It’s trick diffs at dawn when Miutsubishi’s tenth-gen Evo takes on the Subaru STi in an all-surface shoot out.
First published in the August 2008 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
Imagine Ford versus Holden, remove four cylinders, add a turbo and send drive to all four wheels. Now you’ve got a snapshot of the white-hot rivalry between Evo and STi. For more than a decade, both manufacturers have honed their respective weapons on rally stages, then released them onto the road.
I’ve always imaging the STis and Evos being developed by armies of brilliant Japanese engineers. Those with horn-rimmed glasses and crisply-pressed lab coats, carrying clipboards and nodding sagely at terms such as ‘torque vectoring’.
Their brutal cars are then sent hurtling sideways through forests and across frozen lakes in the hands of some of the bravest men to ever grace motorsport (thank you Makinen, McRae, et al).
With their latest offerings, Subaru and Mitsubishi have attempted to broaden the appeal, polish out the hard edges involved in turning polite commuter cars into turbocharged terrors. The challenge has been to not polish out too much edge.
To see how successful they’ve been, we put the tenth-generation Mitsubishi Evo to the ultimate dynamic test at Winton Raceway, then, along with the Subaru STi, we spent two days takling some of Victoria’s best driving roads and worst urban arterials. Finally, with rally legend Ed Ordynski, we pushed each car to its limits in the daily rally arena. Bring it on…
Winton Raceway, Monday, 1:30pm
Mitsubishi’s in-house performance guru, Alan Heaphy, leans in through the drivers’ side window of the box-fresh Evo idling in pitlane.
“This is your first lap in the new car?”
A wry smile plays across his lips, “You’ll enjoy this, mate.”
I dip the surprisingly light clutch and first gear engages with a short, oiled snick. Flex the throttle and there’s immediate response from the all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine; the tacho sweeps past 2500rpm as the surge of forced induction builds. At 3500rpm the turbo spins at maximum boost, the engine snarls an angry, metallic growl. Stretching deep into the red zone past 7000rpm (cut-out is 7600rpm), the Evo chews tarmac as volumes of intercooled air and 98RON fuel compress and combust.
Hard on the brakes for turn one, the vented Brembos bleed speed with force and stability, then a blip of the throttle and back to second, the engine crackling as boost is dumped. I haul the small, thin steering wheel to the right and am shocked by the almost instantaneous turn-in; my brain scrambles to adjust. At 2.3 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is lightning fast and the shark-nosed sedan switches direction like a scared rabbit.
A fast, double-apex left stretches out; the Evo stays rigidly flat, my knuckles whiten on the wheel. A lock of predictable understeer pushes the nose wide. Neurons fire and my right leg follows orders to feed in more throttle. An army of sensors feed data to the ECU, the Active Centre Differential (ACD) sends torque to the rear wheels, and the Active Yaw Control (AYC) rear diff shuffles torque to the outside wheel. The Evo pulls itself tighter into the corner, firing out of the bend like a Javelin missile. We sweep wide onto the ripple strip, a rumbling vibration shudders through the Recaro bucket seat as I prepare for a stability (and courage) testing flick right into the next tightening bend. Deep breath now. Throttle pinned, the Evo shimmies, painting a faint smudge of rubber on the tarmac, but stays true and stable, the immense grip and sophisticated electronics flattering this sweating author.
After several laps, I emerge from the Evo impressed (but still sweating) and retire to the track-side tent to make notes and learn more about the new Mitsu.
This Evo debuts the first all-new engine since Evolution launched in Japan in 1992. The iron-block 4G63 has been usurped by the new aluminium-blocked (and 12kg lighter) 4B11, and while both are intercooled turbocharged 2.0-litre dohc units, any resemblance ends there. The new unit’s bore and stroke both measure 86.0mm, making it a ‘square’ design, which reduces vibration and eliminates the need for a balancing shaft.
And while the basic engine architecture is shared with the regular Mitsubishi Lancer, Mitsu has beefed up this engine (to cope with the prodigious boost) with goodies such as a forged-steel crankshaft and connecting rods. Mitsubishi’s MIVEC variable valve timing now actuates on both the intake and exhaust cams and the turbocharger has been reworked to provide faster response time. The end result is 217kW at 6500rom (up 12kW) and 366Nm at 3500rpm (up 11Nm), along with a much flatter torque curve.
