Home is where the Ral­liart is

The rally-bred Evo IX gets the chance to do what it does best on some fab­u­lous but un­for­giv­ing roads in ral­ly­ing’s heart­land

CAR (UK) - - The Six Nations Tour - Words Ben Barry |

AL­MOST years ago, Mit­subishi UK put aside a Lancer Evo­lu­tion IX MR FQ-360 by HKS, one of just 200 made. Pre­served as new at its head­quar­ters, cov­er­ing min­i­mal mileage, to­day it stands as the most orig­i­nal ex­am­ple of the last of the true Evos. So it’s sur­pris­ing that we find our­selves gun­ning this pre­cious piece of au­to­mo­tive his­tory up a de­serted Ir­ish moun­tain road an hour south of Dublin, a lit­tle over 600 miles on the odo, re­dis­cov­er­ing the road­go­ing link to Mit­subishi’s world rally suc­cess in a coun­try still famed for ral­lies run on closed pub­lic roads.

We get to Wick­low Gap at dusk, golden sun dif­fused through clouds like light through a cinema pro­jec­tor, the road snaking from the val­ley floor. I thought I’d men­tally moved on from the Evo, but from the snug em­brace of the driver’s seat this thing’s a rev­e­la­tion.

For all its rep­u­ta­tion as a PlayS­ta­tion ren­der­ing of real life, there’s sur­pris­ingly gritty de­tail to the Evo driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: fast-paced steer­ing that feeds back ev­ery nu­ance of the road sur­face with startling clar­ity, a chas­sis that’ll pivot into over­steer with a lift of throt­tle and flick of the wheel, and six close-stacked gears that add a layer of in­ten­sity miss­ing from pad­dleshift trans­mis­sions. But what re­ally jumps out after its near-10-year hi­ber­na­tion is the speed: boost­ing fe­ro­ciously, grip­ping hard, the Evo reels in the road like a vac­uum cleaner latch­ing on to a pair of lace cur­tains. Ph­lum! The road seems to be sucked through the huge front air in­takes, then spews out of your rear-view mir­ror like road­kill. Even if you’ve no idea what the FQ in FQ-360 stands for, there’s a fair chance you’ll blurt it out the first time you’re asked how this car feels; it re­ally is ex­ple­tive-in­duc­ingly quick.

The Evo IX first went on sale in the UK4

Flick­ing be­tween fifth and sixth, the Evo feels to­tally un­der con­trol, like it could go much faster

in June 2005 in three forms: FQ-300, FQ320, FQ-340, all of them spe­cific to the UK mar­ket, all weigh­ing 1400kg, the num­bers in the name round­ing out the claimed bhp fig­ure. Based on the hum­drum Lancer four-door bodyshell, th­ese high-per­for­mance ha­los added a 2.0-litre tur­bocharged four-cylin­der en­gine, ag­gres­sive body styling and an all-wheel-drive sys­tem. Fairy dust in­cluded Re­caro seats, Brembo brakes, Yoko­hama Ad­van tyres, Bil­stein shocks and Eibach springs. Se­ri­ous stuff.

Im­prove­ments over the VIII were as in­cre­men­tal as the Evo­lu­tion badge sug­gests, with a new front bumper and rear dif­fuser, shorter rear springs and – more sig­nif­i­cantly – the de­but of MIVEC vari­able valve tim­ing, which boosted per­for­mance at high revs, smoothed the torque curve and curbed the Evo’s leg­endary thirst for su­per un­leaded, if only a frac­tion.

In 2005 Mit­subishi had de­scribed the IX as the fi­nal in­stal­ment in a Lancer nd se­ries dat­ing back to 1992, and promised that a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent new Lancer Evo­lu­tion would be launched in 2007. The FQ-360 snuck into the gap in be­tween, first ap­pear­ing at the 2006 Bri­tish Mo­tor Show.

De­vel­oped by Mit­subishi UK’s mo­tor­sport and per­for­mance di­vi­sion, Ral­liart, it used a high-pres­sure fuel pump, high-flow cat­alytic con­verter and remapped ECU. This fi­nal evo­lu­tion of the 4G63 en­gine made 366bhp at 6887rpm and 363lb ft at 3200rpm. The price bumped up to £35,504, a £2.5k pre­mium over the FQ-340. Things went a step fur­ther with the MR FQ-360 by HKS (HKS be­ing a Ja­panese maker of per­for­mance parts). It gained a larger in­duc­tion pipe, in­ter­cooler pip­ing and Su­per Drager ex­haust. There was also a ti­ta­nium-al­loy tur­bocharger tur­bine and smaller com­pres­sor wheel, lower Eibach springs and Speed­line Turini al­loys. That’s the car we’re driv­ing.

