Though these two old rivals are similar in specification and performance, they behave very differently from each other.
Subaru’s Impreza WRX STi and Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evo X are old rivals, and two takes on a way to crack the same nut. Their layout is similar – sedans, though the Subaru is a five-door hatchback, the Lancer a four-door sedan – and both have permanent four-wheel drive (all-wheel drive in Subaru-speak). Both are turbo cars, and both have stunning performance that’s just a shade this side of a Supercar at a fraction of the price. Both cars we tested ran manual gearboxes. They’re even very close in price: $62,990 for the five-speed manual Evo, and $64,990 for the STi Spec-R. But though the two cars are similar in specification and performance, they proved to behave very differently from each other.
Did one have the edge? Let’s take a look.
Both cars run turbocharged and intercooled engines. The Evo X’s is a 2.0-litre DOHC inline four, mounted transversely. The STi motor is a 2.5-litre flat four (boxer). The Evo develops 206kW of power at 6500rpm and 422Nm of peak torque at 3500rpm. The Subaru has more horsepower – 221kW at 6000rpm – but less torque, 407Nm at 4000rpm.
Overseas testers have clocked the Evo at 4.7 seconds for the sprint to 100kph, and the Subaru at just over five seconds.
The STi has the maximum speed edge – 248kph compared to 240kph. Subjectively, we feel the Subaru may be quicker in the mid-range. The test Evo X was the five-speed manual version (a double-clutch automated manual six-speed is also available), and the STi runs a six-speed manual. Both gearboxes are well-matched to their engines, though naturally you’ll be doing a little more shifting in the Subaru. Both are slick, quick-shifting units, though the Evo’s felt chunkier, the STi’s a little “rubbery”.
In open road cruising, both cars are relatively refined, though the STi has the edge here. You’re always aware of the Evo’s engine note, even at moderate speeds: at a similar clip, the STi’s engine is imperceptible, raising its voice only when you floor the throttle.
Both cars have exceptional roadholdng and both are near as quick on a wet road as they are in the dry.
We took them out in convoy for back-to-back tests on identical roads. Save for the motorway and sections of state highway, the roads we chose were demanding and twisting, and two of them – hillclimbs in sparsely-populated and lightly-trafficked areas – were ultra-tight with sharp second-gear corners.
In the bulk of running, neither car had an edge. Push either hard through roads where the direction changes constantly – right, left, right, left – and neither runs out of talent. They’re equally satisfying. The first of our hillclimb roads is narrow and ultra-demanding, a road on which you can have a real blast without exceeding 100kph.
The Evo stormed up and back down the hill in fine style, the turn-in crisp, understeer virtually entirely absent, the engine bellowing raucously as we sliced up and down the gearbox.
The first run in the STi, with the centre diff left in automatic, was a little more fraught. The first corner arrived much more quickly than I was expecting – the STi doesn’t give you the same sensation of speed as the Evo does. A big brake and we were through. On the tighter turns – and I mean TIGHT – there was a little understeer and the Subaru didn’t feel as precise as the Evo.
For run two I locked the centre diff, and the STi was transformed. Turn-in was crisp, the car went exactly where I wanted it to go, understeer had vanished. Brakes take a real pounding on this road, but the Brembos on both cars were superb, with no sign of fade.
On the second hillclimb, a road with some vicious corners, the STi shone brightest. With the centre diff locked, it was an absolute delight, light on its feet, nimble, in its element. The Evo felt bulkier here, though it was only a shade less satisfying to drive. Its biggest shortcoming was visibility. The low seating position, combined with the thick A-pillar and the exterior mirrors, made right-hand corners a worry. You just couldn’t see if there was a car on the other side of the road.
The second driver in our convoy had never driven this type of car before. She drew the STi for the opening section, along the motorway and up the state highway. At our first stop-off point, I asked what she thought. Well, she couldn’t understand the fuss about the STi. It didn’t seem to do anything much better than her Mazda. What? But she stuck to her guns. It was quiet, rode well, seemed just like any other smallish Japanese car she’d driven, and “gave no feeling of power”. I told here she just wasn’t using it hard enough.
Later, I saw what she meant. The STi is almost like two cars in one: a docile, unassuming teacher’s pet at moderate engine revs and speeds, and a rip-roaring larrikin when you stomp on the gas and its true self bursts out. On the other hand, driver two found the Evo “very responsive” from the outset. “It gave a feeling of power immediately.”
She didn’t like the Evo’s big rear wing which impeded visibility, nor did she like the thick A-pillars; and she thought the Subaru had the more attractive interior and dashboard layout.
She had always thought of Evos as boy-racer cars, and felt the more aggressive look of the X backed that image: “If you want a car that looks out of the ordinary, the Evo does. The STi looks like a lot of other small sedans.” But despite its boy-racer aura, the Evo turned out to be easy to drive and manageable. “If you’d asked me before I drove it, I would have said I wasn’t interested in the Evo. I saws Evos as boy-racer cars and they didn’t appeal to me.
“If the two were parked side-by-side I’d probably I’d probably say I preferred the STi.”
But then she drove them. At the end of the day, I posed the question: if the keys were lying on the table, which set would you take? The unanimous answer was the Evo X. It just seemed a more involving drive, and delivered exactly what its slightly over-the-top looks promised, where the STi has this dual personality and understated styling. But that said, there’s very little in it, though I’d give the Evo the nod – by a very slender margin.