The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is a car that drove straight from Japan, through our TV screens, punched the Subaru WRX STI in the face, and quickly disappeared into oblivion.

When it finally arrived in the U.S. in 2003 after the American people begged on their knees for years—and after the Subaru WRX proved a business case could be made for such a move—the car’s popularity was already through the roof thanks to Gran Turismo, Paul Walker and rallying.

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But by the time the car sadly left us last year, the story turned into a tragedy. Mitsubishi’s rally car for the road hadn’t received a facelift in almost a decade, its drivetrain was outgunned by newer, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive machines like the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS, and the entire Mitsubishi brand was collapsing from lack of new car development.

And now the Evo is dead.

I paid respects to its legacy by going back to where the Evo started in America—with the Evo VIII, the first one sold on our shores. And I’m here to tell you why the car’s demise still causes an unfilled void in today’s automotive landscape.

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(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a Lancer Evo VIII GSR came from an old high-school friend, and Canadian Jalopnik reader who had one imported from Ohio.)

What Is It?

Introduced in Japan in 1992 as a homologation special designed for Group A racing, the first Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution was a humble, compact sedan that inherited the larger, 2.0-liter, turbocharged four and all-wheel-drive system from the Galant VR-4 rally car. Think of it as the Japanese approach to the muscle car: small car gets big engine and some go-fast goodies.

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Because the Lancer was smaller and lighter than the Galant, it proved to be the more logical choice for racing, which is why it was chosen over the Galant as Mitsubishi’s competition car.

Throughout its 14-year run, the Lancer Evo went through a total of 10 generations, incrementally evolving at each variant, coming out stronger and more competent each time.

The car’s core specifications stayed pretty much intact for each generation; it was always powered by a 2.0-liter turbo engine, was always all-wheel-drive, and was always around 300 horsepower. Or a lot more, in certain special cases.

The one you see here, sold from 2003 to 2005, had a total power output, of 271 HP and 273 lb-ft of torque. All of it was sent to the ground using a torque-splitting all-wheel-drive system via a five-speed manual transmission.

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The Evo distinguished itself from a normal Lancer by having a more aggressive front bumper, which housed a protruding front-mounted intercooler, a set of xenon HID headlights, an aluminium vented hood and roof, bulging fender flares, optional Bilstein shocks, Brembo brakes, a massive carbon fiber rear wing, Recaro racing seats and a set of 17-inch Enkei wheels.

Massively fortified from the base of its windshield all the way to its suspension attachment points using extra spot welds and intensive steel bracing, the Evo VIII was an all-weather, hyper-solid, supercar-slaying grocery-getter that could rocket out of the hole and onto 60 mph in a claimed 5.1 seconds.

Why Does It Matter?

The Evo was the forbidden fruit Americans had drooled over for more than a decade. This generation, the VIII, was the one they could finally feast on for themselves.

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It also appeared during a sport compact car boom that was dominated by the Subaru WRX, the Dodge SRT4 and a few others—few of which were as capable—at the time. Plus, both of those cars were selling like crazy, so Mitsubishi wanted a piece of that pie too.

Finally, right after the Evo’s launch, Subaru announced that it would drop a 300-horsepower STI bombshell. America was suddenly introduced to a new generation of performance cars, and hadn’t witnessed a rivalry this close since Camaro vs. Mustang.

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It was a rad time to be alive.

Imported And Properly Cooled

Our Canadian friend Sébastien wanted an Evo VIII so badly that when he found out the car was only available to Americans (Canada only got the Evo in 2008), he did what any good Jalop would, and imported one himself from Ohio via Ebay. Since the base Lancer was already sold in Canada, he figured registering an Evo would be a piece of cake.

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Turns out he was right.

Except for a requirement to fit daylight running lights onto the car, Séb could finally legally drive his unicorn in the land of the Timbit alongside the more common WRX STI.

His example is clean and has never seen winter, which may seem odd for an all-wheel-drive, turbocharged weather-conquering tool that lives in Canada, but that’s actually why the car still looks mint after all these years.

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It’s also entirely stock, which is rare, all the way down to the period-correct Enkei wheels. His wheels. They’re period-correct.

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Except for a beefier, aftermarket intercooler, you know, for better cooling, all mechanical components on this Evo were left intact.

Spotting a 24-year-old sport compact car after your eye has gotten accustomed to the more modern offerings reveals how much that segment has changed over the years.

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Today’s factory tuned small cars like say, a Focus RS or a Civic Type R look like they were engineered from the ground up as true performance machines, with their performance baked into their original design.

The Evo VIII, on the other hand, looks like an average Lancer shitbox with a full battalion of branded performance parts glued on. It isn’t really a pretty car.

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Also: tiny button to spray water onto the intercooler.

But you have to admire the car’s athleticism. It has a nice, purposeful demeanor thanks to a wide track, aggressive stance, gigantic rear wing and the fact that its mechanical components seem to want to escape the car through all available orifices.

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Like a bodybuilder eating a bowl of cereal filled with creatine in the morning, the Evo is all muscle, even at rest.

Disappointments

Oh my god, this interior looks and feels cheap. It’s funny, because Mitsubishi actually tried to spice up the cabin to justify the high sales price with “softer” materials to make the car feel more “upscale.”

