2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Review

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Marc K. Stengel Marc K. Stengel Editor
February 28, 2003
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How is one supposed to deport oneself in the presence of a force of nature? For that, surely, was what I confronted last week in New Orleans as the 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution sport sedan made its debut before a throng of jaded journalists. With bolts of lightning searing the sky and torrents of water gushing forth, flooding highways and pelting reporters, the Mitsubishi Evo strode forth majestically and dominated the landscape.

The effect was positively Shakespearean, and it put me in mind of the memorable parry between Glendower and Hotspur in Act Three of Henry IV, Part 1:

GLENDOWER: I say the earth did shake when I was born.

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HOTSPUR: And I say the earth was not of my mind,

If you suppose as fearing you it shook.

GLENDOWER: The heavens were all on fire; the earth did tremble. ... I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man,

But will they come when you do call for them?

Where the Evo’s spirits are concerned, I can attest that they most assuredly did come when called. This is not the common run of car, you see. It is the raging, scarcely civilized version of one of the most dominating actors on the world rally car stage. Far from obscuring its prowess, New Orleans’ February monsoon did instead showcase the Evo’s uncanny knack for distributing 271 turbocharged horsepower through four wheels in deplorable conditions. The effect was positively exhilarating.

Misleading badges

Don’t let the “Lancer” badge mislead you, by the way. Although the Evo uses the platform otherwise devoted to Mitsubishi’s humble and forgettable commuter compact, any resemblance between the two ends precisely there. It’s important to understand that the Evo is actually a means to an end for Mitsubishi’s rally racing ambitions. According to rules promulgated by the august Fédération International de l’Automobile, all vehicles in certain World Rally Championship (WRC) classes must be homologated — that is, they must be manufactured in sufficient numbers with street-legal raiment and for public consumption. The result, in this case, is the Lancer Evolution VII, the seventh in a winning series of Mitsubishi’s production-based rally racers.

Maybe it helps to think of things in terms of NASCAR meets The Fast and the Furious. After all, there once was a time when stock car racing featured real production models that would “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” NASCAR’s devolution into a carnival-like, kookie-car atmosphere with no grip on reality deserves to be supplanted by exciting WRC cars whose off-road, on-road, through-the-air exploits are thrilling performance enthusiasts from Britain to Borneo. The very car you can watch yanking through a 90-mile-an-hour, 180-degree hairpin while spraying icy gravel off 9000-foot cliffsides in the Alps is the very car you can buy for your own daily commute.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

The Lancer’s arrival upon these shores represents a casting down of the gauntlet. For two years, Subaru has had rally-car wannabes all to itself with its plucky Impreza WRX model. No longer. In terms of their relative spec sheets, the Evo as much as brushes the WRX aside with the back of its hand. Judge for yourself — Evo horsepower: 271 hp; WRX: 227 hp. Evo torque: 273 lb-ft; WRX: 217 lb-ft. Although longer, wider, taller and heavier, the Evo manages 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds, the WRX in about six. Both seat five in a four-door layout; both boast 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinders; both mate five-speed manual transmissions to all-time all-wheel drive (although an auto transmission is also available in the WRX). The real-world equalizer is price: the Evo costs $28,987; a comparable WRX costs $24,690.

Louisiana let-go

In a phrase, the Lancer Evo combines head-snapping acceleration with unflappable cornering and flawless, fade-free braking. At No Problem Raceway in Belle Rose, La., west of New Orleans, about a dozen tentative journalists edged out onto a racetrack with water standing inches deep in many places. Within three laps, speeds were well into three digits and traction was magnificent thanks to four-wheel power and impeccable Yokohama ADVAN tires in a very-low 45-profile size.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

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The Evo’s short-throw competition shifter is almost push-button precise with its gear changes. The intercooled, twin-scroll turbocharger boosts power in a predictable, progressive way that never seems to stop pulling the head back into a formfitting Recaro race bucket seat. A neat feature that seemed irrelevant in the rain is the intercooler sprayer that cools (and thereby compresses) combustion air for optimum performance. A console rocker switch for it toggles between manual and auto operation.

Best of all, to my taste, is the stiffness of body-and-suspension interplay, using sophisticated forged aluminum components and reinforcing spot welds everywhere. Once those big Brembo disc brakes have clamped you down to proper cornering speed, the suspension reacts brilliantly to the complex combination of steering and throttle inputs. You can actually feel individual wheels dig in at different rates in search of their optimum share of all-wheel-drive traction.

As a civilian, the Evo is agreeable in traffic and particularly comfortable thanks to those Recaro buckets. Clutch throw is a bit on the long side, so it took a few miles to establish the proper shifting rhythm; otherwise the powertrain is polite and poised in stop-and-go traffic. Creature comforts consist of the usual suspects: air conditioning; power windows and mirrors; AM/FM/CD audio. The only options are a sunroof and a dominating basket-handle of a rear wing in carbon fiber.

But if you’re wondering where your extra cupholders and seat heaters and assorted other gadgets are while driving this car, you’re out of your depth. This is a pocket-sized, performance-car masterpiece. It can call spirits from the vasty deep. If you’re not ready for them when they materialize, they’ll swamp you before you can say, “Boo!”

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Base prices:
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged in-line four, 271 hp/273 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.5 x 69.7 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 103.3 in
Curb weight: 3263 lb
EPA City/Hwy:18/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake distribution
Major standard equipment: Brembo disc brakes, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, 17-inch Enkei wheels, Yokohama ADVAN 45-profile tires, intercooler sprayer, Momo steering wheel, Recaro bucket seats
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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