Knowing the unknown

Prior to driving the Evo X, Vernon B. Sarne had never tried any version of the popular series. He takes the wheel and satisfies a lifelong curiosity
by Vernon B. Sarne | Feb 11, 2009

IN ALGEBRA, we refer to the unknown element in an equation simply as X. It's sort of like the joker in a deck of playing cards - it could be anything and of any value. A wild card, in other words. I mention this because I now realize how serendipitous it was when I got my first taste of the legendary Lancer Evolution.

Mitsubishi brought me to Japan late last year and one of the items on our itinerary was a two-lap drive of the all-new Evo X on the test track of the carmaker's Okazaki plant. But you see, in spite of my charmed profession, I had never sat behind the wheel of any one of the previous nine editions of the Lancer Evo - much less driven one. Largely to blame for this is the fact that our market is so small, Mitsubishi can't be bothered to provide a demo unit to the so-called motoring press.

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And there lied my predicament. Without previous firsthand knowledge of the car, what was there to expect? What would I benchmark it against? How would I know for sure it was an improved version? It was - for all intents and purposes - an X to me. A great unknown. A profound, turbocharged mystery.

Yet my head was buzzing with all the hype I had heard about the Lancer Evo. A beast of a car, many adoring drivers had told me. With this thought hovering over my subconscious, I was clearly bound to be biased toward the car. It's like being a music critic who has never heard any one of the classic songs by Steely Dan and is being asked to review the jazz-fusion duo's latest album. If you pan the album, will you look stupid to the entire music community? Are you expected to automatically give it a raving thumbs-up?

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That's the trouble with evaluating something that already has a stellar reputation. Try to look smart by going against everybody's opinion and you will most likely end up looking dumb. Then again, what did I really stand to lose? It was just two laps after all. Surely, nobody expects you to be intimately knowledgeable about a car after two laps, right?

Here then are the resulting observations borne out of my fleeting stint in the cockpit of the intimidating Evo X.

My first thought was that the car looked like a jetfighter. A snarling jetfighter, to be exact. It has the same outer shell as the pedestrian Lancer you see on the cover of this issue, but the extra body cladding just makes it so much more savage-looking. The inverted-slant nose and the trapezoidal grille combine with the frowning slit headlamps to give the impression that this car is capable of biting off the roof of any vehicle that happens to sit beside it in traffic. This is definitely a manly man's ride.

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The nice thing about the Evo X body is that it's not purely for aesthetic purposes. The designers didn't style the car this way just so you could terrorize fellow motorists with a fierce-looking sports sedan. The tall rear spoiler, I was informed, employs a twisted-section wing panel that boasts "different attack angles" at its tips as well as in the middle portion to match the airflow descending from the roof. Even the underside of the rear bumper incorporates a diffuser design that aids the exhaust of underbody airflow. Whew! And you thought only Formula One cars deserved this much fussing-about.

Come to think of it, the face of the Evo X - just like the Ferrari Enzo's - exhibits traces of an F1 racer's nose.

If BMW can brag about the new M3's carbon-fiber roof, Mitsubishi can smirk smugly knowing the Evo X possesses an aluminum roof panel, aluminum front fenders and an aluminum rear-spoiler frame structure. Indeed, aluminum is put to good use in this car as the new 2.0-liter turbocharged in-line-four already features an aluminum cylinder block, shaving off some 12 kilos compared to the old engine with a steel cylinder block. Which means you could quadruple your beer belly and it would hardly be a burden to the power plant.

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The Evo X has a wider track and a longer wheelbase than the model it replaces. With a length of 4,495mm, a width of 1,810mm and a height of 1,480mm, it's slightly bigger in all respects than the Evo IX (4,490mm by 1,770mm by 1,450mm). Presumably, all these translate not just to better stability and handling, but also to a more spacious cabin.

The aforementioned engine bumps things up to 276 horses and 422 Newton-meters of torque. That kind of pulling power will enable the Evo X to challenge the Ford Expedition to a tug of war. It certainly felt that way over the two laps that I drove this Japanese cult car. On those two laps, however, I failed to fully exploit the brilliance of the Evo X's much-vaunted technological feature: the new Twin Clutch Sport Shift Transmission, a six-speed automated manual shifter complemented by magnesium paddle shifters. This car is thus part Formula One, part WRC.

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The TC-SST gearbox, I was again told, does away with the traditional torque converter used in most automatic transmissions, and instead "puts odd (1st, 3rd and 5th) and even (2nd, 4th and 6th) gears on separate input shafts each with its own clutch." In very simple terms, this means two gears can be selected at any given time, thanks to the dual clutch - one engaged and the other preselected. Result?

There is now virtually no shift lag or drop in power between shifts. That's even better than a real manual transmission - yes, even one operated by Tommi Makinen.

I might not have been able to spend a lot of Recaro seat time in the new Evo X - or test its Super All Wheel Control four-wheel-drive system - but two laps were enough to tell me that this car is as special as Steely Dan. Sure, it would have been nice if I'd been allowed to burn those 245/40 Yokohama Advan tires wrapped around 18-inch BBS alloy wheels, but my juvenile giddiness would have endangered the car's three airbags (dual front and one driver-side knee).

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Besides, I can't afford to pay for damages: The Evo X will reportedly sell for nearly three million bucks when it arrives here sometime next month. For now, I can sit back while listening to ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You' and be content with the thought that the Lancer Evolution is no longer a complete unknown to me.
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