Around the turn of the new millennium, it always felt as if preferring the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo to the Subaru Impreza was not the done thing.
It was unpatriotic, almost, despite both cars being Japanese, mainly because of the deep-blue Scooby of Colin McRae duking it out with the Ralliart Evos. It was the dramatic McRae against the enigmatic Tommi Mäkinen.
It even spilled over on to the PlayStation, as the former’s fondly remembered classic beat the forgotten game of the latter.
Yet the Mitsubishi was always a more interesting, dynamic and sharper-looking car than the softer-sided Impreza. And, unlike in the games, it was arguably better, too.
It was also a car person’s car, because any Evos seen on the UK streets in the 1990s didn’t have an easy route here, unlike the Impreza: Evos I through V were grey imports only, usually through Warwickshire and the rally team.
Not until 2000 and the Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition – such as this, the first official import and the just-off-centre centrepiece of the range – did the model arrive proper on any dealer price list.
The legend was already written: the great Mäkinen had won each of the past four World Rally Championship titles, and the feat was immortalised by his very own edition.
Still there was a stigma around them, perhaps, of boy racers and flat-brimmed caps, that endures today, not helped by the later and more aggressive styling that took over – witness exhibit B, the era-closing Evo X.
But, if an Evo pulled into a street-lamp-lit McDonald’s car park to meet with Vauxhall Nova- and Ford Fiesta-owning Max Power readers, it would have been noticed.
Conversations would stop, elbows would nudge into friends’ ribs and heads would nod towards the international arrival.
The story of the Lancer doesn’t begin at the Evo, but in the 1970s when Andrew Cowan and the like took Lancers to rally wins and made it a name to some in Britain.
Not the name Mitsubishi, though, because it wasn’t until 1987 that the cars from Kobe turned from Colts to Mitsubishis in the UK.
The earliest Lancer, launched in 1973, was a Coke-bottle-shaped two- or four-door with faintly American lines, with the GSR edition following that summer and laying the first steps in a distant path to the modern-classic Evos.
By April 1974, local hero and Safari Rally legend Joginder Singh was pushing the GSR around Africa for the WRC’s first look at a Lancer. And, remarkably, he won.
Yet the short-lived 110bhp,1.6-litre GSR was out of the reach of UK buyers when the Colt Car Co arrived at the Earls Court show of 1974.
A true vision of the future was to come at the end of the decade, with the homologation special Rally Turbo on display in Tokyo in 1979 and at Birmingham’s NEC in 1980, swearing in the second-generation Lancer.
With wide arches trimmed by production in 1981, and as much as 170bhp producing startling performance by all period accounts, its £8999 would be a full £1000 more than, say, a Capri 2.8i.
The Lancer had been rather left behind, and what better way to pep up a model range than by taking it into motorsport.
The WRC had switched to a less-is-more approach as Group A filled the dark void left by Group B, meaning less power mated to less weight could produce more sales.
The big and heavy Galant needed to be replaced by something smaller and lighter, and at the top of the fourth-generation Lancer range sat the 1.8-litre turbocharged GSR, with the 4G93 twin-cam ‘four’ found in the Lancer only and edging towards 200bhp.
A new multilink rear suspension aided traction and cornering, too, but management had more in mind than simply an enthusiasts’ car.
And so the Evolution was finally born with 250bhp and a lightweight crankshaft among a host of improvements under the now-aluminium bonnet.
Close-ratio ’box, four-wheel ABS, ventilated discs and two-pot calipers, Recaro bucket seats, and enhanced – but comfortable – suspension with anti-roll bars front and rear stood the Lancer apart.
A further 70kg could still be trimmed for the RS Evolution, with all mod cons stripped away and a mechanical limited-slip differential.
Brits, despite having to make do with the normally aspirated GTi as the hottest available Lancer, witnessed this new Evo first-hand when Kenneth Eriksson took one of the Cowan-run Ralliart works cars to the podium on the RAC in 1993.
The looks sharpened with the Evo II, unveiled in 1994 carrying more boost and an extra 10bhp, while the Evo III boasted 270bhp.
In keeping with the tradition, the heavily revised IV increased this by 10bhp more once again, its same 4G63 powerplant tweaked and turned through 180º with a new turbo and larger intercooler.
For even better cornering the rear diff was equipped with Active Yaw Control, which, when required, provided more torque to the outside wheel to ease it faster round any bend.
And with each improved Evolution came improved results on the world stage: Mäkinen won in 1996 with the III, in ’97 with the IV, in ’98 with the V and in ’99 with VI.
Evolution really was the key word, not least visually, and so it went on across the whole lifespan.
Subtle changes made the car gradually less subtle, with more scoops and channels being punctured into the eve larger front skirts, the rear wing getting that bit bigger and that bit higher, and the side skirts getting deeper.
Even here, on this Welsh hillside, the 15 years and four generations that separate 2000’s Evo VI TME and 2015’s Evo X FQ-440 can be filled in easily enough with a little imagination.
The TME, still a 2-litre and settled nobly at 272bhp to maintain the manufacturer power agreement made back home, is the ultimate, but so too is the 40-run FQ in a more literal sense and for very different reasons.
It’s the last bastion of the species, and the most powerful and fastest of them all.
The TME is more commonly revered, seen by some as an ‘Evo VI.5’, but according to chief engineer Chiaki Tsujimura in Brian Long’s tome on the Evo, ‘In reality the Tommi Mäkinen Edition was not our idea – it came from the sales and marketing side. They figured it would be a standard Evolution VI with a few cosmetic additions, like stickers, but we saw it as another chance to update the car.’
