THE 10th incarnation of Mitsubishi’s iconic AWD hero is pitted here against the company’s demanding proving ground road loop … with no prisoners required.
First published in the November 2007 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
THERE'S a crackle of Japanese from the two-way radio in the left hand of the safety marshal. With a flourish of the long light wand in his right, he signals ‘Go’. Our own little piece of Mitsubishi’s vast Tokachi Proving Ground, on Japan’s big northern island of Hokkaido, is clear and open for business. Despite its ‘Cross-Country Track’ designation, this circuit duplicates a sinuous, bitumen-covered mountain road.
Simultaneously, I release the brake with my left foot and use my right to crush the Mitsubishi Evo X’s accelerator into the carpet. The launch is surprisingly soft, undoubtedly to protect one of the two clutches of the car’s six-speed ‘Sport Shift Transmission’. It’s nothing like the brutal, smoking standing starts I’ve logged in earlier, manual transmission Evos. In fact, in this SST-equipped Evo X, it’s impossible to sense the transition from slip to full engagement. But once it does, hang on…
Circuit Breaker - November 2007
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With Mitsubishi’s new 2.0-litre turbo four by now into the meaty middle of its rev range, the lunge to the redline is properly Evo-urgent. And there’s nothing soft about the SST’s upshift as the tacho needle kisses 7000rpm. The change is quick, the pressure of the Recaro against my back easing for only an instant.
That’s the magic of a good twin-clutch transmission. In a fraction of the time it takes to read it, the control software disengages the odd-gear clutch and engages the even-gear clutch. Because second gear has been pre-selected, there’s no waiting for synchro rings to do their thing, as in a conventional sequential transmission like, say, BMW’s SMG. Neither is there any hint of fluid flare, as expected from a conventional automatic’s torque converter. Despite the Mitsubishi SST’s shifting speed, the switch to second gear is smooth yet definite. It’s no more than a tiny, polite hiccup in a 422Nm gush of turbocharged torque. Mitsubishi claims the Evo X is capable of 0-100km/h in a little over five seconds. Optimistic, I say, especially considering the car has put on a little more than 100kg compared to the previous model. But sub six? For sure, says the seat of my pants.
Just as with a PC, the user-friendliness of a gearbox like the SST is down mostly to the software. And Mitsubishi’s software is very, very good. The driver of an SST-equipped Evo X has a menu of three automatic modes. ‘Normal’ is designed to mimic a conventional auto, slurring quickly through gears to the highest ratio the engine will pull. ‘Sport’ holds each gear longer than ‘Normal’, so the engine is more often working at higher revs. ‘S-Sport’ goes a step further, running the engine to the redline before upshifting. As well as these computer-controlled modes, there’s the option of manual gear selection. And again, there’s choice. The driver can nudge the gearlever to the right, into the plane where a bump back gives an upshift and a push forward a downshift. Or there’s the option of using the pair of steering column-mounted paddles. I’ve selected ‘S-Sport’, to find out what kind of job the computer makes of choosing the shift points in hard driving.
By the time the SST grabs fourth gear, the straight that forms the first part of a lap of this proving ground test track is evaporating fast. Even though this isn’t my first lap of the track today, I back out of the throttle and take a confidence dab on the brakes for the slightly uphill, and fast, left-hander off the straight. As the wide and warm Yokohama Advan A13 tyres bite, the SST holds the selected gear. Clipping the apex (helpfully marked by a witches hat), I give the Evo wide-open throttle once more and let it run to the right side of the track.
The short uphill straight that follows leads to a tight right. My hard brake application is accompanied by a series of perfect, computer- orchestrated downshifts. Just brilliant. A heel ’n’ toe expert couldn’t do any better.
I haul on the plain-rimmed, 265mm, three-spoke steering wheel to aim the Evo’s nose at the apex. The steering is direct enough, and nicely weighted, but fails to communicate a sense of truly intimate connection. This isn’t a major concern right at this moment – evil, on-line wrinkles in the bitumen make the exit from this corner one of the most testing places on this track. For car, not driver.
I keep the throttle nailed as the Evo bucks and skitters, adding to the collection of black smears on the rippled bitumen. In my peripheral vision, in the info panel between the instrument’s major dials, I can see the display flashing furiously. It’s telling me the car’s standard electronic stability program is working hard. Although I know the system is manipulating throttle and brakes to keep the Evo heading in the direction I want, the second-gear acceleration is smoothly ferocious.
The next section is tight and technical, a serpentine succession of uphill curves. Left, right, left, right, left. The last, at the crest of the climb, is awkwardly off camber. And the second left-hander has a sight line seemingly designed to tempt too-early throttle application.
I know, from previous laps, that it’s near impossible to get anything other than understeer through here. It takes skill to get it right – just-so co-ordination of steering inputs and throttle will achieve a quick, clean run, and you’ll carry enough speed to get oversteer on the second-last curve, a right-hander. Not me, not this lap. I need all the help I can get.
Mitsubishi labels its switchable ESP system ASC, for active stability control, and I haven’t touched the button at the right-hand end of the dash before starting this lap. One brief push disables the system’s authority over the throttle. I’ve tried that, and squealed sloppily – and slowly – through this challenging section. Get on the gas too early just once, and you lose momentum through all the remaining corners.