As we thread up and out of Dublin on the Mil­i­tary Road that runs across the spine of the Wick­low moun­tains, the Evo im­me­di­ately feels special, even if some stretches of the road are too nar­row to get in a groove. Par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive is the sus­pen­sion’s abil­ity to bal­ance a firm, tied-down feel with so­phis­ti­cated com­pli­ance, and that the fist-sized HKS ex­haust stops just short of un­couth row­di­ness. There are also some early in­di­ca­tions of the Evo’s play­ful­ness;

like all the best per­for­mance cars, it bris­tles nd with tac­til­ity, agility and ea­ger per­for­mance even when driven se­dately.

De­scend­ing to­wards Glen­dalough and back up­hill to­wards Wick­low Gap, the wider road brings the Evo’s abil­ity into sharper fo­cus. There’s very lit­tle per­for­mance low down, but you can feel the storm brew­ing, a ten­sion build­ing in the driv­e­train that de­ters you from back­ing out of it (there can be a pretty vi­o­lent shunt as the boost shuts down if you do). Then, around 3500rpm, there’s an ex­plo­sion of boost, and a rich­ness as you pum­mel round to­wards 6000rpm that con­trasts with lower-pow­ered mod­els that feel shorter of breath. The gear­lever throw is short, and the ra­tios snap by un­der the on­slaught of ac­cel­er­a­tion: sec­ond slams against the limiter by 60mph, third be­fore 80mph, and sud­denly I find my­self flick­ing be­tween fifth and sixth gear, oc­ca­sion­ally stand­ing hard on the four-pis­ton Brembo front brakes. The Evo feels to­tally un­der con­trol, like it could go much faster.

The all-wheel-drive sys­tem is key to the bril­liance. Dubbed Su­per All-Wheel Con­trol (S-AWC), it splits torque 50:50 be­tween the front and rear wheels, and teams up with Ac­tive Yaw Con­trol (which tailors the flow of torque across the rear axle) and Ac­tive Cen­tre Dif­fer­en­tial (which takes ac­count of tar­mac, gravel and snow) when the driver flicks a switch. Trac­tion feels as com­posed and neu­tral as the 50:50 fig­ure sug­gests, un­der­steer barely reg­is­ters in the dry, and when you ac­cel­er­ate hard the Evo re­ally bites into the sur­face. But it’s the off-power ad­justa­bil­ity that adds an ex­tra di­men­sion, an in­ter­ac­tiv­ity that puts the driver at the heart of the ac­tion. Keep it neat and tidy if you like, but the play­ful­ness is al­ways there; even in fast fourth-gear turns the rear will read­ily move around, and there’s no sta­bil­ity con­trol to fall back on. Thank­fully, the chas­sis is ex­cep­tion­ally well bal­anced: in­duce a bit of roll and the Evo slides, you ride it out on the power as the nose tucks in and the speed ebbs away a lit­tle, and then the rear end steps back in line. It all seems so nat­u­ral you’re un­aware of any ar­ti­fi­cial in­ter­ven­tion.

As the sun sinks be­hind the moun­tains, we make our way back to Dublin, ready for the trip home. A few min­utes on a road as good as the R756 to Wick­low Gap quickly demon­strates what a per­for­mance weapon the Evo IX still is. I won’t say it’s perfect: it feels far cheaper than the Ger­man per­for­mance cars it’d de­stroy, the seats are set too high, and there’s wind noise at higher speed like you wouldn’t be­lieve. The Evo X that fol­lowed it tack­led some of th­ese short­com­ings. It too is a good car, but in ap­peal­ing to a broader mar­ket the X in­evitably lost some of the edge that made the IX so special. It’s been a priv­i­lege to ex­pe­ri­ence one just as Mit­subishi in­tended, on roads that bring out its best.

‘You’ll never see a train­ing ses­sion that looks good – it’s messy, it’s un­com­fort­able, it’s putting stress on the play­ers’

Photography Char­lie Magee

Elec­tronic aids not needed when a chas­sis is this well sorted

Evo IX re­wards the skilled and com­mit­ted driver

Clouds lift to re­veal the glo­ries of the Wick­low Moun­tains

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