Model: Mitsubishi Evo VIII FQ-300
Price: £28,995 (on sale now)
Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharged, 305bhp at 6,200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, four-wheel-drive
Performance: 157mph, 0-60 in 4.9sec, 19mpg (approximate average)
CO2: 335g/km approximate
Either the mad Japanese be-winged saloon subculture, turbos whistling and four-wheel drive tearing away at the tarmac, has cooled or we are getting used to these apparitions.
A Subaru Impreza STI, probably in bright, metallic blue like its rallying relatives, is almost common. And all those Mitsubishi Evos seem to be the same. You are blinded by the upfrontness and aesthetic savagery; the devil is everywhere, overwhelming detail.
Now there is an Evo VIII, faster and fiercer and more adhesive, even as aficionados still bemoan how meek the VII looks next to the VI. This evolution thing relates to the breed's gradual development to enable the rallying versions to use ever-better components while staying within the rules; BMW's M3 and Lancia's Delta Integrale had Evo versions long before these Mitsubishis hit the petrolhead big time. A whole magazine - serious, literate, focused and not remotely Max Power - has even adopted the name.
So, this is Evo VIII. As ever, it is based on a Mitsubishi Lancer whose standard version we cannot buy in the UK, nor in most of Europe. We have a Dutch-built automotive oxymoron called the Carisma instead, but not for much longer. The VII was based on a new Lancer range, and the VIII has, well, evolved from that.
How can you tell? By the angrier face, mainly, a response to those accusations of meekness. The radiator grille is deeper, with a pyramid-like object in the middle to bear the badge. The air-exit vent in the bonnet is bigger, and the extended front bumper forms "a V-shaped nose with corners that have been daringly pared away", as the information pack says.
It is all done in the name of airflow and downforce as well as attitude; the same goes for the rear wing atop the boot, now of carbonfibre, slimmer in section and mounted further back. Those are the visuals, the tattoos and earrings on an otherwise nondescript body. But more needed to be done to the Evo. As a VII, the Evo crashed over bumps, its accelerator pedal felt as it was though attached to the engine by heavy-duty elastic, and it really did need another gear to fill in the gap between fourth and top.
The evolution of this species has brought us an extra gear, the better to tally with the Subaru STI arch-rival's gear-count. It has also brought more mid-range pulling power to the 2.0-litre, 16-valve, turbocharged engine, a fractional loss in engine weight (2.5kg, every little bit counts in the search for ever more warp-drive pace). And something called Super AYC.
The Evo already had AYC. It stands for active yaw control, and it does positively what normal stability controls - ESP, DSC, VDC and other such initial-sets - do negatively. An example, possibly over-simplified: you are drifting outwards in a fast corner because the front wheels are running out of grip, so ESP would brake an inside rear wheel to tilt you back. Not so AYC, which uses the variable differentials in the four-wheel drive system to send more power to the outside rear wheel. The effect is the same, except that you have been able to continue at your chosen speed. The altered power distribution among the wheels has simply helped the steering.
It sounds like a recipe for excellent driving fun, and it is. Super AYC does the same job, but more so because it can transfer twice as much driving force to the required rear wheel, the better to keep the Evo pointing in the right direction when all its considerable power is hauling it out of a corner. To this end, the ACD (active centre differential, if you were wondering) is now a fast-acting multiplate clutch unit (like that of a Volvo S60R or an Audi TT) instead of a squelchier viscous coupling, which helps transfer the power more quickly rearwards should the front wheels threaten to spin and slither.
How considerable is that power? For the regular £26,995 Evo VIII it is 276bhp, as before. But UK buyers can also have a £28,995 version called the FQ-300, with 300bhp. Subtle trim changes have made the interior a little less low-rent, but the rally-car seats, the Momo steering wheel and an intriguing tarmac/gravel/snow selector make a stronger impression..
On a sinuous test track, that of Prodrive, ironically the builder of Subaru's rally cars, it proves even more extraordinary than its predecessor. A more co-operative car is hard to imagine; at times it almost second-guesses your next move. You home in on a bend, touch the brakes to feel their solid, race-car-like response, aim at the bend's apex and accelerate harder than you would ever normally dare.
The tyres feel nailed to the ground, the nose hauls itself round, every steering movement adds fine directional adjustment despite the huge forces at work. The engine is in full muscle-contraction, the exhaust is blaring in competition with the turbocharger's whistle, and you feel you can make this car do anything.
Is that dangerous over-confidence? I do not think so. The Evo bends the laws of physics but does not break them.
Alfa 156 GTA £27,420
Front-wheel drive and 250bhp, but the V6 GTA looks and sounds delicious. Oddly lifeless steering. feels like a lump of granite, but heavy and not very quick despite its 170bhp.
Subaru Impreza STI £24,995
Possibly best to drive, the Evo's arch-rival feels looser on the road, but it is better value, and the flat-four engine makes a characterful throb. And Prodrive can up its pace if needed.
Volvo S60R £34,145
Five-cylinder S60 has a 4WD system like the Evo's, but it is a less incisive drive and the engine does not feel a 300bhp unit. This fine Mercedes is a keener drive than the old one and much less claustrophobic. Test soon.