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2003 LANCER

Overall rating:  Product Rating: 4.5

Reviewed by 5 users

Reliability:
Build Quality
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Seat Comfort:

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Evo vs. STi


by mkaresh:      Oct 23, 2004 - Updated Dec 7, 2006


Product Rating: 4.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Steering quickness and feel, high-end power, sharp yet safe handling, Recaro seats
Cons: Boost lag, stiff ride, cheap interior
The Bottom Line: If handling is your priority and the Evo's interior doesn't faze you, buy it. But if power is you priority and the STi's ride doesn't faze you, buy that one.


This is the original version of my review. I've since posted it to the other listing, as mine was the only one under this listing. There is no reason to read both.

After driving the WRX STi, I just had to also test its archrival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. But how? They had always been scarce, and the only one at the nearest dealer was the 2005 MR edition with an official “do not demo” sticker attached to the window. But the next week I had my oil changed at the Mazda dealer in another part of town, and the Mitsubishi dealer next door had a 2003 Evo parked outside. As with the STi, I assumed that with a used Evo it would be easier to get a test drive without swearing an intense interest to buy one on the spot. (Sure, the STi and Evo are cars I could conceivably buy if I loved them, but as a rule I never claim I’m ready to buy that day.)

So I inquired inside, and learned that the car was actually new, with only 153 miles on the odometer. (I never obtained a full explanation of why a car that had been manufactured in September 2003 had so few miles, only that “it had never been titled.”) New or not, I got my test drive. Two in fact, the second without the salesman. I was taking a considerable risk here. My favorite cars tend to be compacts, and along with the STi the Evo is the highest performance compact going. So this was a car I might really love and have to dig up the cash for.

After driving the Evo, I returned to the Subaru dealer and drove a second WRX STi, to confirm my impression of the differences between them. My conclusions follow.

Styling

Neither the STi nor the Evo is a beauty. Still, especially in the Evo’s case it is much more attractive than the run-of-the-mill compact it is based on. Credit large alloys and a sleeker front end. Both cars are available with a huge wing on the trunk, and those I drove were so equipped. I suppose it must be there to make clear this is no ordinary compact. Every time I glance the things in the rearview mirror, though, I initially think someone’s right behind me.

Inside both supercompacts are rather pedestrian. But where the STi’s is merely plain, with solid materials, the Evo’s interior looks and feels cheap. The climate control knobs feel especially flimsy. This is probably my largest issue with the car, and the one that keeps my lust at bay: I cannot imagine spending $30,000 for a car with an interior unfit for a $10,000 car. And I’m not comparing the Evo to more expensive cars. The interior in the Protege5 I paid $13,000 for puts this one to shame, and that in the high teens Mazda3 is in another league, as it just about puts mine to shame.

Accommodations

You sit lower in the Evo than in the STi, or the instrument panel is taller, or both. Whatever the reason, I prefer the more open driving position in the STi. The seats in neither are adjustable for height, and at its standard height the Evo’s seat felt too low relative to the steering column to me. I had a hard time adjusting the wheel to please both my hands and my eyes. I have to see the instruments, especially since the Evo unlike the STi has no beep to warn when the redline approachest, so the hands lost out.

The Recaro buckets in the Evo are reasonably comfortable and provide exceptional lateral support—an advantage over the STi’s merely very good seats if you expect to explore the car’s abilities in corners. The Recaros have a rotary recline adjuster, which is bad for accessibility but good if levers always leave you wanting a position between detents.

The Lancer is a half-foot longer than the Impreza, yet somehow this does not translate into a roomier rear seat. That in both cars is pretty tight, but both heads and knees are most in danger of making contact with the ceiling and front seatbacks, respectively, in the Evo. The Evo’s rear seat is also positioned low to the floor, so forget about thigh support.

Trunk space is okay in both cars, but folding rear seats have been sacrificed on the altar of structural rigidity.

