The best times are early weekend mornings when traffic is light, the road is clear. But there are serendipitous workday hours, too, usually between 1 and 3 p.m., when Interstate 66, heading west, offers beautiful driving.
I used one of those interludes to drive the 2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR, a tightly sprung sports car that does well on smooth stretches, such as those found on I-66 and then on I-81, going south. The little car can gallop on those mostly rut-free thoroughfares -- pumping pure whoosh from its 276-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
2005 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
(Mitsubishi via Wieck Media Services)
Nuts & Bolts|
Downside: The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR, with its great six-speaker sound system and seating for five, as well as other amenities, gives the impression that it will run as well and feel as good in the city as it does on a racetrack. But that impression is as illusory as the notion of a city paved with streets of gold -- or, for that matter, paved with flawless concrete and tarmac.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Brilliant in all three categories on the track and on good roads. Decidedly diminished -- in fact, uncomfortable -- in all three categories on most city streets.
Head-turning quotient: Highly attractive to the fast and the furious, especially to those who know that the carbon-fiber rear spoiler on the Evolution MR is no joke. It is designed to increase body rigidity and, at high speeds, help maintain vehicle stability. Others view the car as just another symbol of youthful excess, or middle-age crisis.
Body style/layout: The Evolution MR is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive sports sedan.
Engine/transmission: The car comes with a two-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve turbocharged engine that develops 276 horsepower at 6,500 revolutions per minute and 286 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. The engine is mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission.
Cargo and fuel capacities: The Evolution MR has seating for five people. Cargo capacity is 10.2 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 14 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: I averaged 24 miles per gallon mostly driving on the highway.
Safety: Basic dual front air bags; four-wheel disc brake with anti-lock protection; seat belts. You've got to buckle those belts in this one.
Price: The Lancer Evolution MR is a niche car; but it's a high-demand, low-volume niche car greatly desired by weekend racers. Thus, the prices here, obtained from Mitsubishi, are mere suggestions: Base price is $34,999. Destination charge is $595. Price as tested is $35,594. The reality is that many dealers will add premiums.
Purse-strings note: It sounds expensive, but it's one of the best genuine sports car buys available. Compare with the Subaru WRX STi, Mazda RX-8, Nissan 350Z and Porsche Boxster.
The Evolution MR's steering is surgically precise on well-maintained roads; it goes exactly where you point it, which means you should always know exactly where you are going when you're behind its wheel.
But don't make the mistake of taking the Evolution MR or its stripped sibling, the racetrack-ready Evolution RS, into the city. Urban sojourns in cars deliberately built for speed and sharp handling are bound to be less than enjoyable. There are stop signs, red lights, pedestrians and traffic congestion aplenty. Rare is the city that does not have multiple broken and cratered streets.
I can deal with normal impediments to urban driving, especially on the East Coast, where cities are built more for people than cars. But it's pure torture to take a car like the Evolution MR into, say, the District of Columbia, especially in winter.
Snow-covered streets are not the problem. The Evolution MR, for example, comes with all-wheel drive; and, in this case, its low-aspect ratio tires, primarily meant for hot laps on good, dry roads, were exchanged for high-performance winter treads. The car also has what Mitsubishi calls an "active center differential" (ACD) that helps provide the right amount of traction on regular tarmac, or on roads covered with snow or gravel.
What the Evolution MR can't handle -- indeed, what few low-riding, tautly suspended cars can cope with -- are the potholes, ruts, ridges and otherwise grossly uneven surfaces that characterize many city streets. The urban sinkholes swallow the Evolution MR's 17-inch BBS forged alloy wheels.
Everything done to the car to reduce weight and improve driving accuracy and pleasure on smooth roads -- the forged aluminum suspension pieces, the power-assisted, quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering system, the rigid body construction -- turns against the Evolution MR's driver on poorly maintained avenues.
The quick-ratio steering, for example, swiftly tracks road grooves and pits, giving the driver the erroneous impression that the entire front end is out of alignment. Handling is compromised with each bump and thump. Driving the Evolution MR under such circumstances is akin to a long-distance trip over a highway affixed with speed bumps every six feet.
It is not an everyday car meant for every road -- a combination of negative attributes that will guarantee its status as a niche-mobile. But that's okay. The people who buy the Lancer Evolution -- the hard-core set who prefer it in RS form without a sound system or floor covers or anything else that has nothing to do with driving fast and well; or the members of the Walter Mitty League, who dream of coming in first in a Formula 1 or NASCAR run, as long as they can do it in the lap of luxury -- know what they are getting.
They are buying a collection of moments more than they are buying a car. They are buying an early Sunday morning in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on I-66, practicing heel-and-toe driving, blipping the accelerator pedal, squeezing the clutch, coming down a gear or two just before entering the apex of a well-formed curve -- and the enjoyment of it all when it's all done well.
It doesn't really matter to them that the Evolution MR seats five people. Besides, people add weight, and weight compromises speed and handling. This is a selfish car, the motorized version of a private or personal financial account. It was not designed for everybody. Nothing this good ever is.