2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. Click image to enlarge
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2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR

Toronto, Ontario – Well, after almost two decades and 10 generations, it’s finally here. Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution – or, simply, Evo to its friends and fans – rolled into showrooms last month, to the cheers of Japanese performance fanatics across the country. A turbocharged, rally-bred, all-wheel-drive legend known worldwide for its all-weather ability and astonishing performance, the Evo was for many years sold only in Japan and only came to the North American market (but not Canada) at the beginning of this century. Now, finally, thanks to a ground-up redesign based on the latest Lancer platform, the Evo is here. And it was worth the wait.

Mitsubishi says (and some of us are worried) that the new Evo is a more comfortable, more sophisticated interpretation of the hardcore original; that it’s civilized enough to drive to work every day but still extreme enough to give you thrills on the racetrack and rally stage on weekends. Just looking at it, you find that hard to believe: this is as sharky and as aggressive-looking an Evo as ever. A big rear wing towers over the trunk lid (it’s lower on the base Evo GSR, taller on the upscale MR).

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. Click image to enlarge

The fenders are blistered aggressively to cover a wider track and 18-inch wheels. There’s a functional rear diffuser built into the back bumper flanking two giant exhaust pipes. And the hood and front bumper are peppered with air intakes and extractors to keep cool air flowing through the intercooler and engine compartment. By looks alone, this is the toughest, hardest Evo ever.

That’s definitely the way it feels when you start flinging it around. Clamped tightly into its Recaro driver’s seat, there’s a real air of invincibility about driving the Evo. On any surface – there’s a steering wheel switch that lets you flip between tarmac, gravel and snow – and at pretty much any speed, this little four-door responds instantaneously and faithfully to your every input. Grip around any corner is astonishing. Even on the snow-dusted gravel roads north of Toronto where I drove it, getting it to slide always required major provocation with the throttle and steering; even then, the rear comes around gently and slowly, allowing you to ride out a slide like an expert, even if, like me, you aren’t. The awesome stability and cornering grip comes from a battery of electronic and mechanical systems grouped under the banner of “super all-wheel control,” which includes an active centre differential, active yaw control on the rear axle and a performance-tuned electronic stability-control system. Credit must also go to the incredibly stiff body shell, which has an aluminum roof for a lower centre of gravity.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. Click image to enlarge

One of the most interesting things about the new Evo is the new six-speed double-clutch sequential transmission. Called Twin Clutch SST in the company’s parlance and available only on the Evo MR – on sale in June – it should be a revelation. Like the Volkswagen GTI, Nissan GT-R and 1000-hp Bugatti Veyron before it, the dual-clutch system will be a major advantage in fast driving. Not only does it make things safer and more predictable (you never have to take your hands off the steering wheel to shift gears; you can never select a gear that will over-rev the engine), but its seamless, instantaneous upshifts and perfect downshifts will make it feel like you’re driving something from the future. If you want to cover a lot of ground safely at a high rate of speed – driving a back road at the speed limit or trying to achieve a better lap time on a racetrack – there’s no substitute for a transmission like this.

There’s more to the Evo’s package than the fancy gearbox, of course – there’s a standard five-speed manual in the base GSR – but much of the rest here is familiar, if in a slightly different form. The steering, guided by a large steering wheel, is still razor-sharp, almost nervous-feeling if you’ve stepped out of something softer-edged. The brakes, supplied by Brembo, have immediate bite and awesome stopping power. The ride is still unforgivingly stiff, borderline uncomfortable over rough surfaces. The engine is still freight-train strong past 3,000 rpm, with just a little softness from a standing start to remind you it’s turbocharged. While its engine and exhaust note isn’t anything to write home about – sounding like a jumped-up vacuum cleaner with none of the characterful thrum of the Subaru’s flat-four – it’s hard to argue with the 2.0-litre inline-four’s effectiveness as it tears you through the countryside. With 291 horses and 300 lb-ft on tap, there’s plenty of torque and enormous flexibility in every gear.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. Click image to enlarge

As a package, the Evo is surprisingly flexible as well. While the Lancer isn’t much longer than the outgoing car, its interior is more spacious than before, with plenty of headroom and even decent stretch-out space in the rear. The trunk is large and there are plenty of storage spaces and cupholders scattered about the cabin for everyday detritus. In either GSR or MR trim, the cabin is well-equipped, with power assists for the windows, mirrors and door locks as well as an excellent CD/MP3 stereo system. Upgrading to the MR gets you leather side bolsters on the seats and a host of other goodies along with the fancy transmission and trick differential. A premium package adds a sunroof (which deletes the aluminum roof), hard drive-based navigation, music server and Bluetooth telephone interface.

Loaded up with all this high-tech gadgetry – enough, says Mitsubishi, to at least achieve equipment parity with some entry-level German offerings like BMW’s 3-series or Audi’s A4 – an Evo will cost well over $50,000. Enthralling driving experience aside, it’s a tough sell. The quality of the materials used and the general level of construction really just isn’t up to the elevated price point; what was perhaps acceptable in a $20,000 Lancer – scratchy plastics on the dash, dimly-lit controls for the audio and climate systems – isn’t at well over double that price. So while in equipment terms the Evo is more sophisticated than it ever was, its overall level of polish and refinement aren’t up to the same standard as other, if less-focused, high-performance sedans in its price range; the Infiniti G35, for instance, offers a lavishly-equipped interior in addition to its 306 horses. And it’s not like the thing doesn’t handle.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. Click image to enlarge

All of which is to say that, despite Mitsubishi’s major efforts at trying to make the Evo more civilized, more of an everyday proposition, the thing remains an incredibly focused, narrow-minded driver’s tool. Bad news, maybe, for Mitsubishi’s engineers and designers, who were aiming for something powerful and nimble but broader in its appeal; good news for fans who were worried the car had gotten soft. It may be a little bigger, a little roomier and a little quieter inside, but the Evo is still very much a rally car at heart, with the hair-trigger responsiveness, awesome performance and tensed sinews that come along with that focus. Enthusiasts of Evo lore, who’ve grown up watching the car go sideways along tight forest tracks and have become used to pictures of Evos jumping giant snowbanks during winter rallies, will rejoice.

The new Evo, the first Evo we can buy new here in Canada, is the same as it ever was – an awesome performance car that you can, at a pinch, drive to work in the morning. Long may it be thus.

Pricing: 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR

Base price: $41,498

Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight & PDI: $1,495
Price as tested: $43,093
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

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