Gone (?) but not forgotten.
25 years ago, Mitsubishi Motors was synonymous with turbocharged, all wheel drive. For some, it still is, and that’s what makes news of Mitsubishi’s decision to finally retire the Lancer Evolution, last of its turbocharged, all wheel drive models, such a bitter pill to swallow.
One of Japan’s oldest automakers, Mitsubishi introduced the country’s first full-time 4WD passenger vehicle – the PX33 – in 1934. It’s 6.7L (409CI), direct-injected diesel was also the first of its kind in Japan, cranking out nearly 70HP at a time when Ford’s Flathead V8s were making little more than 80HP in the Model B. The PX33 would be shelved four years later, before it would ever leave prototyping, but this model would prove a harbinger of things to come from the brand.
Mitsubishi’s interest in 4WD possibly began in earnest when they began building Jeep CJs under license in 1953 in addition to their own models. They would build the CJ through 1998, but the Pajero debuted in 1982. Soon, Mitsubishi was putting 4WD under all their trucks and vans. And their car offerings – Tredia, Cordia, and Starion – began to sport turbochargers. All the pieces were coming together. This was the beginning of Mitsubishi’s evolution. They just needed a big bang to ignite the mixture.
When Audi added 4-wheel drive to the UrQuattro, they cleaned house in the World Rally Championship. Nearly every manufacturer in existence at the time began adapting 4-wheel drive truck hardware into race cars to challenge the Germans in this, the most daring of motorsports. It was a game where high technology and 4WD could mean global notoriety, and Mitsubishi recognized they had nearly fifty years experience. They set their sights on WRC glory.
In no time, they had a modified Pajero driveline under a turbocharged Starion. Before they could really campaign the car though, a series of deaths attributed to barely controllable rally cars would mean the end of the Group B era, and the beginning of new rules dictating production based vehicles – homologation. In order to compete, a model would have to be made available to the general public in minimum numbers. The Starion, something of a halo car which was not a volume seller, would not be evolving.
The Starion would be superseded by granddaddy of them all – the Galant VR4. The Viscous Real-time 4 was the result of adapting ideas tested with the Starion to the popular Galant model, which sold in high enough volumes to justify a limited edition, homologation special. The GVR4 would do well on the global stage, taking home a handful of victories in the Asia-Pacific championship and shaking things up in the WRC.
Not long after 1990, top tier WRC teams began introducing the next generation of turbocharged, all wheel drive models. The Galant – built like a brick shithouse – soon found itself competing against smaller, lighter machines. As Group A rules limited horsepower numbers, it was time for the Galant VR4 Evolution to pass the torch to another platform, but which?
ENTER THE LANCER.
In 1992, Mitsubishi unveiled something special – the Lancer Evolution. Basically a modified GVR4 driveline fitted to a smaller car, it was primitive and lean. Its lighter weight and shorter wheelbase made it more nimble through the corners, if not a bit twitchier than its predecessor at speed. The lessons learned campaigning the Evo I were exciting, and barely two years later, artificial selection was in full swing. The Evolution II arrived, sporting further refinements and more power.
It would go on like this throughout the 90s. Every year or two, the Lancer would evolve, each time building on lessons learned from the previous generation. Tommi Mäkinen would take home the WRC Driver’s Championship four consecutive years in a row, 1996 to 1999, each year running the latest Evolution – III, IV, V, and VI. The latter of which gave Mitsubishi its first and only Constructor’s Championship in 1998.
BEGINNING OF THE END
After nearly a decade of constant improvement and success, tweaking and upgrading the platform, the proven 4G63T/AWD combination was fitted to the larger Lancer Cedia platform in 2001. There was now more Lancer Evolution than ever before, but it was also the beginning of the end, as the new World Rally Car rules meant the rally car was no longer tied to a production model. The Lancer Evolution WRC could become more purpose-built rally car, while the Evo VII followed a more consumer-centric path.
In 2005, Mitsubishi would release the Lancer Evolution IX. Last of the 4G63-powered Evos, the IX built upon the VII and VIII before it, which were now a separate branch of the Lancer’s evolutionary tree, apart from the World Rally Car. This was also the year Mitsubishi officially pulled out of the WRC. Though they continued to support a couple private and semi-works teams through the Ralliart UK venture (which would go on to become MML Sports), Mitsubishi was no longer involved in the sport which was the very essence of why the Evolution line came into existence.
Still, the idea of the Lancer Evolution was hard to give up. The Lancer Evolution X bowed in 2007. Its evolution dictated by market analysis and consumer demand, the final chapter in the Evolution story was now back to being based on a Galant – the Galant Fortis. This largest of the Evos got a new engine, the venerable 4G63 replaced with an unproven-in-competition 4B11, and for the first time ever, a twin clutch, Sportronic Shift transmission (TC-SST, read: automatic) was offered to the masses.
END OF AN ERA
What began as an unbridled charge for power and glory in the WRC, where scrappy, streetfighter homologation specials changed the face of rally and motorsport forever, igniting a bonfire of enthusiast passions in the process, now ends in perhaps the best way any of us could have ever hoped short of Mitsubishi deciding to resurrect the Starion. We were back to a turbocharged, AWD Galant chassis with the absolute best Mitsubishi had to offer inside and out. It was a mechanical masterpiece, and yet it had to be priced as such.