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They totally failed. There’s also absolutely no styling in there whatsoever. And those added gauges are a joke. I was sure they were aftermarket until I saw the tiny Mitsubishi logo inside them.

Otherwise, the Evo has a boring and ugly Lancer dashboard. Even more so than the slightly more premium Evos that followed, this car is thoroughly a shitty economy sedan inside.

There’s also a large, horizontal slab of carbon fiber that occupies all the space in the rearview mirror.

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Oh wait, that’s the wing.

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And there’s bonkers turbo lag. I thought the Volkswagen Golf R was bad, but it turns out the torque curve in that car is a magic carpet next to the Evo VIII’s. Floor it and—nothing—nothing—then swwwwooooosh!—there she goes.

Don’t get me wrong, when that boost kicks in, the car is fast and immensely fun. But you sense that the car would be useless without that turbo.

Casual Driving

It’s a Lancer, so it’s small, somewhat spacious and easy to park. There’s also a decent-sized bench back there, so you can fit a baby or a few bros. And there’s a useful trunk. Sure, it’s a little less cavernous than in a normal Lancer because of that all-wheel-drive system under there, but it’ll swallow a full grocery order no sweat. Or a couple of golf bags.

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Because of course, every Evo owner plays golf.

The Recaros are kind of hard to live with and not all that comfortable for long rides. They also take up a lot of space, as if they were an afterthought. Unless you’ve got the hands of a hobbit, good luck grabbing your phone or some pocket change if they fall between the seat and the door.

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Finally: tiny little gas tank. This is a notorious problem with the Evo VIII, which is why many owners opt for a larger reservoir. Séb is lucky to get 200 miles with a full tank.

Other than those minor gripes, I’d daily an Evo VIII.

Hard Driving

Oh yes. All the fast. All the loud. All the legend.

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The clutch is heavy and bites hard. Release it and you’ll hear a light thunk emitted from the drivetrain. You hear the driveshaft quietly doing its thing from underneath you as you’re pushing the car hard. The engine whines, growls, and chirps along the way. The massive performance brakes squeak. You can actually hear the wastegate evacuating unused exhaust gases. Whoooshhhh.

“Did you add a blow-off valve, Séb?” I asked as we rocketed through the countryside in the rally-bred econobox.

“Nope. That’s all stock,” he replied.

What a glorious, addictive, Group A-appropriate sound. The Evo, even in road-legal form, feels every bit like a rally car. It’s loud, obnoxious, running around with its middle finger in the air all the time. What an admirable thing this car.

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While hooning, the Recaros suddenly make sense. They hold you firmly in place as the car generates massive cornering g’s.

The tall manual shifter is kind of notchy. Let’s just say it gets the job done. But the power. Oh my lord, the power. Once all 18 psi of boost kick in at around 3,500 RPM, the Evo is fast as hell, pulls strong and revs freely all the way to the limiter.

The shocks, which are not the optional Bilstein, are basically made out of rock. Stiff as hell. This isn’t a compliant car, but one that focuses on getting around that bend with utmost efficiency.

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There’s some understeer, normal, being a front-biased all-wheel-drive car. But play with the brakes and the gas a bit and the car transitions smoothly into light oversteer.

Hit that brake pedal and those massive Brembos will rip your face off and splatter it all over the windshield. And that tiny Momo steering wheel feels light, turns quickly and gives you plenty of confidence during heavy cornering loads.

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As I was plowing through a sinuous, bumpy, pothole-filled Québec road, sitting upright in what is essentially a little box with large windows, ripping through the gears, pretending to be a pro rally driver, I exclaimed a large - Ha! - incapable of keeping a straight face from the Evo’s cartoonish execution of performance.

What an adorable, fast, unrefined and totally bonkers little machine.

Value

Séb paid $18,000 USD for his three years ago. That’s not bad for a car that sold for $30,000 in 2003. And considering that the Evo VIII could still brawl with a Golf R or a current STI on a track, I say paying $18 grand makes the car a fabulous value.

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The Evo retains a better resale value than an STI, so a good bargain is hard to find. Good luck finding one in good shape and without mods of some kind. Plus, there’s something about a 14-year-old turbocharged Mitsubishi that should give all but the mist hardcore mechanic some pause.

And now that the car is gone, expect its value to increase considerably in the years to come. It’s kind of an automotive investment now, and the Evo VIII will be especially sought after for being the first example to have been sold in America.

Verdict

Some will argue that with the presence of better turbo all-wheel-drive machines around—the Focus RS, for example—the Lancer Evolution won’t be missed.

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I beg to differ.

Unlike some of today’s sport compacts, the Evo was much more than a marketing exercise. It was the fruit of an entire carmaker’s racing development and research encapsulated inside a dorky economy car body. It came from a relatively small company that didn’t have a massive budget to develop a performance car, and that shows inside.

What it had instead was a talented group of engineers who managed to put together one of the most iconic purpose-built performance machines of all time.

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The Evo was the underdog that kicked everyone’s ass. It was another one of those cool cars that we love because it never apologized for what it was. There simply cannot be a substitute for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.


William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.