Mitsubishi's 2014 Lancer Evolution is a bully of a sports sedan that's unconcerned if your back is sore and unapologetic if the groceries don't fit, but it's fast and fun on the track.
That's not news for the Evolution, the current generation of which is relatively unchanged in its seventh model year — a long time in automotive years. Unlike the regular Lancer compact sedan, the turbocharged Evolution is no grocery-getter, even with four doors and standard all-wheel drive. Competitors like the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and BMW 135i maintain more civility during everyday driving by not being as dedicated to going as fast as possible through a corner as the Evolution is. Two new players, however, offer a compelling alternative for those who aren't looking for full track capabilities but who want that cheap-speed thrill: the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S. Compare the Evo with its competitors here.
I drove a 2014 Evolution GSR with a five-speed manual transmission and the newly standard 6.1-inch touch-screen. Compare the 2013 with the 2014 here. An available Evolution MR is the premier (and pricier) track package, with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and unique suspension, brakes and wheels.
Exterior & Styling
Trained eyes — or anyone who's played the racing video game "Need For Speed" — should be able to spot the Evolution as something different. Separating the Evolution from pedestrian Lancers are wide fenders, unique front and rear styling, a lowered stance, 18-inch wheels and a monstrosity of a rear wing on entry-level GSR models. The tall wing is a staple of the Evolution's rallye-bred history and boy-racer roots. MR trims have only a small lip spoiler on the trunk and a lot more visibility when the massive wing isn't taking up the rearview mirror.
Even a trained eye can't spot the changes that help keep weight down. Lightweight aluminum makes up the Evo's roof, hood, front fenders, and front and rear bumper supports. Still, the Evolution is no lightweight, at 3,527 pounds. An STI sedan is 143 pounds lighter, the 135i is 154 pounds lighter and the BRZ is lighter by 765 pounds.
How It Drives
The 291-horsepower Evo's super-intelligent all-wheel drive (appropriately named Super All-Wheel Control) gives this compact sedan the handling chops of a dedicated track car. Over the years, we've track-tested the Evo on fast road courses like Wisconsin's Road America and most recently a tight autocross course. The Evolution's all-wheel drive almost telepathically distributes power to the wheels with the most traction to keep the Evo's nose digging into corners, while also rotating the car around turns with the freeness of a rear-wheel-drive system. Helping the task are standard Yokohama Advan summer-only tires, precise and lightning-quick steering, plus an aggressively tuned suspension, but the all-wheel drive is key.
MR trims have an edge over GSR models: Its factory pieces read like the spec sheet of a custom show car, not a production sports sedan. The more aggressive suspension tuning comes courtesy of Bilstein, which provides the MR's dampers, and Eibach, which makes the springs. Additionally, all four corners have less weight to turn thanks to lighter wheels supplied by BBS and lighter brake rotors for the Brembo braking system. (GSR models have Brembo brakes as well, just with a heavier brake rotor.)
The Evo has little forgiveness as a daily driver, however, with the harsh suspension's choppy ride quality a constant reminder of its performance credentials. You won't find adjustable suspension firmness or various driving modes — it's all sport mode all the time. Compelling alternatives are the lightweight, rear-wheel-drive Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S, which are essentially the same car. Stay with us a second; we know the Evo will destroy the twins in just about every performance area, but it's the BRZ and FR-S' capable chassis and precise steering and handling that are reminiscent of the Evo. Those cars offer a playful package with 50/50 street/track friendliness, compared with the Evo's 20/80 breakdown.
We compare the Evo GSR with Cars.com's Subaru BRZ long-term tester in more depth here.
While the suspension reminds drivers of its track capability, the lack of a six-speed manual transmission is a sign of the car's old age. A tightly geared five-speed manual transmission runs the GSR's turbocharged, 2.0-liter engine well above 3,000 rpm at 70 mph in 5th gear. The five-speed trans and standard all-wheel drive suck the life from its gas mileage, with ratings of 17/23/19 mpg city/highway/combined for the GSR, and 17/22/19 mpg for the six-speed automatic — similar to the STI's 17/23/19 mpg but less than the 135i's 20/28/23 mpg with a manual transmission and the BRZ's 22/30/25 mpg with a manual.
