THE 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR is the fastest ugly car in the world. I mean that in the nicest possible way.
After all, making ugly fast is no small feat. Fast cars are typically low-slung, wide and rakish, aerodynamically optimized in the wind tunnel for high speeds and stability. Our innate sense of aesthetics responds to this kind of sleek-ifying in the same way we recognize a cheetah, a porpoise or a peregrine falcon as beautiful.
The stubby and thick Evo MR, on the other hand, is more like a rocket-powered groundhog, or a baby hippo fired out of a cannon. Fast. Ugly.
As appropriate for the name, it has taken many years of selective genetics to bring the Evo MR to its current fast/ugly nexus. The Evo line began in 1992 when Mitsubishi started building amped-up versions of its geeky Lancer sedan to compete in World Rally Championship racing.
In the next decade, while Evos tore up the WRC circuit, the ever-more-powerful street versions became the golden idols of performance pagans everywhere -- everywhere, that is, except the U.S., where emissions standards made importation too expensive. This left thousands of young American men grieving in their parents’ basements, as the car was a star in video games such as “Gran Turismo” and “Need for Speed.”
Finally, in 2003, encouraged by the success of Subaru’s Impreza WRX STi, Mitsubishi began importing the eighth generation of the Evo, known to praetorians as the Evo VIII.
By that time, the template was well established: Take one scandalously average-looking compact sedan; turbocharge the bejeezus out of it; rig the undercarriage with an advanced all-wheel drivetrain; string it in a cat’s cradle of Bilstein shocks, stiff springs and stabilizer bars; hang some pizza-size Brembo brakes, alloy rims and gummy tires at the corners; stick a Momo wheel and some Recaro seats in the cabin; dress it in the most outrageous aero cladding, spoilers and splitters the mind of an 11-year-old can conceive ... and voila, it still looks like repurposed dog food.
But fast. Unnaturally, unhealthily, hail-Mary-full-of-torque fast. These glorified beaters routinely outpace Porsches and Ferraris. With their wormhole acceleration, telepathic steering, fantastic grip and rib-bruising brakes, Evos are the cars to drive if, say, it absolutely, positively has to get to LAX in 15 minutes.
Let me tee this up a bit: Mitsu makes two lines of Lancers. The lower-level cars ($14,599-$18,999) are the ES and the OZ Rally, both powered by a 2.0liter, 120-hp four cylinder; and the Ralliart, which gets a huevos upgrade in the form of a 2.4-liter, 162-hp inline four with variable-valve timing.
It’s a big jump from there to the Evo line, which includes the RS ($29,149), the Evo IX ($31,399), and the MR ($36,299). These cars get the huevos gigante: the company’s famously durable 4G63 iron-block inline four with a newly enlarged twin-scroll turbocharger and intercooler, new variable valve timing, as well as other plumbing, breathing and oil-sealing measures that bump output 10 hp from last year, to a monstrous 286 hp. That’s 143 hp per liter, which Mitsubishi says is the highest specific output of any production engine.
All three Evos partake of Mitsubishi’s advanced Active Center Differential, a multi-plate unit that, at the behest of a variety of sensors, electronically balances torque split between the front and rear axles. Reflecting the car’s rally-racing heritage, the center diff also has a three-way switch to adjust the computer’s logic to account for tarmac, gravel and snow. The Evo employs a front helical and rear clutch-type limited-slip differential.
What difference do all these diffs make? On dry pavement, they allow drivers to put more power down while maneuvering -- say, accelerating harder at the apex of a corner (or if an apex is not available, a mailbox). The car is nearly always completely, utterly hooked up and locked down, its high-grip Yokohamas clawing at the pavement at cornering forces that would leave other cars sliding for the weeds.
The best way to get around a corner in the Evo is as follows: lay off the throttle and turn the wheel at the same time, forcing the car to over-rotate slightly, which being an inherently front-drive car it doesn’t like much. Then lay on the gas. The car will assume a neutral four-wheel drift, tighten its line and go pretty much wherever you point it. My, that’s fun.
The MR, our test car, is at the top of the Evolution-ary food chain and comes with all the best performance parts standard: a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission (the other models are five-speeders); light weight, one-piece BBS wheels; Bilstein shocks; a front strut tower brace; suede Recaro racing seats; and lots of chrome and carbon-fiber frippery on the pedals, dash, shifter and e-brake handle.
On the outside, the Evo MR looks like it went into a performance parts store and got dressed in the dark. New for this model is the inch-deep chin spoiler under the front air dam and the oval ports letting air flow around the intercooler’s inlet and outlet pipes. In addition to the aluminum fender panels bulging like a can of bad Spam, the car sports a carbon-fiber rear spoiler complete with a small vertical “wickerbill” on the trailing edge. Most curious, though, is the “Vortex Generator,” a row of small fins on the roof that create turbulence in the airstream over the spoiler, for an extra soupcon of downforce. Some guys have a comb-over. This car has an over-comb.
For as absurdly aggressive as it looks, the MR is actually very docile around town. The MR makes turbo lag work for it, in that there is plenty of usable torque available at low rpm and you can lug and putter through traffic without being whipsawed by the car. It almost feels like the painfully modest Lancer it started life as.
But once the rpms pass 3,000 and all 20 PSI of turbo boost come online, in the immortal words of Keith Jackson ... whoa, Nelly. The acceleration feels like someone has rolled a grenade under your cot. In a blink -- a sudden, urgent blurt of what-hit-me velocity -- the MR tosses your tongue down your neck. In two gears and four Mississippis you are exceeding interstate speed. The pitch coming from the 4-inch tailpipe goes high and metallic and the turbo intake sings with a caustic vortical howl. If Harry Potter rode a leaf blower instead of a broom this is the sound he would hear.
Few cars -- and nothing in this price range -- have the kind of heart-hammering, middle-gear thrust that the Evo offers.
You might expect such a set-to-kill car to rattle your teeth, but that’s another nice surprise of the Evo. Thanks to its relatively generous 45-series Yokohamas, the tires soak up a lot of harshness that would otherwise snake through the MacPherson struts and into the cabin. Plus there seems to be lots of dense urethane bushings and couplings between the suspension and the unibody. Not that it’s exactly serene, but it’s survivable.
The driver inputs are all perfection. The six-speed gearbox (with Teflon-coated cable linkage) is slick and affirmative. The close-set pedal position makes heel-and-toe driving effortless -- and there’s nothing quite like downshifting and blipping the throttle in the Evo. Frank Sinatra should have such ring-a-ding-ding. And, it will surprise no one, the steering is phenomenal. This car has one of the quickest steering ratios this side of Laguna Seca providing powerful sweeps of angular momentum with slightest inputs off center. And yet, on the freeway, the car tracks like an arrow.
This race-like responsiveness does have its downside. The rack ratio combined with the front wheels’ AWD linkage gives this car a truly ridiculous turning radius. Escalades are easier to park.
Of all the Evo’s phenomenal statistics, I’m pole axed by this one in particular: Mitsubishi warranties the powertrain of this shrieking-sucking torque pig for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Holy groundhog. The car may be ugly, but that warranty is a beautiful thing.
2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
Base price: $36,299
Price, as tested: $36,894
Powertrain: Turbocharged and intercooled iron-block inline four, 16-valve DOHC, with variable-valve timing and dual-stage exhaust; six-speed manual transmission; full-time all-wheel-drive with active center differential; front and rear limited-slip differentials
Horsepower: 286 at 6,500 rpm
Torque: 289 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm
Curb weight: 3,285 pounds
0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds (est.)
Wheelbase: 103.3 inches
Overall length: 178.5 inches
EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Revenge of the nerd