Multiple sources report that Mitsubishi's halo car, the Lancer Evolution, will end production at the end of this year. Eco- is the new prefix du jour, yet Mitsubishi simply hasn't made an eco-friendly car that will sell in North America. It's becoming increasingly obvious that Team Emperor has no clothes.
Look, Mitsu—let me remind you what you're good at:
And lest we forget the Truck Yeah set:
Other carmakers do creature comforts, refinement and economy significantly better, but when it comes to building blunt instruments of hoon, Mitsubishi knows what it's doing.
Mitsubishi's hoon-fu is by no means limited to purpose-built racecars or the heavily modified. Even their most pedestrian offerings are fun to toss around.
Several years ago, Autoweek praised my car—a 2010 Lancer GTS—as "This is the little sedan for the enthusiast in the know, for the kind of economy buyer who harbors real driver tendencies."
Mitsubishi's cheapest new offering, the Mirage, made Raphael Orlove's "Best of 2013" list simply for being "the only new car I've ever driven that you can thrash like my Baja Bug." If some version of that car doesn't somehow end up in World Challenge B-Spec, I should personally mail a trout to Mitsubishi Motors North America with a note that says, "Please pass this trout around the office and slap yourselves with it. Love, Stef." That series is the single best reminder I've ever seen that small, cheap cars can be boatloads of fun.
Let's also not forget that a nineties Mirage of all things used to dominate the 24 Hours of LeMons races in Texas, either, or that Jeremy Clarkson deemed his el cheapo Starion "the best car in the world."
If you want something to drive the tires off of and don't care about all of that frilly nonsense like soft-touch dashboards, fancy-schmancy heated massage seats or exterior paint quality, get a Mitsubishi. They aren't just made to take your abuse—they all but clamor for more.
So, yes, when I hear that the nicer version of my car is going away with no replacement in sight, I can't help but to be sad about it. My silly little Lancer's been the best car I've had.
The Evo is the embodiment of everything Mitsubishi actually excels at—an engineering feat built for the purpose of going fast, complete with one of the best dual-clutch gearboxes I've driven on the MR. It's also the last truly performance-oriented car left in their showrooms unless you count the lower-trim Lancer Ralliart.
Sure, you can hoon the tires off of a base Lancer or a Mirage, but considering that my opinion of the Lancer was propped up by "ooh, they make the Evo off of that, so it must be a decent little car," I'm not sure what Mitsubishi has left that differentiates them from everybody else. The draw to their cars until recently has always been "these are fun to drive." It's much harder to grab peoples' attention to an ordinary subcompact or crossover without a big winged spectacle sitting in the middle of the showroom.
The Evo was never the volume seller that propped the company itself up. Rather, it had a different purpose. Without the Evo, there will no longer be a shiny object to remind the rest of the world that Mitsubishi still exists.
Mitsubishi's current predicament in North America (small product line, small dealer network and soon to be no halo car) reminds me a lot of Suzuki's final days, and I really don't like how that fared for Suzuki. They, too, had inexpensive cars that garnered a lot of praise, but not enough people paid attention to buy one over a Camry or an Accord.
To be honest, I don't hold a lot of optimism for the Evo-less, volume- and eco-oriented Mitsubishi. As an owner who already has enough difficulties tracking down parts for a car that doesn't sell in large numbers here, the prospect of Mitsubishi going full steam ahead into relying on segments of the market they're simply uncompetitive in doesn't set well with me.
Per company president Osamu Masoku last fall, the company plans to rely less on in-house designs and more on joint projects with the Renault-Nissan Alliance. I realize that's the easiest way to fill product line holes on the cheap, but it doesn't sound like a way to grab the kind of attention that an automaker with a somewhat sparse product line needs.
Maybe they'll bring something interesting over as a result of this partnership, but "interesting" doesn't seem to be entering the conversation at Mitsu nowadays. I doubt a rebadged Renault or Nissan through will draw people into showrooms, just as the last uncompetitive Galant failed to grab any attention. If a Galant Orloved in the forest, would anybody notice? Nope. Not a soul.
Same goes with green tech: the iMiev's miniscule range wouldn't even go from my parents' house to their nearest Starbucks (about thirty minutes away) and back on a single charge, and it was pricey to boot. Outside of cities, this continent simply was not built for that car. The fact that it looks more like a golf cart to a region more used to full-size sedans certainly doesn't help.
The outgoing Evo is a tad pricey for what it is, getting lost somewhere in the quest to play it off as a mid- or upper-market player when it's really just a quicker Lancer. To say that Mitsubishi hasn't been missing the mark on positioning its own vehicles in North America for quite some time would be dishonest. That's not even getting into the miserable death of the poor Eclipse, either. A once-venerated sports car platform had been reduced to an awkward, lumpy front-wheel-drive coupe in its last days.
I hold out a little hope when spokeswoman Namie Kometsu told Automotive News that Mitsubishi could "explore the possibilities of high-performance models that incorporate electric vehicle technology" in the future, albeit on an indeterminate timetable. If there's anything that the Teslas and the 918s of the world have proven, it's that extra batteries don't automatically kill the fun, and that it is possible to work around the range issues of an EV.
Perhaps that's even a partner Mitsubishi should be looking for instead of or in addition to Nissan-Renault: Tesla. I've got a lot less range anxiety on a car that can use a supercharger, that's for sure.
An EV doesn't have to be a glorified golf cart anymore. Most people still need full-size vehicles here, complete with a normal range of travel before it bricks itself. Hybrids don't have to be miserable Prius knock-offs that can barely accelerate up a hill, either. To say you can't develop a performance sedan because of eco-concerns is a complete cop-out when other automakers are doing just that.
The Evo with all of its tech wonderboy gadgetry has always occupied that space at the bleeding edge of technology. Now they've just got torquier electric motors to work with, and you know what? Torque is fun.
If there's any automaker who can make either type of vehicle actually fun to drive if they put some effort into it, it's Mitsubishi. Make them lighter, more tossable and without as many bells and whistles as the competitors and take things back to the cheap thrills that define what a Mitsubishi is.
Focus, Mitsubishi. Focus. Even if there isn't a replacement for the Evo coming, abandoning its niche as a purveyor of reasonably priced hoonables is abandoning the fanbase Mitsubishi has grown over the years and essentially trying to start from scratch.
That's exponentially harder than giving us a new Lancer to toss around.
Photo credits: Getty Images (yump), Thomas Endesfelder (Lancer on track), Matt Rhoads (Bunny in window)