ONE LAST dance. To many it is the title of a Patrick Swayze flick, but for Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X owners the term to dance perfectly captures the way this turbocharged all-paw sedan moves with its driver.
Some cars need to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and manhandled into line. Others require delicate inputs, tiny footsteps and a shuffle here, a shuffle there, to make ground fast. A few get boogying, then collapse in a fluster when the beat picks up.
Not the Evo X. The way it slides into bends, as though to smear its shoe across parquetry flooring, then quick-steps its booty into line before firing its partner across the room in a balletic waltz done in cha-cha time, is the stuff of which legends are made. Or at least they should be.
Rewind back to 2007 and in Japanese product development studios, everything was looking good. The list of new performance models launching was extensive: Nissan GT-R and 370Z, fattened-up Subaru WRX STI sedan, growing murmur of a revived Honda NSX as the production Civic Type R lobbed; even MPS versions of the Mazda3 and Mazda6 were torque-steering along in an arm-wrestle with the Subaru Liberty Spec-B.
Mitsubishi was similarly on-song. Its 1992 Lancer GSR evolved to Evos I, II and III, then in 1996 to the all-new Evo IV. The subsequent Evo V, VI and VII were immaculately timed with the rise of the PlayStation, which brought WRC heroes such as Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae to the screens of impressionable teenagers globally (one of them, yours truly).
For Australia, however, it wouldn’t be until the Evo IX of 2005 that the series would be officially imported. The launch of this Evolution X in 2008 was not so beautifully timed. The global financial crisis that year carved-up Japanese car makers the most. It soon went from hero to blood-ravaged victim.
Humans are fickle characters, but car-loving humans perhaps even more so. When the Evo X arrived it was criticised by some for being too digital in its steering and computer-controlled in its responses. Yet now, when competitors have moved to electro-mechanical steering and 8.0-inch colour touchscreens, the same people bemoan that this Mitsubishi feels old-school and has the worst infotainment in a new car – and, well, it does.
So, in the words of The Killers, are we human or are we dancer? Today, we shall have a final dance with a car wearing defeatist ‘Final Edition’ badging.
When editor Campbell suggested the Evo X needs one final salute, I told him to get lost. Quite literally. We needed to escape the bulging affluence that afflicts Sydney, signified by the exhaust brahhp of an AMG A45. A thought struck: Thunderbolts Way.
Starting 250km north of Sydney, this 150km ribbon of tarmac then spears further north, tight and technical, unforgiving with blind crests and tightening-radius bends, curling up mountains then unfurling onto green plains.
The 10th-generation Evo debuted a new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, the all-aluminium 4B11 replacing the iron-block 4G63. It banished the previous mill’s balance shafts, adopted variable valve timing and lift on both the exhaust and intake camshafts and included a forged-steel crankshaft and connecting rods to allow a fearless feed of revs.
The Lancer Evolution Final Edition, finally, gets a boost from 217kW to 226kW still at 6500rpm and from 366Nm to 407Nm at an also unchanged 4000rpm, all in a sedan that weighs 1537kg, or 38kg less than the 440Nm Focus RS hatchback.
At launch this Evo cost $59,490 with a $5500 performance package adding two-piece front Brembo brake discs, Bilstein dampers, Eibach springs and forged 18-inch BBS wheels. Today’s 150-run Final Edition includes all that extra kit for $53,700.
It may be an eight-year-old design but it takes less than eight minutes to get intimate with my dance partner. The Recaros are seemingly made for a Chinese gymnast. The engine takes three slow, baritone cranks to fire, as though to imitate some big-bore wound-up unit. The manual baulks in a rubbery fashion into first, and upon release of the short, sharp clutch, several buzzes tingle across the hard plastic dashboard like it is a racer with fixed engine mounts.
The five-speed manual has relatively short gearing, and freeway cruising results in 3500rpm at 115km/h in top gear. The engine fights with road noise to swallow conversation with snapper Thomas, which proves handy when he asks “can we shoot here?” as dusk draws near.
“What ab, uh, just, uh, over, uh, there?” he attempts again, this time with stutters punctuated by the borderline brutal ride. Short, sharp expletives come out of my mouth, too, as that touchscreen refuses to connect my phone by either Bluetooth or USB.
After three-and-a-half hours we overnight in tranquil Gloucester with our backbones still jolting to the rhythm of Bucketts Way’s coarse-chip, the touring introduction to Thunderbolts Way tomorrow.
The flag drops at 6am on a misty morning across the Manning River’s narrow bridge. Thunderbolts doesn’t wait to draw you onto its dance floor, immediately ducking and weaving over rolling hills that permit great exploitation of the Evo’s turbocharged torque. There is frustrating and hilarious turbo lag.
Below 3000rpm there is next to nil response, and the next 500rpm range is like sitting on your front verandah, calm before the storm, then suddenly seeing a hurricane swing into view. There is a deep-breath moment before the wallop arrives with the sound of spinning forged alloy, valve flutter and the spraying of fuel and air until it nudges the high 7600rpm cut-out. The angry, industrial thrash is as addictive as the rush itself.
