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
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’
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