One is a legend of rally racing, a fearsome and dominant machine piloted by some of the greatest drivers of its time, a car that would redefine the kind of performance we expect from a four-cylinder motor. The other is... well, pretty much the exact same, except with a boxer engine. They formed a rivalry that sadly no longer exists today, but its legend certainly does. In the war between the Subaru WRX/STI and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, who ya got?
(Welcome to Who Ya Got, a new series where you get to vote on famed car rivalries, some more notable than others.)
Our Craigslist-scouring friend Graverobber is on a much-deserved vacation this week, and Nice Price or Crack Pipe will return when he does.
But since we keep you, the reader, first in our lives, we cooked up this new feature to give you something to vote on in the morning when you should be sifting through your work inbox to decide which emails from your boss you’re going to ignore today. (If you work at Jalopnik, the answer is “all of them.”)
Even as car culture has become more inclusive with big-tent events like Radwood proving way more fun than the old meets where most of the cars look and feel the same, it’s still very fun to argue which car is “best.” And if you got into Japanese cars in the 1990s and early 2000s, as I did, the battle between the WRX and the Evo was an exciting and colorful part of the automotive landscape.
I think a big part of this is because so few performance cars today are truly derived from actual racing models. BMW’s M cars don’t have hearts transplanted from DTM race cars and haven’t in some time. I doubt Ferrari would stick an actual, honest-to-God Formula One motor into even its top car nowadays. And there just aren’t many hot hatches or sport sedans that really feel like street-legal race cars the way they used to.
That’s a big part of what made the Evo and WRX so special, at least at first: both were born as homologation specials so their parent companies could compete in Group A racing in the World Rally Championship. Over time they mutated into their own animals with distinctive characters, both on the street and in the tuner scene, but they began as racing specials like the best cars often do.
Of course, anime and video games helped a ton with their popularity, but they had to be good in the first place.
But we’re not here to give away a participation trophy! We are here to determine which of these cars is the most highly held in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Let’s do that now.
Two words: Tommi Mäkinen! That fearless Finn took home not one but four consecutive World Rally Championships driver’s titles between 1996 and 1999, and he did it all in a Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. And that’s only the tip of this car’s iceberg of racing glory. It claimed titles in series all over the world across its entire existence, probably too many to actually count.
It started in 1992 when Mitsubishi swapped the transmission and engine of the Galant VR-4, its designated World Rally Championship car for several years, into the smaller and more nimble Lancer sedan. Across 10 generations, all of them but the last one using the legendary 4G63 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, the Evos were proof that a humble compact economy car can be turned into a giant-slayer with the right upgrades.
Here’s what the UK’s Evo magazine (no relation) had to say after testing the first one, which put down a healthy 247 horsepower and 228 lb-ft of torque:
Only the steering lets the side down. It’s not as quick as the later cars’, so you don’t get that instantaneous response from the front tyres, and it kicks back quite badly if you hit a bump mid-corner. No matter, because like every Mitsubishi Evo, this is a car you steer as much with the throttle and brake pedal as you do the steering wheel. Every lift, every squeeze of the brakes has an immediate and accurate effect on the balance, trimming understeer and even encouraging lovely slow-motion oversteer that hangs the car in stasis, waiting for you to use the power or steering to pull it straight.
Couple this remarkable agility and adjustability with an engine that gets going at about 3500rpm and climbs with ever-increasing savagery to well over 7000rpm and you have a car that is devastatingly fast across the ground. This particular Evo I is running around 280bhp but you’d swear it was more, and the whistling, chirruping turbo sound effects are pure WRC. To be honest I’m absolutely shocked by its performance, speed and playfulness. An Integrale wouldn’t see which way this thing went on a challenging road and nor would something like an E30 M3. Harry Metcalfe later admits to Tworking pretty hardwto keep in touch in the 403bhp Evo X. Did I mention this car is currently for sale for £2500? Incredible.
Over the next 20 years and change, the various versions of the Evo would spark desire all around the world, and across several different media. Gran Turismo, Initial D, rally wins, Japanese car magazines, Best Motoring videos and more built the Evo up to be some of the tastiest forbidden fruit to American enthusiasts.
It finally made it to our shores in 2003, spurred in large part by the success of the WRX. Subaru responded to this shot by giving us the WRX STI as well. Competition is good, kids.
In the U.S. at least, the Evo was always the harder-edged choice over its Subaru counterpart—the one with the harsher engine, stiffer ride and slightly less-good cabin. And that’s really saying something, because a WRX STI is hardly some cushy cruiser you can take your grandma to church in.
The last Evo, the Evo X, packed nearly 300 HP and had a mix of advanced technology like a dual-clutch gearbox and an adjustable all-wheel drive system and elements that showed its economy car roots, like the interior as a whole or the five-speed manual option that was what you got if a DCT wasn’t for you. For a car that could reach $40,000 easily, it was a perplexing choice to anyone who didn’t get it.
But to those who did, it was a car that was rewarding and demanding in equal measure and truly special in its relentless pursuit of speed. (And that’s before we even touch on the really crazy UK-only FQ special editions, which easily topped 400 HP. From a four-cylinder engine! AMG is just now starting to match that, years later.)