On the Road

Now for the reason people buy these cars. Unlike the American market STi, the Evo adheres to the World Rally Championships 2.0-liter standard, so its down half a liter. Still, it makes 90 percent of the STi’s power, 271 vs. 300. The obvious source: more boost, a lofty 19 pounds vs. 14.5 in the STi.

More boost and less displacement translate into a much weaker engine before the boost kicks in, and a greater lag to boot. While the STi engine’s power was generally RIGHT THERE, with the Evo it takes a moment or two after you floor the throttle for serious thrust to occur. Boost pressure must build up, and this is simply a peakier engine. Where in the STi the major power was available from the high 2000s, the Evo needs roughly another thousand revolutions.

The sounds made by both engines also differ, as might be expected from an flat vs. an inline configuration. But it’s more than this. In the STi you hear every last mechanical component—the engine, the transmission, the driveline. In the Evo you mostly hear the turbo. It’s a loud one, whether by location or design much more evident than that in the Subaru. Given the boost lag I mentioned earlier, the sound you often hear is of it spooling up. The Evo engine might be quieter, but it is less smooth. At idle the engine vibrates the whole car. Rigid engine mounts?

Boost lag isn’t all bad. While the STi was a bit difficult to drive around town—keep the revs low or it just wanted to go—drive the Evo normally and the engine doesn’t feel all that different than that in a regular Lancer. If you want big power, you have to seek it. Frankly, the 2.4-liter in the Lancer Ralliart feels stronger in typical suburban driving (i.e. engine speed under 3500).

Of course, seek and yee shall find. Keep the engine on boil and the Evo is a very quick car, a touch quicker than the STi in one comparison I’ve read. In the STi’s defense, it has six more closely spaced ratios vs. the Evo’s five, and this forces an extra shift before sixty. Pick a speed other than sixty that requires the same number of shifts, and the STi should have a slight edge. Subjectively, the STi feels considerably quicker than the Evo. Credit a much plumper midrange, shorter gearing in those crucial first few gears, and much less turbo lag. When the Evo’s turbo is pumping out those nineteen pounds of air the car flies, but because this power comes on more gradually—the Mitsu doesn’t produce a kick in the lower back to nearly the degree the Subaru does—the car feels less quick than it is. Let’s just say that once I glanced down and spotted the speedometer needle FAR closer to the triple digit mark than I thought it was. Thankfully, the Evo’s Brembo brakes feel even stronger than those fitted to the STi.

Shift quality is iffy in both cars, but more in the STi than in the Evo. The STi’s shifter is downright crunchy, with some balkiness thrown in for good measure. In comparison, with the Evo’s you merely feel every last bit of the mechanism as you snick from gate to gate—even more than I recall in the Lancer Ralliart that supposedly uses the same shifter. I would expect no less from a short-throw shifter, except that the Subaru Legacy’s optional short-throw shifter is buttery smooth from gate to gate, a pure delight. This is the shifter the STi and Evo should have.

The engine gets most of the public’s attention, but what really made me interested in driving the Evo was its steering. Steering feel is my big thing. The STi’s steering was a bit disappointing, with an overly damped feel for my tastes, and I’d read that the Evo had a significant advantage in this area. Well, it does. The Evo’s steering is much quicker, with a more direct feel. Too quick for typical driving? Not for me, but maybe for you. That said, even the Evo’s steering trails that of a good sports car. Its feel remains less direct than in a Miata or MR2. Why can’t a sedan steer like a sports car? I seriously want to know.

The Evo like the STi channels power through all four wheels, and this makes for generally balanced handling. Where the STi feels more hunkered down (I suppose the loud mechanical soundtrack has something to do with this) the Evo feels more agile. I usually prefer agile, but both have their attractions for me in this case. In either car power oversteer is easy to produce and easy to catch once produced. Both corner with very little lean, courtesy of extremely stiff suspensions.

