Arch Rivals: Subaru WRX STI versus Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
For decades, these two souped-up econoboxes were at each other’s throats on the rally world stage—but which came out on top?
For most of the 1990s Canadians had to watch from afar as two of the world’s most successful rally car platforms – the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru WRX STI – battled it out for global supremacy on gravel stages and snow-covered alpine roads.
As cool as these two compact sedans were, they were forbidden fruit in North America until the early 2000s, when they first started to show up in dealerships and connect with drivers who had only ever experienced their thrills in video-game form.
Featuring all-wheel-drive, turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and trick aero that transformed them from econo-box-boring to ticket-me-please-officer, these two cars could hold their own with dedicated sports cars costing many multiples their purchase price.
With this pair of Japanese rivals at each other’s throat for almost their entire existence, it’s time to put them head-to-head and see which models won the intense generational battles that made up the larger Mitsubishi-Subaru struggle.
It’s a bit of a tough direct comparison, given that the Lancer Evo came out with new versions at nearly twice the rate of the STI in its early days, but we’ve done our best to line them all up. Check out our perspective on exactly when and specifically why the Lancer or the STI came out on top over the years.
Second-/Third-/Fourth-/Fifth-/Sixth-Gen Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and First-Gen Subaru WRX STI GC8
Having already campaigned the Lancer Evolution in the 1993 World Rally Championship, Mitsubishi was eager to apply what it had learned with the platform to the 1994 season in the form of the Lancer Evo II. In many ways similar to its predecessor, borrowing a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine from the older Galant VR-4 rally car, as well as its all-wheel-drive system, it featured more power (just over 250 horses and 228 lb-ft of torque), a wider track, and a longer wheelbase to go with a number of aerodynamic flourishes.
Mitsubishi was still learning the ropes in WRC when Subaru showed up with its STI. Based on the Impreza WRX that had debuted in 1992, and built from 1994 to 2000, the GC8 STI was an entirely more focused proposition from Subaru that featured extensive mechanical modifications including a sophisticated electromechanical differential on certain models; and a horsepower boost to 275 from the standard WRX’s 250 (also from a 2.0-liter turbo-four).
Crucial to the brand was the success of Colin McRae’s 555 STI in World Rally competition, which would net Subaru its first driver and constructor’s championship in 1995 (followed by repeat performances in 1996 and 1997). Closely tied to the STI’s street version, it would do much to boost Subaru’s performance, and would culminate in the 22B widebody STI that was built in 1998 to celebrate the trio of achievements. These cars featured a 2.2-liter version of Subaru’s flat-four, and were underrated at 276 horsepower (as per the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ governing advertised engine output at the time in Japan).
Aside from the 22B, Subaru would make tweaks to the STI formula over the decade but maintain the same general mechanical specifications, saving most of the special editions for the standard WRX. A notable exception was the STI S201 produced in the GC’s final year, which pumped horsepower up to 296 and installed a unique limited-slip front differential, scoop-like canards on the smoothed front bumper, a rear diffuser, and a trick suspension package. Only 300 examples were built.
Subaru’s STI couldn’t come close to matching the level of granularity achieved by Mitsubishi, however, with its seemingly endless quest to improve the Evolution over the course of the decade. The Evo III arrived in 1995 and brought with it a larger wing and a more effective front air dam in a bid to deliver bigger downforce on the rally stage, as well as larger ducting up front to feed its intercooler. Horsepower rose by 10 ponies thanks to a new turbocharger, and in competition the Evo III would win a driver’s championship for Tommi Makinen in 1996, followed by another in 1997 for the Evo IV.
This car’s refreshed platform put serious tech in the hands of the average driver, with a limited-slip differentials front and rear, 276 horsepower from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, and a new anti-yaw control system that electronically controlled the torque split between the rear wheels. The Evolution IV offered the first glimpse of the highly advanced technology that would become a staple of Mitsubishi’s rally efforts, and it would also introduce the most hardcore version of the RS trim level to date, which courted significant weight savings by shaving sheet metal and thinning the car’s glass.
Mitsubishi was far from done tweaking the Evo formula. The Evo V arrived in 1998 and included flared fender arches to go over its wider track, an adjustable wing, larger wheels and bigger Brembo brakes, and another turbocharger upgrade would further push past the 276 advertised horsepower mark. The ultra-aggressive street look for the V would be taken to the extreme by 1999’s Evo VI, which brought with it comprehensive engine revisions, much-improved cooling, and several special models including the 330-horsepower RS Spring and the soon-to-be-famous Tommi Makinen Edition. The Finnish driver would, by the end of the year, win his fourth consecutive WRC driver’s championship.
The verdict: Mitsubishi far and away dominated the 1990s with an onslaught of ever-quicker Lancer Evolutions. Subaru’s WRC success as a constructor is more than balanced out by Tommi Makinen’s incredible title run. We’re giving this one to Mitsubishi.
Seventh-/Eighth-/Ninth-Gen Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Second-Gen Subaru WRX STI
Subaru would bring the bugeye STI to a sceptical Japanese public for the 2001 model year (importing the standard WRX to the United States for the first time one year later). By the time the STI arrived in Canada for 2004, its Impreza underpinnings had transitioned to the ‘blob-eye’ design, which was considerably less polarizing.
More important were the mechanical updates given to the STI platform. In Japan the 2.0-liter engine remained in place, still producing ‘276 horsepower,’ but STI continued to build the S line of cars begun the year before with the STI S201. The next-in-line STI S202 (400 editions sold) wasn’t quite as spectacular to look at, but it crested 316 horsepower and featured a higher redline as well as a new six-speed manual transmission to go with the ball-joint suspension borrowed from the S201. 2003’s STI S203 would maintain the same horsepower but improve on torque (555 editions available), while the S204 would again feature the same drivetrain and titanium exhaust system (600 built).
