Like its rival Subaru, Mitsubishi made a very big name for itself in international rallying during the 1990s. In order to do this, it had to build significant numbers of high-performance road cars – all variants of the Lancer saloon – which became the basis for the competition machines. The correct name for all these vehicles is Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, though they are generally referred to as Evos. They can be divided broadly into four series, but there were so many updates (some of them very close together) that officially they covered ten generations. Here is their story.
The first-generation Evo was introduced in late 1992 as a replacement for the larger Galant VR-4, which had been used in rallying with some success. Like all the others, it had a turbocharged two-litre petrol engine (in this case producing around 250bhp in road trim) and four-wheel drive.
As would happen with later cars, the Evo I gave way very quickly to the Evo II. Launched at the start of 1994, the new model was basically the same car with a few minor modifications.
Just one year later, the Evo III came along. Once again the changes were minor, but they did involve more power, better cooling and more aggressive styling.
The first big change happened in 1996. That year’s Evo was still four-wheel drive and used a further development of the same two-litre turbo engine, but it was based on a new platform. By now the Evo was becoming a very important player in the World Rally Championship.
Manufactured throughout 1998, the Evo V followed previous Mitsubishi practice in that it was a reworking of the Evo IV, with several performance updates.
The second series came to an end with the Evo VI, a visually different but mechanically similar (though yet further developed) version of the last two generations.
This is the point where we should mention Tommi Makinen, one of the most successful rally drivers in history. Makinen joined Mitsubishi in 1995 and drove everything from the Evo III to the Evo VI between then and 2001. Most of these cars were built to Group A regulations, largely because Mitsubishi, unlike its rivals, could not afford to develop models to other rules which were also in effect. The Mitsubishis were regarded at the time as being difficult to drive, and few people had much success in them. Makinen was the exception. He won the World Rally Championship four times on the trot from 1996 to 1999, and was rightly honoured just after winning his last title when Mitsubishi launched a Tommi Makinen Edition of the Evo VI.
Evos continued to be a very popular choice among amateur rally crews long after their World Championship domination. There were so many in the UK at one point that the Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge was created and ran for several years. Among the more successful drivers was David Bogie (pictured), who won the Challenge in 2008 and went on to become British Rally Champion three years later.
The next chapter in Evo history began in 2001. This was another new car, based on a larger platform and with three transmission differentials. An automatic gearbox became available for the first time. Group A rules no longer applied in rallying, so Mitsubishi had to develop a competition version which met the regulations specific to the WRC. Makinen was still employed as a driver, but even with him on the payroll Mitsubishi was unable to repeat its previous success.
The VII evolved into the VIII, which first appeared in early 2003. By now there were a great many variants, several of them with FQ (standing for ‘fairly quick’ or something like that) in their names. Examples included the FQ-300, FQ-320 and FQ-340, the numbers being rough approximations of their power outputs.
One of the most unusual Evo VIIIs was the 260, so called because it had a power output of around 260bhp, roughly the same as the contemporary Subaru Impreza STI. This was the cheapest (£23,999), slowest, softest and least well-equipped model, and the only one with a five- rather than six-speed gearbox. Despite all that, it was a superb road car, arguably more satisfying than any of the FQ versions at that time.
At the opposite end of the Evo VIII spectrum from the 260 sat the FQ-400, sold in small numbers and only in the UK. Several British firms were involved in its development, which resulted in the highest power figure yet of the familiar two-litre engine at 405bhp.
Yet another upgrade went into effect in 2005. The Evo IX had many improvements, and was notably the first model to feature variable valve timing on the by now elderly but still enormously capably engine.
IX MR FQ-360
This was arguably the finest Evo model ever. Its 366bhp output was higher than that of any Evo other than the UK-only FQ-400, yet while previous exceptionally powerful versions had been challenging to drive on the road, this one was impressively user-friendly, thanks largely to softer but still very well-judged suspension settings.
Rallying the IX
Mitsubishi Motors UK was at one point heavily involved in rallying, and won the British Rally Championship in 2007 and 2008 with Guy Wilks at the wheel of an Evo IX. The global financial crisis forced the team to withdraw from the sport in 2009, though Keith Cronin won the title that year in another, privately entered, Evo IX.
The last Evo stood alone from all the others. While the production life of its successors could easily be counted in months, the X kept going for nearly a decade. Its platform was co-developed with DaimlerChrysler and was the basis for a wide variety of other vehicles including the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Jeep Patriot, the Citroen C4 Aircross and the Peugeot 4007 (the last two being included because Mitsubishi and the French manufacturers collaborated on a series of SUVs).
Evo X engine
This was also the only Evo to use a new engine developed by the Global Engine Alliance formed by Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Chrysler. The basic design was done by Hyundai, but from then on each manufacturer applied its own ideas. Another innovation was the use of an aluminium block – all previous Evo engines had iron blocks.
Evo X transmission
On top of all that, the Evo X was also available with a new gearbox called SST (Sportronic Shift Transmission). This was a six-speed twin-clutch semi-automatic unit similar in concept to the Volkswagen Group’s more famous DSG. Owners who preferred to change gear themselves could choose a five-speed manual instead.
In March 2014 Mitsubishi announced a very special version of the Evo X called the FQ-440. Intended to celebrate Mitsubishi’s 40th anniversary in the UK, the car had been modified to produce a maximum of 440bhp, used the SST gearbox and had lowered suspension and uprated brakes. The only available colour was Frost White, and the price was set at £50,000.
End of the Evo
Mitsubishi had been saying for some time that the X would be the last Evo when that car was finally discontinued in 2016. The series of high-performance four-wheel drive saloons had lasted for 24 years (the X alone accounting for one third of that) and will no doubt be remembered fondly for a long time to come.