This road is named after Captain Thunderbolt, who in 1863 escaped prison in the middle of Sydney Harbour, swimming to shore before roaming these parts on horseback as a bushranger. His horse has nothing on Evo X pace, though he may have been more comfortable in his saddle than these Recaros.
In the space of 13 kilometres the road climbs 800 metres, from 200m above sea level to 1000m… above clouds. It isn’t high enough for Thomas, who at Carson’s lookout – named after sawmiller Eric Carson who actually helped build the road rather than a grub thief who had the road titled after him – decides to go rock climbing for a better view. Not wanting to witness Thomas’s imminent death, I hook the Evo X back the other way for a run from high in the sky. Time to dance.
Corners flicking at right angles are seventh heaven for this tenth Evolution. Its steering is telepathic and alert on turn-in, directing a front-end that bites into tarmac with the ferocity of the shark it uses as grille design inspiration. This cornering Great White then changes direction as though you’ve dangled the pinkish-pale legs of a British tourist beside it.
It begs you to push harder and further. True, there isn’t a whole lot of feel through the digital steering, but you drive the Evo X through the tremors of its tightly hugging seat, and a mash of the toe on a firm brake pedal followed by a heel-kick of a reactive throttle.
The trip computer is showing 20.8 litres per 100 kilometres and the Evo X has only a tiny 55-litre tank. Driving back and forth for photography and waiting for my mountain-goat snapper has notched up 150km with 80km showing to empty – or roughly the distance either to Walcha or back to Gloucester. Erm…
Rollercoaster corners then emerge, forestry pine trees replaced with empty plains that deliver perfect sight lines for weaving and diving esses. Evo X pace resumes; trip computer ignored.
Stomachs become light with 1500kg of small sedan over blind crests that then suddenly fall away. But the Evo X is a tinny car with an aluminium bonnet, roof and boot, and bracing everywhere including behind the rear seat backrest to press pumped rear arches tight. It feels battle-hardened and therefore resolutely controlled.
Then arrives one of the best moments swinging with the Evo X today, and a staggering display of wizardry (over) working. A long downhill straight ends with a right-angle right-hander, over a bridge so short you could almost combine the next 90-degree right-hander into the one double apex corner.
The Evo smears its outside-front 245mm-wide Dunlop Sport Maxx shoe across the first bend. Hold the top of second gear; revel in the throttle response to tighten the rear into place before quickly flinging more lock to hit the second apex. By now, sliding left-side shoes are distantly howling.
A short uphill straight then extends into a long, long, sweeping uphill left-hander that again crests over. Approaching it on the straight, the rev-limiter bounces twice in second as the clutch is dipped and third is driven home. The long throw is a perfect match for the brief pause in delivery before the 4B11 unleashes, climbing terrain matched by rising speed as this time the right-side shoes are pressed (and howling).
The active centre differential can juggle torque 50:50 front-to-rear – with choice of Tarmac, Gravel and Snow modes – while active yaw control utilises myriad sensors to swap drive between each back wheel. A limited-slip differential up front keeps that end hooked up. The long straights into Walcha are dispatched in the tallest gear on light throttle with the low-fuel warning light on. We make it with kays to spare.
As we fill, Thomas remarks how much he loves how raw the Evo X is. This is a photographer who has spent more time in the passenger seat of new cars than many motoring journalists in the driver’s, and he isn’t easily won over. Yet here he is eulogising about an eight-year-old design. Even the ride is “fine for its type”, although he’s nuts enough to have left some spinal cord dangling off a cliff-top some way back anyway.
Rivals (VW Golf R, Audi S3, Ford Focus RS) have taken an era to close a sizeable dynamics gap. We can’t help but feel a GFC-sliced Mitsubishi could have thrown new clothes over the current Evo X and it still would have challenged competitors, but it doesn’t even have a new base Lancer to work with.
Instead, as with Nissan, it will chase a populist performance SUV market sometime in the future. When you don’t have much money to bet, it seems you place chips on the safe but dull option.
All we know is that Evolution ends here, at midday beside a humming Walcha fuel bowser. The Final Edition is safe in these parts, away from mobile reception and modern expectations, but where it can remain one of the finest performers around.
3 OUT OF 5 STARS
LIKE: Terrific AWD system
DISLIKE: Dated interior; short top gear in five-speed ’box
Body: 4-door, 5-seat sedan
Drive: all-wheel drive
Engine: 1998cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 86 x 86mm
Power: 226kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 414Nm @ 3600rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension(f): struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(r): multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Tracks: 1545mm (f); 1545mm (r)
Steering: hydraulic rack and pinion
Brakes(F): 350mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 330mm solid discs, two-piston calipers
Wheels: 18 x 8.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 245/40 R18 (f/r)
Tyre: Dunlop SP Sport 600
Price as tested: $53,700