Comparison: 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR vs. 2012 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Five-Door

By Brandon Turkus

April 03, 2012

(photo credit: Chris Amos)
—Dexter, Michigan
There are few automotive rivalries (at least between two models) that are as intense as the one between the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. You could make an argument for the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, but we’re still pretty certain that Evo/STI packs a fair bit more venom (feel free to debate this one in the comments).
This is a matchup of two icons, with intensely loyal followings, filled with aftermarket tuners dedicated to their respective machines. Fans of one brand would rather walk than drive their competitor’s iron.
Blood Feud
All this bad blood began, as it often does when it comes to cars, in the world of motorsports. In particular, Group A rally racing was the first battleground. In the early to mid 1990s, Mitsubishi and Subaru battled through the forests of Europe and the snows of Scandinavia, with the real bloodbath beginning in 1995. It was the first of three consecutive championships for Subaru, and was the only one that resulted in an Impreza driver winning a World Driver’s Championship (the late, great Colin McRae).
The next two years saw Subaru wins, while Mitsubishi’s Tommi Mäkinen captured the driver’s championship. In 1998, Mitsubishi finally defeated its rival in the constructor’s standings, claiming its first and only WRC title (Tommi, meanwhile, won his third championship). While neither brand boasts a factory-supported team, Evos and STIs are still active in rallying around the world.
Although the rivalry didn’t kick off in North America until 2001 when the Impreza WRX arrived, it had been going on for nearly a decade in Japan. Both the original WRX STI and Evo I debuted in 1992, and went through several versions and/or evolutions between then and landing on our shores. Power and technology increased progressively, bumping against Japan’s self-imposed horsepower peak, but the intensity of this rivalry rarely eased.
In 2003, Mitsubishi delivered its first American-spec Evo (VIII) to counter the Impreza WRX that had been on sale for two years. Subaru struck back with Impreza WRX STI in 2004. The battle has raged since, with the Evolution IX and X going toe-to-toe with the second and third-generation STI in North America.
Now, we’re getting ready for the next generation of Evo and STI. Both are expected around 2014, and the rumors are absolutely flying. We’ve heard of the Evo XI using a diesel-hybrid setup, while the STI (and the WRX that it’s based on) could be getting its own, dedicated platform, separate from the pedestrian Impreza. Frankly, it’s not easy predicting the future. 2014 is still a long ways off, and a lot can change between now and then. We just know that time for this generation is beginning to run out. With that fact in mind, holding one last head-to-head between these two seemed like a no-brainer.
Both vehicles strike the right sorts of visual cues, with a heady compliment of vents, and scoops, and aggressive body kits. Eighteen-inch wheels for both vehicles are from the fine folks at BBS, and gave a great feeling of aggression to both. Inside, there’s a real performance focus, too.
The front seats in both vehicles are from Recaro, and made for near constant bickering between our test team. On the one hand, the ultra-supportive seats in the Evo would be a fine choice for a track day or autocross, but the narrow confines meant that not everybody’s body type fits so comfortably. Especially if your type tends to the large, American-made variety.
The STI’s seats on the other hand, are far friendlier for everyday driving—even for big folks. The bolstering isn’t as aggressive, and while they don’t create the sort of visual excitement as the Lancer’s do, they feel better balanced between support and comfort.
The Oily Bits
Befitting their rally car roots, both the Evo and STI utilize advanced all-wheel-drive systems, along with turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
In the Mitsubishi’s case, the turbo’d four produces 291 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque from 2.0 liters. It sends power to all four wheels via Mitsubishi’s Super All-Wheel Control, which integrates All-Wheel Control and Active Yaw Control, and allows quick transfers of engine power to the wheels with the most grip at any give moment. The S-AWC system also has three selectable modes (Tarmac, Gravel, and Snow) to adjust for different road conditions.
Subaru enters the fight with a 2.5-liter, turbocharged, horizontally opposed four-cylinder, producing 305 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. It routes power to the latest instantiation of its Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system.
Driver’s can tweak power distribution by way of a Driver-Controlled Center Differential. The system has three automatic modes that tweak the cars handling (“Auto” “Auto-“ and “Auto+”). Auto– sends more power to the rear wheels, for improved handling; Auto+ sends more power to the front wheels for extra stability; just plain Auto means to offer the best of both worlds, as it were. Switch the system to manual mode and you’ll be offered six different settings, all of which allow you to tweak front/rear torque distribution.
Finally, Subaru offers Subaru Intelligent Drive, or SI-Drive. This system has three different settings (Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp) to adjust throttle response and the engine controls.
In all, that’s 27 different ways to configure the driving character of your STI, which, it hardly needs to be said, is incredibly cool.
