Editor's note: This review was written in March 2012 about the 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Don't let its four doors fool you: The 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is a sports car before anything else, with heaps of performance fun in a small package — but not without compromises.
Standard all-wheel drive maintains some practicality for snow-goers, who can outfit the Evolution with winter tires when temperatures drop. I drove an Evo GSR with a five-speed manual transmission and winter tires; the more-expensive Evo MR has a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The Evo's 291-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is a stout engine that feels more powerful than its specification suggests. The engine is at its strongest in the middle of the rev range, a very usable spot for both normal and performance driving. The engine doesn't have to be revved to its redline for drivers to experience brute acceleration.
At lower speeds, annoying turbo lag restricts acceleration for the first few seconds, until engine speed builds. At one point, I turned a corner and had to floor the car as a fast-approaching SUV barreled down on me. I waited, then waited some more, until finally the engine picked up and caught me off guard with a rush of power that kicked the rear end out into a slide.
The lag is an issue when you want to move hastily from a stop, unless you ride the clutch and give generous throttle for a quick start. Done right, it's a rewarding experience, with acceleration that pins you to the back of your seat. Do it wrong, and the car falls flat on its face — or worse, burns miles off the clutch or breaks parts.
I had my hopes up for testing the Evo with winter tires in the snow. Mother Nature had other plans, though, and Chicago's January brought 50-degree temperatures and dry roads.
Even so, our tester's winter tires didn't give up the Evo's fun factor in the warmer temps, despite not having as much bite as the standard summer tires. The previous GSR I tested on a racetrack with summer tires felt sure-footed. When that grip gave up, the Evo was prone to oversteer more than understeer. With winter tires, the car first pushed the front tires into a corner before the rear end stepped out.
With its Super-All Wheel Control (S-AWC) system, the Evo handles much like a rear-drive vehicle. The all-wheel drive works seamlessly to distribute power to the wheels with the most traction by monitoring wheel speed, steering-wheel angle, throttle and the vehicle's yaw angles.
The Evo's steering and handling match up perfectly to quickly dart the car one way or the other at the slightest twitch of the steering wheel. This was apparent even with the winter tires, though the Evo's true handling potential can be experienced only in the summer on proper tires.
One More Gear, Please
The closely geared manual transmission really, really needs an additional gear; this transmission's five gears aren't enough for daily driving. That's mainly because, at 70 mph, the engine buzzes loudly running at more than 3,000 rpm. I tried to shift into a nonexistent 6th gear more times than I'd like to admit.
The gearing keeps the engine in the right speed for optimal performance, but it seriously needs a 6th gear for 60-mph-and-above cruising. The GSR's mileage is rated 17/23 mpg city/highway. That's roughly the same as the Chevrolet Traverse — a full-size, seven-seat crossover. The GSR isn't alone, however, because its main competitor, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, is rated the same. See the two compared.
The similarly fun-to-drive BMW 135i with rear-wheel drive is rated 20/28 mpg with a manual transmission. An Evolution MR with a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission is rated 1 mpg worse than the manual, at 17/22 mpg.
A few editors noted how difficult it was to push the shifter into each gate. I agree. I found that the faster I shifted, the smoother the action became. It's almost as if the car was begging to be driven hard.
The Evo's optional Recaro seats are among the most aggressively bolstered I've sat in outside of purpose-built racing seats. I always felt the sides encroaching on my spleen; truthfully, I don't really know where my spleen is, but I felt it was being encroached upon.
Not everybody will find a comfortable position in the Evo, as there's no height adjustment with the optional seats, nor is there a telescoping steering wheel. I'm a slender 170 pounds, and even I felt jammed into the driver's seat. The front seats are a great attribute on the track, where they kept me from sliding around. For everyday driving, though, the grip is a little much.
The rear seats are typical for a compact sedan, with enough comfort for short trips and decent legroom and headroom, but you wouldn't want to be stuck back there for too long.
The Evolution's beginnings as a modest Lancer are hidden well, with unique trimmings and colorful gadgetry between the main gauges. The Evo's height-adjustable headlights and multiple terrain modes are commonly found in more expensive cars and SUVs. Still, our $38,395 tester has its value embedded in the Evo's performance rather than in luxury features.
It's too bad the Evo's monstrosity of a wing on the trunk completely obstructs the view of cars and people through the rearview mirror. I like the look of the ridiculous wing, which is standard on GSR models, but even though it's an Evo signature and looks good, I would go without it — or even the smaller spoiler offered on the MR — because of visibility issues.
Under that wing is a tiny trunk with 6.9 cubic feet of cargo space, down from the regular Lancer's 12.3 cubic feet. The space is limited and the rear seats don't fold down because of additional chassis bracing, as well as relocation of the washer fluid reservoir and battery to the trunk for weight distribution.
The Lancer Evolution misses the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation because of its roof strength/rollover test's Acceptable score. Otherwise, frontal, side impact and rear crash test ratings score the agency's highest rating of Good. All ratings require the agency's highest mark of Good to be a Top Safety Pick, which the Evolution misses because of the additional weight added by the all-wheel-drive system. The agency's roof strength tests are a measure of roof strength to curb weight.
Standard safety features include federally mandated front airbags, tire pressure monitoring, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. There are side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants and front seat-mounted side-impact airbags.
Evolution in the Market
The Evolution GSR's performance appeal is huge. It's a sports car that's not so subtly disguised — see the big wing — as a small sedan. Its all-wheel drive may be a reason to enlist this car for daily-driver duties, to handle all weather conditions, but otherwise it doesn't offer much practicality beyond its sedan configuration.