Mitsubishi Motors plans to abandon its failed policy of pursuing the mainstream. That means, as publicly announced in Automotive News and other industry trade journals, Mitsubishi will stop production of its mid-size Galant sedan at its assembly plant in Normal, Ill., after the 2008 model year.
That is a good thing. The Galant is a bread-and-butter car served in what amounts to an exotic foods market, thanks to numerous Mitsubishi rivals that offer more appealing products. Bread and butter, as a result, tend to get picked over, or forgotten altogether on more interesting tables, which has long been the case for the Galant — a good car that gathers little attention and even fewer sales.
Instead of producing easily ignored mass-market automobiles, Mitsubishi plans to use its Illinois facility to do what the company does best — turn out low-volume specialty products that command fanatically loyal support from consumers worldwide.
Consider, for example, this week’s subject automobile, the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR. It is a super-performance car, currently assembled in Mizushima, Japan. It is sold in the United States for what, to many driving enthusiasts, is an “affordable” price under $40,000.
A word of caution: “Driving enthusiasts” are hereby differentiated from “normal drivers.” In their quest for ultimate driving pleasure — speed, handling, power — driving enthusiasts often downplay, or otherwise redefine things that are of major importance to normal drivers, such as cost, comfort and convenience.
Accordingly, the Lancer Evolution MR and its more gut-wrenching sibling, the Lancer Evolution GSR, are not cars for everybody. They are low-slung, hard-riding automobiles of breathless acceleration and handling that seem more suitable for racetracks than they are for daily commuting. That, in fact, is their heritage. Now in their 10th-model generation, they were developed to compete in the World Rally Championship races, which they often finished victoriously.
Mitsubishi, in that regard, is an odd company. It is a conglomerate — a maker of many things, a provider of multiple services. Perhaps, because of its diversity, Mitsubishi often honors both mediocrity and exceptionality, turning out truly boring products — the Galant is a good example — and beating the pants off all comers when it has a mind to do something special.
Look at the Lancer Evolution MR. Mitsubishi takes fast driving seriously. The 18-inch diameter, low-aspect-ratio Yokohama tires are expressly designed for dry, paved-road speed and handling. They even come with a consumer advisory pasted to the interior panel of the front, driver’s-side door, telling the owner to switch to snow tires, or something more appropriate, for winter motoring.
It’s the kind of thing that most normal drivers would ignore, or certainly find unnecessarily expensive, or annoying. But the Lancer MR and GSR are made for more demanding types, people who want peak automotive performance in all seasons and who don’t mind paying or doing a bit more to get it.
For those people, the Lancer Evolution MR with its turbocharged, 291-horsepower, four-cylinder engine; its double-clutch, six-speed transmission that can be shifted automatically or manually; its Brembo performance brakes; and waist-hugging Recaro seats is an absolute bargain.
I never thought I’d see anybody smile over a Mitsubishi car with a base price approaching $39,000. But, as I said, “driving enthusiasts” live in a different world.
They gathered around the Lancer Evolution at parking lots in Northern Virginia, asking about its “specs” and performance, angling for a drive, praising its pricing. That was a stunner.
The spectators were mostly young men, many of them gainfully, albeit not richly, employed. But they said they would figure out a way to get the bucks for the Lancer Evolution — probably for the less-expensive, less-tufted GSR. All of that power and all of that speed and handling — at that price! Apparently mistaking me for a salesman, they wanted me to sign them up. They were smitten.
To me — an elder befuddled by youthful infatuation with a $39,000 car that consumes premium unleaded gasoline in an economy that has gone to hell in a handbasket — the would-be Lancer Evolution buyers offered the following bits of logic: “Cheaper than a Ferrari” and “more fun than a Porsche” and “I can get $40,000 faster than I can make $50,000.”
Yeah, Mitsubishi should turn its Illinois plant into a specialty shop. I’ve got a hunch that, with enough sparkle, power and pizazz, offered at the right price, it will sell whatever rolls out of there — even in a down economy.
ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http://www.wmet1160.com.