Much as the Evo X delivered in terms of power and refinement, fully optioned with all the you-know-you-want-em bells and whistles, the price inched past US$40k. This is European car territory; cars with nearly all the power, most of the handling, and more refined than the high-strung, turbocharged streetfighter. Japanese automakers tend to stay out of this slice of the market, but when they do, they largely focus on luxury and comfort over motorsport. Toyota’s Lexus, Nissan’s Infiniti, perhaps a stretch to Korea for Hyundai’s Genesis – the Evo, much as it’s been polished, is just too edgy for the $40,000, touring car market.
We’ve been here before. This is nothing new. The Supra, Fairlady, RX-7, and GTO all found themselves at the top of their games – and pricepoints. We partied like it was 1999 and then they were gone. And though the rotary and Z-car have since returned, the former lacks the presence and desirability of its predecessor, while the latter is easily US$40k if you pop for the Nismo. What is their purpose, then? What is the Evolution’s purpose?
25 years ago, Mitsubishi Motors was synonymous with turbocharged, all wheel drive. That was, in effect, their identity. For some, it still is their identity, and that’s what makes news of Mitsubishi’s decision to finally retire the Lancer Evolution, last of its turbocharged, all wheel drive models, such a bitter pill to swallow.
That identity, though, was the result of purpose; Mitsubishi’s desire to showcase its technological prowess in the high stakes game of world class motorsport. Once they pulled out of WRC, the writing was on the wall and everyone paying attention knew it was coming. The rebellious Evo, inspiration to tens of thousands, World Rally Champion, chariot of dreams, taker of no prisoners, had become The Man. As Ben Folds said in The Ascent of Stan, “it’s no fun to be the man.” The Lancer Evolution – now more Galant VR4 than Evo I-III, anyway – had come full circle.
Each of us – the Mitsubishi gearhead community, especially – deals with news of yet another legendary performance machine being mothballed or shelved in our own way. Some lash out against Mitsubishi’s perceived folly at such a move, not realizing how little they truly understand the auto industry. Others take this retirement as further evidence supporting myopic sycophancy; Mitsubishi Motors Corporation is somehow “circling the drain,” willfully blind to how little they truly understand the company. And it’s all vanity.
“Strive to enrich society, both materially and spiritually, while contributing toward the preservation of the global environment.” Shoki Hoko is the first of three precepts making up Mitsubishi’s DNA, and translates to Corporate responsibility to society. Mitsubishi’s pursuit of world rally glory in the 90s pales in comparison to its pursuit of core values over time.
Today, Mitsubishi’s electric efforts are well underway. Maybe this isn’t how you, as a performance-minded gearhead, expected or wanted this piece to end, but the parallels between the Mitsubishi of the early 90s and the Mitsubishi of today are striking. Maybe the i-MiEV isn’t right for the market where you live. (Ironically, the i was available in turbocharged, AWD trim as recently as 2006.) Maybe you’re not particularly interested in plug-in hybrid crossover SUV soft-roaders like the upcoming 2015 Outlander, which might very well be the first plug-in hybrid SUV in North America.
I’d ask you to think about why you cared enough about Mitsubishi and/or the Evo to read this far. Your gut response is probably related to their turbocharged, AWD cars being such fun to modify and drive, am I right? The people we’ve met along the way who have become great friends all over the world as a result of our shared interest in these performance-oriented machines makes them all the more meaningful.
Truly, the Evo in all its flavors – like the DSM, 3000GT(O), GVR4, and Starion – was a machine which introduced us to the idea of doing things ourselves. We cut our teeth on machines like this, building relationships with like-minded strangers who would become family. Our lives got better, personally and professionally, as we became more mechanically self-sufficient and socially connected. In other words, the Evo, like the Mitsubishi performance cars retired before it, gave us a sense of purpose. It was integral to our identity. And now it’s gone forever.
Or is it? Mitsubishi’s recent focus on electric vehicles and return to competition on the global stage means the pieces are coming together again. The Lancer Evolution was essentially the first volume in Mitsubishi’s evolution. Two consecutive years in a row, they’ve entered the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb – perhaps the biggest hill climb event in the world, if not most famous – and placed in the top 3.
In 2012, Hiroshi Masuoka, factory Dakar driver, charged up “America’s Mountain” in a 100% electric MiEV Evolution – which features double the battery capacity, triple the electric motors, and all wheel drive – in an extremely respectable 10:30:850. He took 2nd place in the EV class, and 8th overall.
When they returned to Pike’s Peak in 2013 – with the MiEV Evolution II, now featuring next generation Li-ion batteries, four motors, and an advanced SAYC system optimized for the electric drivetrain – Masuoka and new team member Greg Tracy took 2nd and 3rd place in the electric class with even faster times than the year before, 10:21:866 and 10:23:649, respectively. Oh, and it poured down rain just before their start times, so these improvements took place on a very wet track.
EVOLUTION. VOLUME 2.
Mitsubishi clearly believes EVs are the future, but they’re not about to become a coachbuilder for golf carts. Sure, they’ve always offered spartan, economical commuter fare for those who simply need small, efficient transportation, but they’ve always sought to make vehicles which are exciting to drive. Just as you are not the complacent consumer – you’re a principled gearhead with firm beliefs on how a machine should perform – Mitsubishi is not the complacent OEM; rather, they’re the principled innovator, with firm beliefs on how a performance vehicle should impact its owner and environment. And they’ve got the determination and stability to stay the course and blaze the trail where other OEMs choose to compete for ever shrinking pieces of the pie.
Mitsubishi believes EVs are the future; that people expect high performance and high technology in great-looking, fun-to-drive vehicles. I’m inclined to agree. And, if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that Mitsubishi, when they set their sights on something they believe in, won’t stop evolving until they achieve it. The pieces are already there, and we’ve already had two evolutions of MiEV. We just need a big bang to ignite the mixture.