I did encounter one issue with the Evo that I haven’t read about elsewhere. A few times when I eased off (but not entirely off) the throttle when driving quickly through a turn, the car bucked as if the engine was hitting the rev limiter. Engine speed was about 4000 RPM, so the rev limiter was clearly not involved. And the fuel tank was half full, so I do not suspect starvation. (Also, the Evo is designed for racing, which would involve much harder turns than I was subjecting it to.) Just a lot of driveline lash that surfaces when torque is reduced? Just this particular car?

Now we come to the area that killed the STi for me: ride quality and noise levels. Both cars are very stiffly sprung. Magazines have stated that the STi rides more smoothly than the Evo. This needs to be qualified. First, the tires on the Evo are significantly quieter both in terms of “roar” while going down the road and the “bump-thump” when going over tar strips and the like. Although noise levels are separate from ride quality they do influence the perception of ride quality. Second, while the Evo reacts more sharply to bumps and chuckholes in the road, especially at moderate speeds, the STi’s ride is busier, especially at highway speeds. The motions in the STi are less abrupt, but they are more frequent. The constant vertical motions on the highway in the STi combined with its high level of tire roar were easily more objectionable to me than the Evo’s greater roughness over road imperfections. In short, for me the Evo is the more suitable car for regular driving.

Mitsubishi Evo Reliability

I need your help here. Actually, everyone does.

Consumer Reports' reliability ratings leave too much to inference. If one car is "average" and another is "better than average," what does this mean? Does a "better than average" car "never break?" Is a "worse than average" car in the shop "all the time?"

Beginning in 2006, my website, www.truedelta.com, will provide measures of reliability that not only can easily be compared from vehicle to vehicle but that directly relate to how a car or truck's poor reliability most affects its owner.

If you'd like to have this information, then please join my panel. Your participation will make a difference. With enough people I'll be able to update reliability information monthly. With new models I hope to provide an initial read within three months of their introduction. (No more waiting a year or more to see the color of a dot.)

For the details and to sign up:

www.truedelta.com/reliability.php.

Mitsubishi Evo Price Comparisons and Pricing

The regular Evo is a few thousand dollars less expensive than the STi, while the new even higher performance MR version costs a few thousand more than the STi. Both cars hold their value well. The Subaru dealer had three STi’s, and even the 2004 with 37,000 miles on it had a “sale price” of $24,995. The asking prices for the other two were around thirty. With the new 2003 Evo I drove the dealer would not go below $28,000. With a real deal on the car I might have truly been tempted, but why buy a two-year-old car, even if new, for nearly as much as a 2005?

The bottom line: drive them both, then buy the one you like. The prices are much closer together than the cars’ characters, so the latter rather than the former should be the deciding factor.

Last Words

So, which would I buy? This is a tough one, because both cars possess serious flaws for me. With the Evo, I just cannot imagine spending $30,000 for a car with such a cheap interior. I also didn’t care for its driving position, but imagine I could have adapted to it. With the STi, I found the ride quality and road noise levels at highway speeds close to unbearable. A different tire might fix the noise issue. I suggest that used on the Evo. The ride quality might also improve with different tires, but this is less likely. And an aftermarket suspension is a dicier proposition.

One the positive side of the ledger, the STi has the better engine, while the Evo has better steering. Usually this would incline me toward the Evo, but the thrust produced by that Subaru engine is intoxicating.

Ultimately if forced to choose between these two cars I’d opt for the Subaru for the wrong reason—its interior doesn’t feel as cheap. Which is partly why if I managed to talk myself into spending $30,000 on a car it would likely be a different Subaru, the Legacy GT (which I sampled once again after my second STi test drive). Sure, the Legacy GT doesn’t accelerate as quickly or handle as sharply as the STi or Evo. But its steering feels at least as good as that in the STi, its even shorter throw shifter is far better than those in either hot rod, and (compared to them) it rides like a dream.

No one needs to comment that I must be getting old. Thanks to these cars I’ve figured that out already.

My reviews of related vehicles:
Audi S4
Dodge Neon SRT-4
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Subaru WRX STi

Amount Paid (US$): 32000
Model Year: 2003
Model and Options: Evo with wing
Product Rating: 4.0
Recommended: Yes 

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