North Americans’ first taste of the WRX STI would feature a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that offered 300 horsepower, which was a big step up from the 227 horses found in the standard 2.0-liter WRX. It would also bring a six-speed manual versus the WRX’s five-speed, and the eventually a driver-controlled center differential that could fine-tune the amount of torque sent to the front or the rear axles. This latter feature had been previously available exclusively in Japan, which also boasted Spec-C, V-Limited, and Type RA versions of the street car. Interestingly, all versions of the home-market STI would feature a 2.0-liter engine instead of the 2.5.
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI bowed out in favour of the Evo VII in 2001, and rule changes related to its WRC entry would see its platform increase in size and weight. The Evo VII vastly improved its all-wheel-drive system by way of a computer-controlled center differential, a multi-plate clutch design that combined with a new front limited-slip, and an improved rear limited-slip setup. Horsepower remained flat in the brochure, but tellingly torque was up to just under 290 lb-ft.
After a distinct lack of World Rally success (causing Mitsubishi to take a full year off from competition after 2002) the Evo VI was replaced by the Evo VIII for 2003. This version of the Lancer Evolution was a tour de force, with its revised ‘Super’ active yaw control system, a six-speed transmission of its own, new shock absorbers, and a focus on weight reduction. In the U.K., a series of FQ models, produced in partnership with Ralliart UK and specially tuned to produce as much as 400 horsepower, would dazzle enthusiasts with their ability to tame exotics on a road course.
The VII was also the first version of the Evolution to be sold in the United States (although not Canada), beating Subaru’s STI to the punch by a full model year. Although fully-stripped RS and standard GSR editions were complemented in Japan by the MR trim level’s additional aero goodies, in America there would be some fundamental changes: the standard Evo VIII was stripped of its active yaw control and front limited-slip differential (with the latter added back in with 2004’s RS trim), and transmissions were missing a sixth forward gear. The active center differential system would arrive in 2004 with the MR trim, which would also include a six-speed manual, and the following year the front limited-slip and the computer-controlled diff were offered across the board.
For 2006, Mitsubishi forged ahead with yet another Lancer Evolution, the IX. By now permanently out of WRX, the IX was able to turn its gaze towards what street warriors were looking for in a car. With a 286 horsepower rating thanks to new variable valve timing (although in reality pushing over 300 horses) the same general trim structure would prevail. This meant the MR was still necessary if a sixth cog was desired in the United States (or if you wanted the lightweight aluminium roof). Mitsubishi refined the look and aero of the IX and made the car better to drive on a day-to-day basis, and in Japan a wagon version of the Lancer Evolution was added to the line-up (along with an optional five-speed automatic).
The verdict: It’s a draw. Both Subaru and Mitsubishi brought their A-game to North America and provided two different but potent takes on how a rally-inspired turbo sedan should drive. Mitsubishi’s technology gives it a slight edge, but the fact the Evo wasn’t available in Canada during this period allowed Subaru to gain a massive foothold that it’s never given up.
10th-Gen Mitsubishi Lancer and Third-/Fourth-Gen Subaru WRX STI
Mitsubishi would quickly replace the Evolution IX with the Evo X for 2008. The X was a radical re-think as to what the sport sedan could accomplish now that it was freed completely from having to conform to WRX rules.
Styling went from upright to chunky, and the entire platform gained weight as it was stuffed with creature comforts. While the five-speed gearbox remained, it was joined by a new six-speed dual-clutch automated manual that would attract howls from the handful of Evo faithful. A new 2.0-liter engine was also in the picture, good for 295 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque.
While performance remained good, the Evo X was less of a livewire than previous versions of the car and it was much more expensive, encroaching on BMW 3 Series territory. Over time, a financially-troubled Mitsubishi’s refusal to provide the X with any meaningful updates meant that by the end of its lifespan in 2016, it was perceived as overpriced and over the hill, tarnishing the legacy of the once-proud icon.
For 2008 a new WRX STI would appear but only as a hatchback, flipping the sedan-only script that had guided it in North America. Engine output remained almost flat, with the JDM model offering 300 horses from 2.0-liter turbo-four; and export models getting about the same grunt from a 2.5-liter mill. Transmissions and differentials were upgraded, and chassis details were stiffened and strengthened. In Japan, the S206 picks up the S line tradition with a new focus on road course racing (see also: the STI R205 and the UK’s Prodrive-tuned variants) following Subaru’s decision to abandon WRC.
An eventual facelift for the Impreza would see the WRX add a sedan model back in the mix (in wide-body form, of course) and also live on past its commuter cousin even after the latter shifted to a new platform. Near-constant tweaks to its suspension aimed to bring the portlier STI back in sync with the handling dynamics of earlier models, but it wasn’t until 2015 that a new WRX STI would appear, now fully divorced from the Impreza’s naming structure.
Banishing the hatchback to the dust heap but still featuring the same 2.5-liter engine overseas (with a small bump to 305 horses) this sedan-only STI nevertheless improved many aspects of its overall drive, and it also grew easier to live with on a daily basis. Larger, with a more aggressive design, the STI began to flirt with the same high price point that had condemned the Evo (albeit with a much more modern set of features on offer).
Japan’s S207 arrived that same year (with a considerable boost to 324 horsepower from its 2.0-liter engine and a set of adaptive shocks at all four corners) followed closely by the S208 the year after. Other special models would include the Type RA (celebrating its Nurburgring sedan speed record) and the S209 (the first S line car to be sold exclusively outside of Japan).
The verdict: Subaru picked up where Mitsubishi dropped the ball and became the best-driving – and eventually only – game in town for enthusiasts who still dreamed of hearing the gravel under their tires.
Benjamin Hunting – Driving.ca