Putting Some Heat In The Tires
When driving the Evo and STI, it’s not always obvious that these two share a common pedigree. Both may have made their names in rallying, but have since developed two radically different performance philosophies, as we found out during our test drive.
The Subaru was extremely quick in a straight line, easily outpacing the 200-pound-heavier Evo. There was a really broad, smooth power curve on offer here, meaning it was quite easy to find the boxer engine’s sweet spot and keep it pegged there.
The STI has 10 fewer pound-feet of torque than the Mitsubishi (290 versus 300), but it peaks at an identical 4000 rpm. Even with this slight handicap, the usable power on offer makes the Impreza an easier car to accelerate in than the Evo. As Editor-In-Chief Miersma put it, “Damn, stepping out of the Evo and into this makes the STI engine feel downright mighty!” We couldn’t agree more.
The Mitsu may not be as fast in a straight line, but its character as it accelerates was arguably more fun. Once over the initial turbo lag, we were treated to an extremely fast revving powerplant that quite happily ran straight up to redline.
The narrower power curve forced us to pay closer attention to the tach, as we aimed to keep the Lancer north of 4000 rpm. With a 7000-rpm redline, there was still enough room to play around, but we were penalized with turbo lag when we let the revs drop too low.
Such different engine characteristics make for very different acoustical experiences. To be fair, engine notes are often in the eye (um, ear) of the beholder. If forced to pick, we’d need to opt for throaty growl of the Impreza.
The classic flat-four bellow that can only belong to a Subaru really was the meat of the acoustic signature here. It was such a rich, mellow note. There was also a slight whining sound coming from the transmission (think straight-cut gears, only far more muted) that really added to the accelerative experience. In a cruising situation, the STI didn’t pummel you with a droning exhaust note either, as it instead delivered a reasonably quiet hum.
The racecar-like Evo was a bit less friendly to our ears. This was a loud car in most every situation. Punching it from a standstill, we got an earful of unpleasant noise. It was just a cacophony of intake and exhaust noise fighting with the whoosh of the massive turbocharger. To be honest, it was kind of like a vacuum cleaner (Satan’s vacuum cleaner, but a vacuum cleaner nonetheless). There just wasn’t that one defining characteristic that set its exhaust note apart from the STI. Over 70 miles per hour, we were treated to a droning exhaust note that began to wear on us after about 20 minutes.
The two different approaches to shifting also had a big influence on how these two cars drove. We liked the old school, six-speed manual of the STI plenty. It had some notchiness that forced us to strong-arm it a bit in each gate, but once we got use to it, it was a breeze to work. The clutch was progressive and easy to lean, as well.
Unlike Lancer Evos of the past, all MR-trimmed cars come standard with a six-speed, SportShift dual-clutch transmission. There are a lot of DCTs on the market nowadays, but few have the performance panache of the Evo’s SST.
Left on its own in D, it executed quick and well-timed upshifts and downshifts with nary a complaint. Switched in to Sport the computer held the gears longer before upshifting (which happened even faster than in Normal mode). Downshifts were super-quick in Sport with the computer doing a great job of predicting when to execute one based on the way we were driving. The real fun happened when we slotted over to manual mode, though.
You can use both Sport and Normal mode with the paddle shifters, with similar shift speeds to the full-auto mode. Preferable though, is to flick and hold the transmission mode selection switch until the IC display reads “Sport+”.
Sport+ delivered the fastest, most severe shifts possible, and gave a fair idea of just what it might be like to be a racing driver. Mitsubishi claims Sport+ is a track-only application but the speed at which this thing shifted made it the go-to mode for everything from on-ramps, to stoplights, to twisty forest roads. The speed and addictiveness of running through the gears in Sport+ may also explain the meager fuel economy we observed (Miersma managed to drain over a quarter of a tank in one loop of our 14-mile drive route).
The beautiful, column-mounted magnesium shift paddles on the Evo are the model the rest of the industry should strive for. We find them perfectly suited for our needs when driving fast.
Purists might be bemoaning the Evo for opting for an automatic (even if it is a super-awesome DCT). But it makes a whole lot of sense on a car that can rev this quickly, is so prone to turbo lag, and has such a narrow powerband. Having a quick-shifting transmission can be the difference between shaving time on corner exit and being caught flat-footed when you go for the gas.
Simply, the SST on the Evo allowed us to extract the maximum amount of performance with the most user-friendliness. And it was darn near as fun as most manual transmissions, to boot.
Things really began to differ when we threw some curves at these two. In a rare unanimous decision, the Lancer was declared the car for our handling loop. It was extremely drama free, spitting out turns the way chicken-wing-eating champs spit out bones. Dive into a turn, and the quick, talkative steering simply pulsed with information regarding front-end grip.
