Anyone- or anything- that starts from humble beginnings usually makes for a great story. The Mitsubishi Lancer is little more than a plastic-filled economy car that is saddled with a sub-par powertrain and looks that at best could be considered lackluster. So how did Mitsubishi start with a car that could be considered the most humble of beginnings, and turn it into one of the ultimate driver’s cars of the 2000s?
With the disbanding of Group B rally at the end of the 1984 season, motorsports enthusiasts were worried that rallying’s best years were behind it. As the FIA began pushing Group A racing, the cars were changing from Group B’s fire-breathing, ultra-limited production experimental vehicles, to a class where the cars typically resembled something you could pick up at any local dealership.
What nobody expected was that these cars would provide even tighter racing and, thanks to increased production requirements for homologation, meant that almost anybody could go out and buy a rally-bred road car that was outstanding to drive but could be used every day on the school run. Some of the most exciting all-wheel drive performance cars were born out of this class, cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX, Lancia Delta Integrale, Ford Escort RS Cosworth, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
One of the most legendary road cars to come out of the Group A series was a tribute to one of the series’ great drivers- the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition. After winning 4 WRC Drivers Championships on the trot between 1996 and 1999, Mitsubishi decided to commemorate the Finnish driver with a car bearing his name- and in the process developed one of the most engaging drivers cars of the 2000s.
Take the already exciting Evolution VI, add a unique aerodynamically improved front bumper, new rear wing and a set of 17” wheels that mimic those on the WRC Rally car. But where things get exciting is under the car- a suspension tuned for tarmac was paired with a quick ratio steering rack and stiff front strut tower brace for ultimate response when the road gets twisty. An upgraded titanium turbocharger in the engine bay with a shape-optimized compressor wheel offers improved low and mid-range response and spools up with remarkable speed.
Today we have the chance to see what all those modifications add up to on the Passo Maniva in the Italian Alps. With snow piled up on both sides of the road, the red Mitsubishi winding its way up the mountain pops against the stark backdrop. Thankfully the roads are clear so we can enjoy the dialed-in suspension and quick spooling turbo that made this car a rally legend.
Pulling out of the snowy turnout and onto the smooth tarmac, you can immediately tell the ride is firm, yet the suspension is well damped and the car does not get upset when driving over imperfections in the road. Turning into the first corner and the steering feels both smooth and precise, allowing you to effortlessly aim the car from apex to apex with the front wheels falling exactly where you ask them to. Partially responsible for this athleticism is the active yaw control that slightly steers the rear wheels- although it takes a bit of getting used to, once you get familiar with the system, you are converted.
The small displacement turbocharged engine feels lazy at low revs-especially driving at altitude, but once the turbo comes in around 3,000 rpm, the engine lights up and the EVO takes off. In an age where modern turbo cars brag about a flat torque curve starting just above idle, the lag in this car can be frustrating initially. But the more you drive, the more you learn how to work around it and, thanks to the precise gearbox, you are able to keep the engine running at its peak, even in the tightest hairpins. The sound coming out of the exhaust also is encouraging you to drive the car harder- hearing the intoxicating mix of mechanical, exhaust and turbocharger noises makes you feel like you are behind the wheel of your dream Group A rally car, running a special stage up the Italian Alps.
In today’s collector car market, the Tommi Mäkinen EVO VI is really coming into its own and values are rapidly on the rise. And when we finished our afternoon behind the wheel, we can see exactly why that is the case. Thanks to the work of countless engineers and one of the greatest rally drivers in history, this once humble Mitsubishi Lancer, has earned its place as a true performance car legend.