Channelling this grunt is Mitsu’s S-AWC system. Super All-Wheel Control can be set to Tarmac, Gravel or Snow mode and combines the ACD and AYC to govern torque and traction, along with a helical-type limited-slip differential (LSD) up front to bias torque between the front wheels. The last component is an effective ESP system.
The STi offers more cubes and more grunt from its turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-litre flat-four engine (221kW/407Nm), but uses a less techno-geek AWD system. Traditional LSDs reside in the front and rear axles, driven by a viscous-coupling Driver Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD), which can vary torque distribution from the regular 41:59 front-to-rear split.
So, the similarities between our two contenders are many. Both hail from Japan. Both are turbocharged. Both drive all four wheels and both our assembled examples cost under $70,000. But it’s the difference that make this battle so fascinating. Tomorrow is game day.
Oxley, Tuesday, 11:30am
The morning dawns clear, ambient temperatures low – the perfect day for an intercooled brawl. I’m parked in the Mitsubishi, waiting for snapper Brunelli and rally ace Ed Ordynski to arrive in the Subaru. We’re heading into the sprawling hills that make up part of the Great Dividing Range in North East Victoria and to a glorious hillclimb.
The gleaming white five-speed manual Evo boasts the optional Performance Package ($5,500), comprising two-piece front Brembo brake discs, Bilstein diampers and Eibach springs and split-spoke, forged-alloy 18-inch BBS wheels that are each 1kg lighter than the standard Enkei alloys. The inbound WRX STi spec.R that soon arrives, adds lightweight BBS 18in wheels, plus leather and alcantara Recaro bucket seats over the regular STi.
Jumping into the Subaru for the first time, everything feels heavier, more robust. The clutch requires more muscle, the grittier, longer-throw gear shift requires a more positive action. There’s also more drivetrain snatch and whine; it’s coarser and not as effortless as the Evo, missing that instant sense of litheness. But there’s undeniably a greater sense of connection when the badge on the steering wheel is pink and spells STi.
We charge across virtually deserted ribbons of asphalt as the road snakes into the mountains and both all-paw warriors deliver searing pace. I’m planted limpet-like to the Evo’s bumper as we fall into a rhythmic battle.
The Subaruy’s firmer, more feelsome brakes allow a deeper dive into the opening right-hander, but the Evo’s almost telepathic steering and turn-in edges it ahead of the Subey. The STi’s slower, looser steering doesn’t key car and driver into the tarmac, although neither car offers genuine steering feel.
With the tyres biting hard into rippled bitumen, and both cars balanced on the throttle, computerised brains are crunching hundreds of calculations every second; tuning torque, flowing power. Crush the accelerator and the electronics go into overdrive. The Mitsu’s sharper engine response and flatter stance see it clip the apex with an extra kilometre or two registering on the speedo. But at 4000rpm the STi’s turbo floodgates burst open and the Subaru inhales the road, closing the gap on the Evo’s winged rump.
After hours of cat and mouse, Brunelli demands a photography stop, which at least gives me a chance to gather my thoughts. The Subaru’s 41Nm advantage means it gathers up its sledgehammer hit of boost and slingshots harder than the Evo. The Mitsu counters with a more pin-point chassis: the S-AWC system acting almost imperceptibly, all four wheels sucked to terra firma. The STi, however, offers the more visceral experience. You can feel the mechanical diffs shifting loads between axles and individual wheels and it’s somehow more personal, less removed.
It’s incredible how such seemingly similar cars can possess such starkly different personalities. The tightly-packed gearing and rev-hungry engine makes the Evo manic, almost feral when firing out of tighter bends. The lazier, laggier Subaru doesn’t rev as hard, nor as fast, but when that wallop of boost arrives, you’re pushed deep into the seat. The STi also leans and rolls where the Evo sits flat, which requires familiarisation, but learn to trust the chassis, and the grip offered can be matched by few other cars. Except the Mitsu.