Because of the thinner rim (and cheaper-feeling materials) that Mitsubishi used for the Evo’s wheel, it actually seemed to enhance the amount of feedback it delivers. Turn-in was almost ludicrously sharp and fast, making rapid directional changes was breeze.
Once in the turn, the Evo greeted us with its balanced chassis. The lateral damping was a thing of beauty, giving the Lancer a confidence-inspiring character in hard, tire-squealing corners. Fore-and-aft balance was also nicely tuned, aiding confidence when setting up and exiting turns.
It was this feeling of balance and neutrality that really made the Mitsu an endearing car along the twistier portions of our driving route. The fact that there seemed to be monumental amounts of grip courtesy of the Super All-Wheel Control system didn’t hurt either. Even shod with winter tires (as both of our testers were), the Evo simply stayed glued to the road.
Things weren’t as rosy in the softer-sprung STI. While a competent handler on its own, it lacked the outright capability and poise of the Evo. There was noticeably more body roll through the bends, and it tended to dive a bit too much under hard braking. The lighter steering and thicker-rimmed wheel made for less feedback from the front end, and overall suspension communication wasn’t at the near-telepathic levels of the Lancer. Where the Evo felt balanced and neutral, the STI would revert to understeer when pushed in hard turns.
Surprisingly, the softer STI didn’t respond as well as we’d predicted to some of the rougher patches of our drive route, either. There was much more lateral body motion over rough stretches, and the steering tended to have a mind of its own when presented with a particularly vicious pothole, often jerking away from the center.
At first, we suspected the STI’s softer suspension would make for better off-road handling, but after the behavior exhibited, we weren’t nearly so sure. After a day of driving, our test crew was actually surprised to find that the firmer Evo was the preferred ride over the rougher stuff. It just didn’t lose its composure the way the STI did.
The STI’s adjustable center differential and the Evo’s S-AWC were points of contention with their multiple modes. We generally left the Mitsubishi in Tarmac on our drive route, not really venturing out of a mode that seemed so obviously designed for the type of driving we were doing. We did mess with the center diff in the STI though.
While it did feel slightly different when going from Auto–, manual mode turned down, Auto+,  or having manual on Lock, it was tough in such uncontrolled conditions to really see what effect these systems had on the car. Our guess is that it’d take proper track time to really exploit everything the DCCD offers.
Brakes on both cars were from Brembo, with four-piston calipers up front and two-piston units in back. The Evo used two-piece, 13.8-inch vented discs in front and 13.0-inch vented rotors in back, while the Subie had 13.0-inchers in front and 12.6-inchers in the back. Based on these figures, we’d thought the Mitsubishi would be the better of the two.
Surprisingly though, it was the STI that had the more sure-footed brake pedal. It felt more progressive, and didn’t require as much effort to get full braking.
There was more travel and less feedback in the Mitsubishi’s brake pedal. It’s possible that the race-oriented vented discs in the Evo weren’t heating as quickly as the solid pieces on the STI, which would explain the lack of feel and extra pedal effort.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that there’s a good chance that these vehicles will be someone’s daily driver, and utility plays a big part. For that, the five-door Impreza was the car to have. There was plenty of room in that rear space for things, and even in four-door trim, we found a healthy sized trunk at our disposal.
The Evo was just a bit too race-oriented in this setting. With both the battery and washer fluid reservoir mounted behind the back seats, there was no pass-through to the alarmingly small trunk.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Ultimately, it’s difficult to convince ourselves (let alone you) that one of these remarkable vehicles is “The Best.” The Mitsubishi was easier to drive fast, and felt quicker in our hands, point-to-point. The Subaru felt like a better car to have, overall, with loads of versatility and some comfort to add to it’s heaping helping of quick.  because unlike a more mundane vehicle category, these cars aren’t about which is best. They are about the experience, and that experience doesn’t get much more different than these two. Being Winding Road, “For Drivers,” is always on our mind, which means we have to give the win to the ultra-involving Mitsubishi. Still, if you find yourself with a cool $40,000 to burn, you could do far worse than pick either these two titans.
We love both of these automobiles. Either are cars that will earn the coveted title of The Best Car I Ever Owned for most of those drivers smart enough to get in now. Ownership of either means entry into a super-exclusive, borderline fanatical club of awesomeness-made-car. Driving just one, once, can make a car guy geek out for days (just ask our intern). Driving both, back-to-back, well, we’ll just say that we like our jobs. Long live the rivalry.
2012 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 2.0-liters, 16v
Output: 291 hp/300 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.0 sec (est)
Top Speed: 150 mph
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/22 mpg
Base Price: $37,695
2012 Subaru Impreza WRX STI 5-Door
Engine: Turbocharged Flat-4, 2.5-liters, 16v
Output: 305 hp/290 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec (est)
Top Speed: 155 mph
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Base Price: $36,095