Monday, May 23, 2011

Driving an Evo

A couple of years ago, the lease on my 2006 BMW 330xi was thankfully coming to an end. I had previously enjoyed driving a 2003 version of the same car, so I re-upped for the newer edition, not understanding the negative effects that run-flat tires have on ride quality. So, when it came time to turn in the 2006 version and lease a new car, I decided to get one with more traditional tires. I still wanted a small, sporty car with all-wheel drive, which eliminated BMW, because only the 3 and 5 series have an AWD version and they both use run-flat tires.

After researching and shopping, I learned more about the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, commonly referred to as an Evo. When first introduced back in 1992, it was known as a “pocket rocket,” designed to compete with Subaru’s Impreza WRX STI. Back then and for many years, both cars were totally unrefined small sedans with completely outsized engines and drive trains, mostly for young people who wanted to race but didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) American muscle cars or European sports coupes. However, in the years since, both cars have added some top-notch performance components and a modicum of refinement, and both are staples at rally racing venues worldwide.

So, for my 2009 car, I test-drove the Evo, but was not sure I wanted that much intensity. I also wanted an automatic transmission (I prefer not to have to shift all the time), and the only automatic Evo was the MR, which is somewhat pricey and includes several expensive items that I don’t need, so I opted instead for the Lancer Ralliart. At the time, the Ralliart was a new addition to the line-up (a previous, underpowered version had been introduced years earlier and failed). It featured some of the performance of the Evo with a slightly softer suspension and seating, based on the Lancer GTS. I drove it for about a year and really enjoyed it. However, it looked much like the Evo, so everywhere I went, people would say, “nice Evo.” Being compulsive, I would always correct them, all the while wondering what was with this Evo subculture.

Toward the end of 2010, Mitsubishi contacted me with the opportunity to upgrade to an Evo with no charges for opting out of my existing lease. They also came out with an Evo SE, which stood for Special Edition. Unlike other cars with an SE designation, this version actually cost much less than the MR on which it was based, eschewing the 700-watt stereo system (overkill?), the onboard navigation system, and several other unnecessary add-ons I didn’t need, thereby reducing the cost by about $8,000, to $33,000.

So I did it…in September, I leased a 2010 Lancer Evolution SE. Its 4-cylinder, turbocharged engine provides 300 horsepower with 300 foot-lbs of torque, helping it to go from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. It features a list of performance items with fancy European names—Brenbo brakes, Eibach springs, and Bilstein shocks—as well as AWD with advanced yaw control and the same transmission featured in the Lamboghini Gallardo. Technically, it’s a standard transmission with two automatic clutches (one for the odd gears and the other for the even gears) that also has tiptronics, paddle shifters, settings for tarmac, gravel and snow, and options for normal, sport, and super-sport (redline) driving. While still lacking some refinement and comfort features (I paid $1100 for leather coverings on the Recaro seats), it provides the most fun of any car I’ve driven. In addition, I got a little tag that says “6 of 340,” meaning it was the 6th Evo SE made out of 340 manufactured in 2010. How cool is that?

However, the funniest thing about the car (and in some ways the most unexpected) is the reaction it garners from other people…mostly young men. Being a 57-year-old, short, overweight guy, It’s odd to get stares of desire as though I were an 18-year-old, attractive, large-breasted woman, but that is exactly what happens. If I stop the car anywhere—parking lot, gas station, etc., people inevitably ogle it and/or ask me about it, and I am provided with countless opportunities to race from a stoplight (I hardly ever participate, but when I do, it’s rarely a contest).

Now, I could understand these reactions if it were a Bentley, a Porsche, a Ferrari, or any other of a number of expensive, performance cars, but this car costs about the same as a Nissan Maxima, Acura TSX, Audi A4, or a fully loaded Toyota Camry XLE, and while all of them are nice cars, they are certainly not exotic nor hard to find. Maybe it’s because every guy wants to think of himself driving a rally car, but other “practical” considerations get in the way of owning one. It’s like the incorrect perceptions that red indicates a sports car or that police give more tickets to bright-colored cars.

When all is said and done, the Evo is built on the Lancer frame, meaning it has four doors and ample inside seating for four people. It does not have many interior features like lighted mirrors and electric seats, and the trunk is quite small (they put the battery and windshield washer tank in the truck to help balance the front-to-back weight distribution), but those are minor inconveniences for a car that drives with such immense responsiveness. The ride is not soft, but it still handles bumps much better than the BMW with run-flat tires. The basic stereo system, although not 700 watts, is quite good, and I went out and bought a $200 removable GPS navigation system, rather than paying for the MR.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me point out the negatives of owning an Evo:

  • It comes with summer tires, which are useless on ice and snow, even with AWD. So, if you live in New England, you need to buy winter tires, which cost around $1200.

  • The tires it comes with are designed for racing, meaning they have a sticky surface that doesn't last long...maybe 15K tops. You need to buy new summer tires too, unless you buy Nokian all-seasons as your winter tires, then leave them on all year (losing a little bit of performance).

  • The wheels are 18 inches and the tires are low-profile, so if you hit a pothole the wrong way. You will bend a rim, which costs about $200 to fix. However this is the case with most sporty cars these days.

  • The gas mileage is not great--about 20 MPG highway and 17 city. In addition, the gas tank holds only 14 gallons, meaning that, at best, you can go about 240 miles on a tank of gas.
So, while every car has some negative aspects, if you want a car that provides endless adrenaline rushes and just as many gaping stares, and you can afford a mid-priced sedan, you should satisfy your desires and acquire an Evo. Let me know when you do, so we can compare notes and stories.