When I reviewed the original Audi quattro recently, I wrote that it was capable of turning in 75 percent of the performance of my Mitsubishi Lancer Evo I, a differential I attributed entirely to the Japanese car being a decade newer.
Some might consider this heresy but to do so would be to ignore the march of progress; in the eighties a hot hatch with 130bhp was insanely powerful, in the nineties that rose to 175bhp, while the noughties gave us 200 and rising. The vastly improved performance wasn’t just down to the increase in power, though; brakes and suspension played their part too – and an arguably more important part at that.
So when I was looking for a quick, rewarding, and fun car to do a spot of hill climbing in, I settled on a Mazda MX-5 (helped by the fact that my carwow colleague, Antony Ingram, has written a rather good book on them) from the early nineties. And then I spotted a very original 1992 Mitsubishi Evolution…
The original Evo (not badged as an Evo I, of course, as they didn’t know there would be a Mk II at that point; most at Mitsubishi thought they’d be doing very well if they managed to shift the initial 5,000 needed for homologation) has a simplicity and purity that the later cars – especially the Evo IV onwards – lack.
So there are no flared wheel arches and while the rear spoiler could never be called discreet, it is slightly more subtle than that fitted to newer models.
The white OZ wheels aren’t original and nor are the blue mud flaps, but the rest is pretty much as it left the factory. I like its restrained muscularity and lack of presence – and the narrow width is far more useful than you might imagine when you are making progress along narrow roads.
The interior features a Momo steering wheel and Recaro seats, a well-trodden path to enhancing the ambience of a car with sporting pretentions. Both work well, visually and dynamically, although the driver’s seat does feel a bit too high.
Other Evo-specific bits include a manual intercooler spray, a rev counter with a 7,000rpm red line, and, er, that’s it. The rest of the interior is pretty standard early-90s Japanese car, which means cheap plastics that still work impeccably even after 22 years. This is a clear demonstration that the development money they had was spent on the engine, suspension, and brakes, not on frippery. I like that.
The Evo is still sensational to drive with a poise and a fluidity to its handling that would shame a lot of new cars. Narrow tyres (205-section on 15-inch rims) and comparatively soft, long-travel springs might give a lower level of grip than more modern, more overtly sporting cars but the pay-off is what grip there is – and there is more than you’re ever going to need on a public road – is easily probed and utterly progressive when it does let go.
Firm damping keeps that soft suspension under control and the Evo’s impressive composure and compliant ride make it entirely usable day-to-day. It is certainly more comfortable than many modern Audis, for example.
On the back roads, the Evo’s initial turn-in is sharp but not hyperactive while mid-corner balance is impressively neutral and adjustable with either steering wheel or throttle; applying more power widens the line a little whereas winding the power down tightens it. At higher speeds it will drift but this is not the raison d’être of a high-performance four-wheel-drive car. No, the whole point is to give early, full-bore traction in circumstances where a rear-wheel-drive car might flounder.
So, the trick is to turn in at a relatively slow speed (and the key word here is ‘relatively’, not ‘slow’), adjust your cornering attitude mid-bend and then floor it when you can see the exit is clear. The steering is light, so fingertip pressure is all that’s needed, letting you probe every last vestige of grip – or, if you are in the mood for hooliganism rather than refinement, you can throw it into the bend in an approximation of a Scandinavian Flick. The car’s inherent balance will save you from any subsequent embarrassment.
The only gripe I have is that the gearing, so wonderful for initial acceleration and mid-charge urge, is very low giving something like 4,000rpm at 70mph. This makes it a bit wearing on the motorway, but then this is not a car to cross continents in…
The two-litre, turbocharged four is an unremarkable thing to look at. It doesn’t sound especially impressive at rest, either; the Subaru Impreza Turbo, surely its greatest rival, has it beaten on both counts.
But not on the road, where the Evo comes alive, wheezing and whistling in a subdued Group B fashion that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. The 250hp engine also produces a respectable 228 lb/ft of torque as standard, and it is easily tuned to 300hp or more while retaining enough flexibility to be used as an everyday hack.
It’s quick, too, even in showroom trim: 0-62mph takes just 5.1 seconds and three gear changes. The top speed is somewhere around 140mph but that ultra-low gearing would make achieving it an extraordinarily unpleasant experience, so better to enjoy the stratospheric acceleration up to around 100mph and accept that not worrying about the last few mph makes you a more considered, mature driver. Probably.
Value for Money
The prices of early Lancer Evolutions (the 1,2 and 3 are very similar and are generally grouped together by enthusiasts as being the purest expression of the breed) are on the floor. As a modified car with high-miles and in so-so condition might fetch £1,500 and an original, low-miles cars will struggle to breach £3,000 it makes sense to buy the very best you can.
Values can only rise as these under-appreciated gems become recognised for what they are; I snagged a two-owners-from-import, 46,000-mile car with full history and don’t expect to lose money if/when I come to sell it.
The 1990s were an automotive sweet spot, producing cars that were lithe and taut and fast and reliable. Buy a car from the decade before that and you’ll suffer a vehicle that is, at least to drivers used to piloting modern cars, too slow and crude to be taken seriously as an everyday driver while later cars are over-burdened with the sort of safety and comfort equipment that no one bar the marketing department actually needs, adding weight and diminishing performance.
So an early Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, with its beguiling combination of modern-car performance and reliability backed up with a solid motorsport pedigree, is the perfect retro ride and I can’t for the life of me understand why it has flown beneath the radar for so long.
Alternatives include the more numerous Subaru Impreza WRX STI, which is more expensive and doesn’t handle as well and the Lancia Delta Integrale, which is more exotic and much, much more expensive – and a standard Evo would leave both for dead on a track.
What would you choose as your sub-£5,000 daily-driver classic car?