Here is what we said about it shortly before its demise in 2016:
Because at its core, the Evo is an enabler. It’s that best friend who’s passing you more shots on your birthday. It doesn’t have the highest horsepower on the road by a long shot, but that simply doesn’t matter. There is no force on Earth more powerful than gravity, and the Evo’s ability to stay glued to the road is a breathlessly close second.
Cane it through some corners and you get the uncanny feeling that the Evo is tacitly daring you to do more—to brake later, to gas harder, to shift faster. Come on, it seems to urge, you can do more here. Newly emboldened and flushed with the thrill of camaraderie, you can only obey.
Misses? It’s had a few. For one, there’s the unfortunate and unavoidable fact that the Evo simply does not exist anymore, and hasn’t since the middle of this decade. Mitsubishi is struggling in nearly every market that isn’t Asia and dead-set on just squeezing by with compact crossover sales to subprime buyers in the U.S. And with the sedan segment dying, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see a new Evo anytime soon—a shame when you consider the WRX and STI still do decent business for Subaru.
Also, Mitsubishi never quite managed to take on the “lesser” WRX directly. The Evo vs. STI battle was a fun one, but does anybody remember the 237 HP Lancer Ralliart? I had to look up what its name even was when I wrote this.
Subaru’s rally legend was born much the same way as its arch rival: the company started to figure out that the mid-sized Legacy was too big for dodging trees and shit on the off-road courses. As a result the smaller Impreza was selected for duty instead.
Rally Imprezas in the 1990s and 2000s were piloted by some of the best drivers to take part in the sport. Carlos Sainz. Petter Solberg. The late, great Colin McRae. While Mäkinen won four driver’s championships in the Evo, for two of those years Subaru secured the constructor’s championships, and McRae took both in 1995. I think both these cars are interesting because their motorsports legacies are fairly equal to one another, which is rare.
Away from the rally stages, go-fast Impreza WRX models and their hotter STi variants kept the Japanese performance fire burning after the Bubble Economy burst. It also gave us the Subaru 22B, truly one of the all-time greats.
In America, we finally got the WRX in 2001, and I can’t overstate what a revelation that car was at its price point. Before it arrived here, a “sporty” Japanese compact was something like the Mazdaspeed Protegé or the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V—fine, and fun, but nowhere close to what Subaru was offering. Dare I say it helped kickstart the modern turbo era of performance—there really was something to be said for an all-wheel drive, turbocharged car with a horizontally opposed engine that wasn’t a Porsche 911 Turbo.
Here’s what Car and Driver said in 2001 testing the WRX against the Audi S4 and BMW 330xi, an audacious test at the time but one that showed just how serious the Subaru’s performance was:
The Subaru also has no power seats, no stability control, no automatic climate control, and no sunroof. That nose-dived its features rating, but to us, many of those goodies fall under the “nice to have but you don’t need them” category. The rest of the car is pure joy. There’s a touch more turbo lag than in the Audi, but we could get a better launch in the Subaru, which gave it a slight edge in the low-speed-acceleration tests. The trick is to do the unthinkable in a four-wheel-drive car: Hold the revs at five grand, and drop the clutch. The WRX’s full-time four-wheel-drive system uses a viscous limited-slip center differential that routes power equally to the front and rear axles. The clutch drop breaks the tires loose for only an instant, and then the WRX leaps off the line, scooting to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and through the quarter in 14.1 seconds at 96 mph — both the best of the bunch.
The introduction of the more powerful six-speed WRX STI in 2004 made the recipe even better. If you could live with the gigantic rear wing and could pony up about $40,000, you had one of the best performance values on the planet, period.
These were never perfect, of course. The Subaru has always had... questionable aesthetics, to put it kindly, and a 2008 update made the car fatter and softer to appeal to a wider crowd, which didn’t go over well. (I owned one and it was great, but that was after I modified the hell out of it. Stock, it was kind of benign.)
The WRX and STI have since split off from the main Impreza line, and unlike the Evo it’s thankfully still alive and kicking—and great at what it does. The STI may be older and more old-school than its modern competitors, but you still have to wake up pretty early in the morning to take it down.
Here’s what we said when we drove it two years ago:
On paper it lags behind some newer rivals, but 305 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque is nothing to sneeze at, especially in a package this small. Zero to 60 mph happens in under five seconds, power goes to all four wheels as it should, and the only transmission option is a six-speed manual. The steering is gloriously hydraulic, not electric, and there is an actual handbrake, not an electric switch. The car does not mess around.
The emotional appeal of the STI is undeniable. You can tell yourself you’ll be conservative all you want, but as soon as you look up and see that rear view mirror full of wing, it’s game over. The iconic red shift knob fits in your hand just-so, ready to be flung back and forth as you run through all six gears. All the sudden you’ve left the speed limit and reason behind.
Even today, you still can’t go wrong with either a new WRX or STI, and that says a lot.
But again, we aren’t here for participation trophies. We’re here to figure out which of these Japanese turbo sedans is the GOAT, and I leave that to you. Is it Mitsubishi’s fallen soldier of speed, or Subaru’s still-great brothers in arms? You decide!