Usually at this point in an Evo v STi comparison, the respective interiors are covered off in around two sentences: feels cheap, is cheap, ignore the quality, feel the grip. This time around, it’s a little different. The Evo offers an undeniable perception of quality. The general architecture is clean and classy, the plastics tactile underhand and the build quality excellent. It’s still a little too closely related to mum’s $20,990 ES lancer, but there’s no longer the overriding impression you’ve been saddled with a poverty-stricken sedan packing a bullworked engine.
The Impreza doesn’t fare quite so well. There’s nothing wrong with the general interior design, but start laying hands on dials, switches and handles and, well, cut-price is a term that springs to mind. The link to the donor base car is far too obvious, with the pink STi badges and glowing dials failing to impart any real sense of class.
Then, with photos captured and the first blows dealt, we point the cars down a darkening Hume Highway and I settle into the STi’s passenger seat, impressed by its cruising refinement. I wonder if I’ll be as impressed when our contenders face the rally track…
Werribee 4WD park, Wednesday, 8:30am
“I’ll take it easy on this first lap” comes Ordynski’s muffled voice through his Bell helmet as I strap into the STi’s passenger seat. Then the world explodes into streaks of brown and grey as the four-time Australian Group N rally champ sidesteps the clutch and the blue hatch bursts forward on a wave of boost pressure.
All four wheels scrabble for grip, dirt flies and we plunge into the first sweeping right hander. Ed’s left hand swiftly jabs the handbrake and I’m looking through the driver’s side window, the Subaru pirouetting through 45 degrees. Corrective lock catches the slide, then the throttle is pinned to the firewall. The flat-four engine barks and wails as great rooster tails of dirt and dust spew into the air.
Ordynkski himself goes about his business with calm, controlled aggression. Lock is wound on and off to induce and correct slides, left foot brushing the brake to keep the scooped nose sweeping tight to the inside line. A big lift of the accelerator swings us pendulum-like to the left, the force of the transferring weight arcing the rear-end wide. Once again the throttle is mashed and tricky mechanical diffs shuffle torque and delivery hauling us into a beautifully controlled, four-wheel drift. Taking it easy obviously has a different meaning for this bloke.
The next two hours are spent slithering sideways over a left-right-left-left-right course, combining two wide, fast sweeping turns and a tighter, more technical section. Ed revels in the conditions, giving a master class in car control… until he clips a dirt embankment and tears off the Evo’s plastic rear diffuser. Seems it really does happen to the best of us.
When the last spray of dirt has showered Brunelli, Ed agrees that both cars can still back up their hardcore heritage. For road cars coming straight off the shelf, this sheer depth of ability is impressive: fluently balanced chassis, rock-solid body control and well-judged throttle response.
Melbourne, Wednesday, 7:30pm
From race circuit to snaking mountain pass to rally track, our two contenders punched and counter-punched, matching each other so closely I thought I’d have to do the unthinkable and declare this bout a draw. It was only during the dying hours of this test – crossing the dipping, bucking roads of the Black Spur and then back into urban Melbourne – that a winner emerged.
Both these turbocharged ninjas offer cross-country pace that can suck the air from your lungs. Both can tame a racetrack and conquer dirt. As complete packages, they are outstanding. But it’s in the urban shuffle that one falls by the wayside. And it’s the Evo.
On coarse chip surfaces the 245/40 18-inch Dunlop rubber (even though it’s identical to the Subaru’s boots) roars a raw, monotone thrum that drones endlessly on long-haul trips.
But the final nail in the Evo’s coffin is ride quality. On the sports suspension optioned to our test car, the ride was sharp to the point of harshness. Crumbling urban tarmac stabs through the suspension (particularly at the rear), which is constantly working and always noisy.
In contrast, the STi cruises quietly and has suspension that actually borders on compliant. It could never be called cosseting, but hits and ridges are absorbed without fuss. And the Subaru proved more frugal, recording 11.9L/100km to the Mitsubishi’s 13.7.
It’s a strange day when the Evo versus STi battle is won on the strength of politeness, rather than turbo pace and tarmac-tearing grip, and if I’m being honest the Evo IX offers a more pure chassis than either of our current entrants. But this is a new order, a new breed.
And the winner is the STi.