ROSAMOND, Calif.—Born more than 16 years ago in deference to World Rally Championship requirements, Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution has never been sold in Canada, until now.
But here's a dirty little secret.
Even though Mitsubishi Canada is trumpeting the Evolution's long awaited arrival like its prodigal son, many of us have already driven several Evos hundreds of kilometres at some of the planet's most famous race tracks, like the Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany, or Laguna Seca Raceway just up the Pacific Coast Highway here in California.
Well, virtually, anyway. Because for thousands of Canadians, driving Mitsubishi's high-performance, all-wheel-drive, four-door compact sports sedan has so far been an exclusively surreal experience for us, restricted to console driving games like Gran Turismo.
All of which is both a blessing and a curse for Mitsubishi Canada.
When the Japanese automaker started selling cars here four years ago, the previous generation Evolution didn't meet Canada's more restrictive bumper laws. So despite shelves of WRC silverware, and worldwide gamer geek worship, the sportiest Lancer for sale in Canada was the meek 120 hp front-drive O-Z Rally Edition.
But that was sooooo 2004.
Starting next month, the 10th Lancer Evolution — known as Evolution X in Japan — finally (finally!) hits Canadian showrooms with a three-model lineup.
The base model Evolution GSR starts at $41,498; followed by the midrange MR and range topping MR Premium, priced at $47,498 and $51,498, respectively.
The GSR is the only Evolution with a manual transmission, a five-speeder.
The MRs come with a mandatory six-speed twin-clutch manu-matic with paddle shifters, fashioned after Volkswagen/Audi's industry-leading Direct Shift Gearbox, plus other standard and optional features.
As per the 1992 original, a turbocharged 2.0-litre inline-four-cylinder engine powers the 2008 Lancer Evolution. Its power figures are 291 horsepower and 300 lb.-ft. of torque.
Expect 0-to-100 km/h in the mid-five-second range. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h.
It all still seems surreal, that is until we arrived at Willow Springs Raceway, 130 km north of Los Angeles, to drive the first three (and only) Canadian-spec Evos in existence — all GSRs.
Interior details, like the Recaro seats (that look intimidating, but are supportive) and leather trimmed steering wheel and gearshift knob, tell one that this is not a $16,598 Lancer DE.
The only true missteps are the undersized, deeply tunneled driver's gauges, and a steering wheel that tilts but doesn't telescope. And anyone cross shopping an Audi or BMW will be disappointed with the Mitsubishi's mainstream build quality and materials.
Don't let the Mitsubishi super-sports-compact's gaping shark nose and big-ass rear wing scare you.
At least in GSR trim, it's not the slam-bam, thank-you-ma'am hardcore ride its rally car-based ancestors professed to be.
Even with a buttoned-down suspension and Evo-exclusive 245/40 R18 Yokohama Advan performance rubber, on anything other than bombed-out pavement, the ride quality is firmly controlled yet comfortably compliant.
On the Californian canyon roads leading to the racetrack, the Evo's gearbox seemed too short geared. At 120 km/h, the engine was turning at 3,500 rpm, which kept me reaching for the non-existent sixth-gear.
The Evo is equipped with Super-All-Wheel Control, or S-AWC, which acts like an all-wheel-drive symphony conductor. It ensures the rest of the Evo players — AYC (active yaw control), ACD (active centre differential), ASC (active stability control), and Sport ABS (anti-lock braking system) — are playing the same tune.
Mitsubishi says front to rear torque distribution is via the active centre differential. Rear wheel side-to-side torque distribution through active yaw control. And the helical limited-slip front differential reacts to torque input and doles out torque side to side at the front.
With active stability control on, S-AWC can add braking force on the inside wheel during understeer and on the outer wheel during tail-out oversteer. It also transfers torque to allow higher levels of cornering performance and vehicle stability.
Active stability control is programmed to allow what Mitsubishi calls "performance driving." For more driver control, it can be turned off.
Finally, overall S-AWC behaviour can be customized three ways by a toggle on the steering wheel: Tarmac for dry, paved surfaces; Gravel for wet or rough surfaces, and Snow for those who live in Ottawa.
At the track, trying to get the Evo bent out of shape, the S-AWC quickly corrected any understeer by goosing the rear end around.
If one oversteered, the rear snapped back in line quicker than a cadet in boot camp.
In the end — as witnessed by my not rolling one of these rare Canadian Evos into a small ball of metal, glass, plastic and journalist — S-AWC is almost like playing Gran Turismo. Idiot proof.
Beyond its performance and handling, maybe the biggest Evo attraction is value.
At nearly half the price, the Evo is a raised middle finger to rival fast sedans from BMW and Audi.
And now, instead of slouching in basement rec room sofas across the country playing video games, Canadians can go and experience the Lancer Evolution in the real world. I just hope they drive it a lot more carefully than before.
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