop, and that isn’t because he’s got a whole lot of experience in one – his rally car is based on the last-generation Impreza, and the only crack he’s had at an STi was when he put 500 km on one to break it in before the dealer launch. Rolling on winter tires, it feels a lot closer to the Evo than I first expected: the softer sidewalls have introduced a degree of suppleness and compliance that have completely eliminated the crashing and banging of the suspension I’d experienced on summer tires; in fact, with its bigger engine, the Subaru actually feels the more refined of this pair.

Evo admirers
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The Subaru is not just a faster car because it pumps out an extra 30 hp and has an extra gear in its six-speed box. The Subaru has a traction advantage that comes from the way its three differentials have been set up: with a front limited-slip unit, a computer-controlled central diff, and a rear limited-slip, it seems to find traction where the Evo, with its open front diff and more simple mechanical centre diff, seems to just spin its wheels, scrabbling at the pavement and sliding across the snow. “The STi feels like it’s really dug into the ground,” Tom says. The Evo feels like it’s dancing across it. “But if you put a limited-slip front diff on the Evo, it would probably do just as well as the Subaru.” (In fact, Mitsubishi sells in the States an Evo 8 RS with a limited-slip front diff, no sound insulation, no radio and A/C, for $2000 less than our regular US$29,000 standard Evo.)

Tom McGeer
Tom McGeer

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

Subaru STi

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (right)and Subaru STi
Click image to enlarge

All of this has to be put into a bit of perspective. The conditions we were driving in were (intentionally) extreme; we’d chosen snow-covered roads with a helping of glare ice to explore the cars’ handling, and on pavement in more normal conditions, they’d be very close indeed. On pavement, the Evo is actually the better of the two. It has a sweeter shifter whose five longer gears give allow you to experience a longer accelerative rush through each cog; its steering is alive and writhing in a way the Subaru’s never is; and because of its taller stance and bigger glass, it’s easier to see out of and place accurately on the road, even though it’s actually larger than the STi in every dimension. It may not be as fast as the Subaru, but it’s still darned fast, hungrily closing gaps between clumps of traffic and passing cars ten at a time. The interior’s a nicer place to work, with huggy but not confining Recaro seats, a more polished wing-shaped dash design, and a metal-and-leather Momo steering wheel much nicer than the STi’s faux-granite and leather piece.

In the end, we decide while standing around in Tom’s back yard (which we’ve used for some of the action photography), there’s less to separate these two than you might expect there to be. Driven by a sane driver on any regular road, and they’d be equally capable, fast, and exciting up to speeds pretty far beyond the legal limit. For regular use on comparable tires, there’d be nothing in it. On slippery surfaces, there’s a more of a difference, but that’s primarily because Mitsubishi’s made a conscious decision about what equipment to include for the U.S. market, and what price they wanted to sell the Evo at. For in Europe there’s an FQ300 version (FQ standing for f***ing quick, of course) with not only 300 horsepower and six gears, but also an active centre differential and front limited-slip. Compared apples-to-apples with an STi, Tom thinks the car you choose would largely be down to which car’s styling you prefer, or whose rally team you choose to wear the colours of.

Would he choose the Subaru? “Of course, I’m biased,” he says while tugging on his blue-and-yellow toque, “but as a rally driver, the fact that the STi gets better through a corner – with maybe a little bit of that initial fight on turn-in but also the way it really hauls you out of one – is more confidence-inspiring than the Lancer, which starts out so well but comes out more wobbly. On the road, there’s very little to distinguish the two, however. They’re both incredible cars, faster and more capable than most drivers will ever need.” Too true, but I would never complain about a surfeit of capability in any car; that’s what makes vehicles like this as exciting as they are.

As for me? Tough call. I’ve been a Subaru fan and I’ve been a Mitsubishi fan too. I’ve driven both these cars and loved them, have seen them driven by someone who can really drive that thinks that, for most people, they’re pretty much the same. So maybe it really does come down to styling: I like the way the Evo looks better than I like the STi’s Japanimation curves and wings, and you can’t get an STi in yellow. Plus, there’s that whole forbidden-fruit thing again: I can’t get an Evo here in Canada, so naturally I want it more. For now, it’s as simple as that: like many a car nut, novelty matters as much to me as anything else, and as fine as they are, a base Lancer, or even the 2.4-litre, 160 horsepower Ralliart for which the Evo remains a “halo” product in other parts of the world, just won’t do.

If they ever do decide to bring the Evo here, I would definitely have a dilemma. Maybe I’d need one of them and one STi, too. Just before I pinch myself and wake up from that dream.

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