Even with a gear selected to race the engine, the lights are out and no one is home until that magic mark around 3,000 rpm where the power pours on and the Evo rockets off in a wonderment of turbo whistle, gear whine and exhaust noise. The Evo is otherwise a bear to drive, with a stiff clutch pedal and a heavy shifter that don't mesh well until it's time to get the lead out.
The Evo's theme of "built for speed, not comfort" carries over to the interior, where non-height-adjustable Recaro seats and a steering wheel without telescoping adjustability leave little variance for different body types. I'm a slender 6 feet tall, and the low, fixed seating position is only slightly more comfortable than sitting in an empty bathtub. The functional Recaro seat's torso death grip keeps you planted in aggressive cornering, but my lower back grew achy after anything more than a short drive. Unfortunately, the fixed head restraints aren't adjustable. The BRZ's sport seats have adjustable head restraints.
The seats aren't the only interior feature needing attention. The Evo's cabin quality reflects its compact-car roots. The Evo GSR's $35,790 price tag and the MR's $38,990 cost, including destination charges, provide far less appropriate interiors than a $40,525 BMW 135i. Back in 2006, the Evolution's compact-car interior was more fitting to its sub-$30,000 price. The 2008 redesign skyrocketed the price $4,300, but it still has an $18,000 Lancer interior.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The newly standard 6.1-inch touch-screen for audio and multimedia control is one of the few additions Mitsubishi has made over the years; a 7-inch touch-screen comes with the optional navigation system. The 6.1-inch system suffers from an unintuitive layout and slow response when you touch the screen. The volume knob is also on the wrong side (the passenger side of the stereo). OK, maybe not "wrong," but definitely inconvenient. The stereo does have newly standard HD radio and satellite radio with a three-month free trial.
Our tester's $37,790 price included the optional $2,000 Sight & Sound Package, which adds a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo with a 10-inch subwoofer and eight speakers; HID headlights; and keyless access. The Fosgate stereo isn't very impressive, with a mostly muddied sound and overpowering bass. Plus, the subwoofer enclosure takes up valuable trunk space.
Cargo & Storage
With a whopping 6.9 cubic feet of cargo space (note: sarcasm) without the optional subwoofer, the Evolution sedan has the same trunk volume as a Nissan 370Z two-seat coupe. The more pedestrian Lancer's trunk volume of 12.3 cubic feet is mostly taken up in the Evo by a battery and the washer fluid tank, which are relocated from under the hood for better weight distribution. A chassis brace behind the rear seat nixes any folding rear-seat option. The Evolution's nemesis, the WRX STI, has more usable trunk room in its sedan configuration, with 11.3 cubic feet of cargo space and a 60/40-split folding rear seat. It also comes as a hatchback.
Safety ratings for the 2014 Lancer Evolution weren't available at the time of publishing, but because the car is unchanged, the 2013 ratings are likely to apply (2014 ratings will appear here when available). In 2013, the Evolution missed the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation because of a score of acceptable rather than good in the roof-strength test, an indicator of rollover protection. (Because the test considers both roof strength and curb weight, the lighter front-wheel-drive Lancer has a score of good.) Otherwise, the Evolution earned the agency's highest rating of good in frontal, side and rear crash tests.
Value in Its Class
The Mitsubishi Evolution is a rare bird dedicated to carving corners, but the Evo is aging after going seven model years relatively untouched, and its sales show it. A rumored replacement may have a hybrid powertrain to compete with more expensive sports cars, potentially taking the Evolution further away from its cheap-speed roots.
The Evo has more weekend-warrior/track-day credibility for the money than most cars in its price range. That's the very reason to buy an Evolution, but with a five-speed manual and $35,000 price tag, this former cheap-speed champion is a pricey one-trick pony. As of the beginning of the 2014 model year, Mitsubishi is offering zero-percent financing for 36 months on the 2014 Evolution, as well as a $279/month lease with $3,578 due at signing.