Stickers do make the cut on the TME, though, and titanium-alloy turbine blades were introduced on the turbo along with a smaller-diameter compressor wheel, while being 10mm lower all round and a new vast water-main-sized exhaust make it fast-looking without being too much. Purposeful without being overtly aggressive.
And one of few cars that can really, truly pull off white wheels – Enkeis borrowed from the rally warehouse. (Those red calipers help, mind.)
The wing is big, but still looks as if it is of use and not for show or a hindrance.
The X, in contrast, has taken each element and carried it to the wrong side of the bend: aggressive and showy, and just a little false.
It is sending the Evo out with a bang rather than with grace.
In December 2005 Mitsubishi announced that its rally programme was to end, and therefore new Evos would not be required to meet FIA regulation updates – such as the one that forced the revising of V into VI – or need tweaks to match its rivals.
The X, therefore, the first and only post-WRC Evo, was the longest-lived: the final FQ-440 MR came a full eight years after the IX had first been replaced in 2007.
Between times all manner of specials were released, with gradually increasing power figures unshackled by the FIA suits in Paris.
The brash styling softens the more time spent in its company, and makes a little more sense with every look; the VI offers context and helps to make the bloodline clearer.
It has at least followed the blueprint and the lineage is there, but the ASBO approach has been thrashed into overdrive.
It feels a link to a time just gone – by the time of its launch, these blistering saloons had already been traded out in favour of rapid hatches on both the road and the stage, the link to top-class rallying was long gone and Mäkinen long forgotten (and since defected, too, now in post at Toyota heading up its rally programme).
The presence of Ralliart, now little more than a sticker on the front splitter, is probably intentionally limited because the name meant so little – or indeed nothing – to its target market.
That the car is so low and its splitter, and therefore that Ralliart name, is the first to suffer feels ignominious.
Slide inside and the difference between the UK’s first and last is just as defined, though both carry the same indifference to interior design as all Evos.
The VI cabin is devoid of character, the dials and inverted rev counter marked with what looks more like faded red than the (probably) intended orange to offer the only colour against a wall of plain black plastic.
The main point of interest is the intercooler spray button on the transmission tunnel that the child in you can’t help but press.
It’s your usual turn-of-the-century saloon, with Ralliart stickers doing their best to remind you this isn’t just a Lancer, along with Mäkinen’s signature sewn into the red and black seats.
It feels spacious like all tinny saloons, perhaps emphasised by the claustrophobic X’s low, chunky interior.
You soon wonder whether it might not have been the boy racer’s choice to be sitting so low when they cruised up and down seafronts in late Evos: they had no option.
Fire up the VI and there’s no sense of drama; the Evo X is much louder and more extrovert.
At anything below 3000rpm there’s a deep rumble to the X that only shifts high in the rev range – everywhere else it feels as though it is complaining that it is in the wrong gear, the whole car reverberating and rattling while you check and double check the rev counter. It’s relentless and, frankly, annoying.
But its performance is extraordinary, offering a warp-speed pace that scatters the sheep into the Welsh hills and turns the shrubbery into a blur.
Each nailed throttle pins you to the seat, so long as ‘sport’ is engaged. If not it’s oddly sluggish and the dual-clutch gearbox lazy.
The paddles are attached to the column, too, which means you’re fishing, ungainly, to change gear anything off the straight-ahead.
The manual VI is the opposite in that it feels very mechanical and can get a little tiresome if you’re not precise enough with your changes.
But it’s effortlessly driveable, with so much composure and grip, where the X can be a chore.
And with no electrics trying to get involved in the VI except for that Active Yaw Control, it’s a more pure experience.
The ride is soft enough to seem supple and more flowing, aided by a higher stance that provides more feel, where the stiff Eibach-sprung X hammers every bump and crack with unremitting force, steamrollering it with no thought for the driver.
It feels quicker, as you’d expect for a 440bhp monster that will smash through to 60mph from rest in 3.8 secs.
That’s supercar quick, for £50,000 new – and backs up that FQ moniker, reputedly given because the cars are ‘F***ing Quick’.
Stamp on the incredible six-pot brakes and it springs onto its tiptoes, ready to dart and bomb on through, as if it lives to play a late-braking game.
Anything else and it’s simply not interested.
It’s engaging in a way that requires very specific circumstances, where the VI can be enjoyed with every crest or kink in the road.
In every respect the X is bigger and faster, but that isn’t necessarily better.
This was never really about which one is better, though; it’s more the beginning and end of the Evo’s story in the UK – and the relative disappearance of the marque.
The VI had all the mystique before, during and after bringing it together with the X.
Never was it about the X, which in itself and in the right setting is astonishing.
It just isn’t the Tommi Mäkinen Edition VI. And there is nothing it can do about that.
The VI was the peak for Mitsubishi in the WRC, and that is a feeling felt throughout the car; climbing in there is anticipation and climbing out there is satisfaction.
It simply delivers without any compromise: fast today, as then; comfortable; and still carries its star appeal.
It was never a fair fight. Which you suspect is how Subaru sometimes felt.
Images: John Bradshaw
Mitsubishi is selling its entire, 14-strong UK heritage fleet collection, including the two cars featured here, through Auto Auction on 1-30 April 2021. All cars are being offered without reserve. Find out more here.