Mitsubishi's shifting its focus away from cars with good dynamics, cheap prices and fervent motorsports-bred street cred toward an electric vehicle future. Rather than make the next Evo an electric appliance, it really should just commit Seppuku.
What was the greatest moment in Mitsubishi motorsports history? Take your pick. Was it in 1996 when Tommi Mäkinen braved freak African downpours, and the mud bogs they produced, to take the Safari Rally by more than 14 minutes?
Or was it later that year when the Finn won his first WRC driver's championship in the intrepid Lancer Evo III? Maybe it was in 1998 when Mäkinen and the late Richard Burns brought home the WRC manufacturers' championship, or perhaps earlier, in 1976, when a Lancer 1600 GSR swept every single one of the Safari Rally's podium places in an event only 20 percent of entrants even finished. And let's not even get started on Dakar.
(Some say its greatest moment was the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Starion its engineers developed for Group B, only to have the class disbanded before the car could rip a Starion-sized hole in the ozone layer. That some would include me, but I'm a nerd.)
Either way, Mitsubishi's greatest motorsport moment certainly wasn't in 2009, when it pulled out of WRC, or in 2010 when Ralliart, the company's motorsports-development arm, pared down its duties to practically nil. Likewise, it wasn't last week, when global product director, Gayu Eusegi, told Autocar that Mitsubishi "must stop" producing the Evo — despite continued demand — to focus on its next big bet: EV technology.
You might not like it, but he's right. It was fun while it lasted, kids, but it's time to end it.
Whatever you think about electric cars, or how many Evo snaps you once taped into your locker, Mitsubishi is correct to bow out of motorsports and ostensibly phase out its mo-sport halo car. Not because racing is anathema to today's car business, but because racing and building series-production cars spawned from motorsports development isn't for dabblers. These days, and in the post-carpocalyptic days to come, building fast cars with good dynamics and a price tag in the lower five-digit range is harder than ever; it demands the focus of a Jedi, Croesus's bank statement and a commitment to the practice of racing that transcends quick profits. That market, like Bette Davis once said about old age, ain't no place for sissies.
As much as we'd hate to bear witness to the swan song of the Evo, a car that once — and thankfully only once — caused me to vomit with joy, I congratulate the sentiment. Mothballing a sports sedan that still enjoys unmet demand in the US market? That's balls right there, buddy. That's leadership. That's focus. It's not the kind of leadership or focus many of us would prefer, but at least Mitsubishi is signaling that it has the corporate walnuts to live entirely by a new set of convictions (and that it's part of a conglomerate that includes a huge electronics concern). Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. But who cares? When was the last time you heard an automaker channel a defiant David Glasgow Farragut and take a damn-the-torpedoes stand?
The company's plans are as aggressive as its talk. Mitsubishi has said it will launch six new electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles and enough conventional hybrids to put Berkeley, California into a figure-four leglock by 2015. How's that for aggressive?
So that's it? What of the Evo's legacy? Yes, we've watched as the top Lancer matured over ten blessed incarnations from a rough beast into a tourer with benefits. The Evo X is indeed a grown-ass car. It's 300 pounds heavier than the previous Evo IX, owing to forced parity with the newer, more demanding safety regulations. It's got eleventy side curtain air bags at the front and rear and an exploding down comforter protecting the driver's kneecaps. It has steel side girders that meet impact-safety standards for charging rhinoceroses, and enough NVH dampening to silence a Charlie Sheen podcast. By comparison, the maniac Evo IX rattled and fussed, and at top gallop sounded like a dumpster full of table saws, set upon by a gorilla in steel-toed Doc Martens. But we loved it. And if we're splitting hairs, the IX was more livable than the VIII, which was more livable than the VI, and etc.
And still, the more refined X can carry even more sinister amounts of speed through a corner than its predecessor, owing to its trick yaw-control hardware, and the X's brakes can stand up to a very late stomp ahead of a corner. Plus, as dual-clutch transmissions go, I'll take the Evo X's SST over just about any other. It's as if the X is capable despite its demeanor, whereas the older Evos telegraphed their immense capability in requisite teeth-chattering ride, frantic steering and better-look-ahead quickness.
While we'll miss the Evo, we'll miss parlor-gaming Evos more, contrasting the late-model's 4B11 T/C engine with the vaunted, old 4G63, bestowing on the older Evos the title of "driver's car" and complaining that the X lacks a certain soul, even while it's out on the skidpad pulling lateral Gs that would shame an Audi R8. Like it or not, and as much as we bitch about it, refinement is the price we pay for safer cars, just as arguments are the price we pay for being car nerds.
The Subaru STI, Evo's staunchest rival, and just about every other performance car from the BMW M3 to the Porsche 911 has undergone a similar, well, evolution — becoming heavier, more techie and less dynamic except at the very limit. The difference between them and the Evo is this: all of those companies, despite the compromises they've had to make, continue to support racing at some level, infusing not only the technology but also the attitude of motorsports into their cars. They also sell lots of cars and make boatloads of money, something Mitsubishi's been struggling with — particularly in the US — for years.
Racing intelligence is as much a part of building great performance cars as is R&D lab work. What was Mäkinen's secret back in 1996? His Ralliart Europe team, knowing the Safari Rally eats running gear alive, figured out that it could swap out all four of the car's suspension corners at every service stop — in under the FIA's specified 20-minute limit. With fresh gear on every stage, Mäkinen again and again set the fastest times. Don't underestimate how that spirit can find its way into a company's high-performance production cars.
Ultimately, the Evo X is impressive, and Evos I-IX are cars no one can stop talking about. If you can't build cars like that, you might as well quit and build appliances. People need those too.
Maybe one day, when we're watching electric cars on TV as they plummet through rally stages, just like their internal-combusting forebears once did, we may look outside and see an electric Evo parked in the driveway. Until then, sayonara old friend.