At the technical presentation in a function room at our hotel in Obihiro the previous night, we were told that the Evo X’s S-AWC system was worth 1.5 seconds on a 2.4km lap. S-AWC stands for super all-wheel control. It earns its ‘Super’ by adding ESP to the existing suite of electronically controlled technologies – ACD (active centre differential), AYC (active yaw-control rear differential) and ABS. Diagrams showing with and without steering-input traces for dry bitumen and packed-snow driving were produced to prove the system reduces the need for wheel twirling.
Sure enough, I’m faster through here with the aid of the ESP. Understeer is much reduced, and my tighter lines are quicker.
Out of the section’s final, off-camber corner, is the scary part of this track. It’s fast. And dangerous. This is a proving ground, not a racetrack, so there’s no run-off, no Armco. Instead, there are raised, grass-covered banks either side. We’ve been sternly told a 120km/h limit applies to this specific section. Later I learn a journalist from one of the earlier groups through this program crashed on this track – I’m betting it happened somewhere along here.
It snakes gently at first, inviting increasing pressure on the accelerator. Avoid the suspension-testing lumps on the left, early, and before you know it, you’re north of 150km/h.
Mitsubishi has an Evo IX here for anyone who wants to try old and new back-to-back. The contrast, I’ve already learned, is great. The IX sounds gravelly, the activity of its simpler drivetrain and chassis technology less refined, its manual gearbox less slick than the five-speed X’s I’ve driven before it, and the steering slower. It rolls a lot more, too. But most important of all, the absence of the ESP safety net in the IX makes this fast section of track feel properly scary.
And now we’re heading for its nasty bit. It’s a quick left, slightly downhill in and a little uphill out. It’s reasonably comfortable at a around 130km/h, despite the unsettling series of waves in the track that the proving ground designers have installed here.
The Evo X I’m driving is equipped with Mitsubishi’s ‘High Performance’ option. The package includes forged BBS wheels instead of the standard Enkei rims, saving a little under one kilo per corner. Tyre size is the same for both BBS and Enkei wheels, at 245/40R18. Other key ingredients are Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs. On this track, which lacks the kind of harsh and informative impacts found on real roads, it’s hard to feel any difference between the optioned red Evo X
I’m driving now, and the standard blue car I tried earlier. Does the High Performance package bring a little more discipline, or is it just my imagination?
Likewise the brakes. We’re about to arrive at the corner that demands the most of the Evo’s left pedal. The road opens again after the lumpy left, but the speed gained here needs to be washed away smartly for a very tight left-hand hairpin.
While all Evo Xs are fitted with chunky Brembo brake calipers, the High Performance package also adds compound front discs. Although the same diameter as the standard one-piece iron items, their aluminium centres save more than one kilo per piece. Again I’m hard-pressed to feel any significant difference between the standard equipment and the optional discs.
The Evo X slows damned hard, regardless of hardware. Pedal feel is good, and the grip of the by now very warm Yokohamas is impressive. Despite the severity of the stop, there’s not a hint of activity from the ABS. Maybe the two-piece front discs resist fade or distortion better than the standard stoppers, but you’re not going to find out the answer to that question doing one lap at a time.
Running into this hairpin, the SST rips smartly down through the gears, giving me first for the exit. It’s closely followed by a short slalom through three close-packed descending second-gear corners, finished by a treacherous downhill right-hand hairpin.
Jabbing left, right, left with the steering, followed by a stab on the brakes for the following hairpin, is a severe test of stability. The Evo X is brilliantly neutral, even though you can sense the inclination of the road and the nose-down attitude of the car combining to unload the rear tyres.
Hold it tight, then fire it into the opening left that follows. As the road straightens (about the time you’re back to wide-open throttle), out comes the rally-style chequered flag board. I release the accelerator and press gently on the brakes. Dropping the driver’s window, I can smell the car’s heat and anger. It’s a fragrant mélange of hot rubber and hotter metal, with a sharp note of hard-pressed brake pad.
I leave the Evo X at the end of the queue of cars waiting for their next lap. Cool drinks are available from the nearby refreshment tent, so I choose a small bottle of Evian, find a folding chair in the shade, swallow a quenching slug of water, and start to make notes.
I look up to see another journalist is settling into the idling Evo X with SST and High Performance option package. The safety marshal cocks an ear to his radio, waves ‘Go’ to the first car in line, and it moves one place closer to its next lap. I wonder if the car’s new pilot will return as impressed by the car’s purposeful sophistication as I am right now?
How much will the Evo X cost?
Australian dollar prices of the Evo X will range between $60,000 and $70,000. While the line-up is still to be confirmed, Mitsubishi Australia has firm ideas on what it wants. The preferred plan is for a basic model that offers a choice between five-speed manual and six-speed SST transmissions, and an SST-only range-topper with the full set of mechanical and appearance upgrades. The most likely Australian on-sale date is early April next year, although there remains a slim chance of a March arrival.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X
Body: Steel/aluminium, 4 doors, 5 seats
Drivetrain: front-engine (east west), all-wheel drive
Engine: 1998cc inline 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Power: 206kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 422Nm @ 3500rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual or 6-speed twin-clutch SST
Size (l/w/h): 4495/1810/1480mm
0-100km/h: 4.9s man / 5.2s SST (claimed)
Price: $60,000 to $70,000
On sale: April 2008