It’s the age-old debate: Subaru WRX STI or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. These two cars have had their respective fanbases arguing on the internet about which is superior for literal decades. Just to be clear, this piece is in now way intended to settle the dispute. Instead, we’re going to look at how these cars went from being compact 4 door saloons to rally legends, movie stars and how they eventually faded into irrelevance.
Mitsubishi have had a long history in rally throughout the 80s with the Galant but as the 90s came along, smaller cars were needed to remain competitive. Mitsubishi’s solution was to fit the internals of the successful Galant into the smaller Lancer chassis for the 1993 WRC championship. In doing so give it a big turbo, four-wheel drive and a much more rugged suspension system. The Lancer Evolution is born. And, of course, it came with that iconic yet obnoxiously large spoiler because, race car.
During this transition to smaller cars, Subaru had decided it wanted to be taken seriously in the rally game, so they essentially replicated Mitsubishi’s Evo formula for their purpose-built WRC car for 1993: The Impreza World Rally Experimental (WRX, for short because WRE doesn’t quite have the same ring to it). It, too, received the big spoiler treatment. (Look out for a future article on the importance of these spoilers). Subaru’s main mechanical differentiator was its low positioned flat four-cylinder or “boxer” engine which reduced body roll by giving it a lower centre of gravity.
With cars so similar it had to come down to the drivers as the deciding factor between winning and losing. This is where Subaru had its edge with Colin McRae behind the wheel. McRae would bring in a slew of beat downs to Mitsubishi including a championship win in 1995.
Since that loss, Mitsubishi resiliently tweaked the Lancer Evolution each year with Tommi Mäkinen behind the wheel to win four consecutive championships between 1996 and 1999. These tweaks would squeeze more and more power from the 2.0-litre 4G63 turbocharged engine with few aesthetic changes to the body. This engine would go on to power the Lancer Evolution IX through to 2007!
The biggest innovation of the Lancer Evo was in its 4th iteration, the EVO VI, where Mitsubishi added the Active Yaw control which, in short, is a torque vectoring differential that helps the car turn around a corner by distributing torque to the outside wheel. In 2001, the Evo VII debuted with the most radical redesign and introduced a centre locking differential. On its own, the centre differential is nothing too special but when paired to the active yaw control system, gives the car the ability to distribute torque to any of the four wheels as needed for traction. This is an invaluable asset to any off-roading vehicle. However, it was not enough, and the team conceded the championship to Richard Burns in a Subaru WRX STI that year.
During this intense rivalry, the cars had become legends as much as their drivers leading to a huge surge in demand for small, turbocharged tuner cars around the world. The people got what they wanted.
The legendary status of the cars had transcended rally sport onto the silver screen. They had become movie stars with multiple appearances in the Fast and Furious franchise (complete with their own tasteless tuner designs) and more recently Baby Driver which is set to be a cult classic.
In 2006 Mitsubishi’s Ralliart team had decided to withdraw from rally sport which would have a knock-on effect on WRC. This left Subaru without a rival and their retirement soon followed in 2008. This had much to do with the worldwide economic recession – a stark reminder that motorsport is not impervious to such things.
While both companies haven’t ruled out the chances of returning to rally, the likelihood of reigniting that rivalry is very slim given that, after the lengthy 9 year run of the Evo X, Mitsubishi have discontinued the Lancer Evolution all together.
We would really like to see these two brands duke it out on the dirt track again soon but with the crossovers/midsize SUVs on the rise, I wouldn’t hold my breath.