The irony of the situation isn’t lost on us when, at 8:40 a.m, both of our phones ping with the same text message from Autocar HQ: “Due to adverse weather conditions, traveling into our office is extremely difficult. Only travel to work where absolutely necessary.”
Because while the UK grinds to a halt under its worst snow storm for years, we’re already at work on the road. We’re not put off by a bit of snow, partly because our cars have all-wheel drive and snow chains, but mostly because snow is the very reason we’ve come here, to the ski resort of Flaine in the French Alps.
Twelve months ago, we took delivery of the latest incarnations of Subaru’s and Mitsubishi’s rally replicas, a Lancer Evolution X and an Impreza STi, and we’ve been arguing about which is better ever since. To bring the two together for one final journey – and settle the score once and for all – we decided to head south to Flaine, and put our respective all-wheel trickery to the test on an ice racing circuit.
My experience of the Evo has been split between two different examples, first an FQ-300 GSR with Mitsubishi’s twin-clutch SST gearbox, then a manual FQ-360 in GS trim. Over both cars I’ve clocked up 22,000 miles. Colleague Matt Prior, who has had a single example of Subaru’s STi but with a mid-life tune-up courtesy of Prodrive’s power pack, has gone further, putting 26,500 miles under his wheels.
That it is the Subaru that has traveled further highlights the first noticeable difference between the two. Much as it pains me to admit it, for long-distance journeys the Subaru is the superior choice; it is more comfortable, quieter and has a less restrictive range.
Equipped with the six-speed SST gearbox, the Evo can be quite restful, but in manual form it is hamstrung by the low-geared five-speed ‘box. Mitsubishi says this unit was selected for its greater durability in competition use, but as we get stuck into an 85mph cruise through France, the drone of a constant 4200rpm has me questioning the wisdom of this.
The truth, however, is that neither car is in its element on the freeway. Excellent straight-line stability and the security of all-wheel drive do matter, but touring economies of 25.8mpg (STi) and 23.4mpg (Evo) are difficult to stomach.
After a refill, the Evo’s trip computer indicates a range of 230 miles, so you end up looking for a filling station at the 180-mile mark. The STi is better, needing juice every 300 miles, but even that’s not great.
Between Reims and Dijon the autoroute zig-zags via Troyes, which is all the excuse Matt and I need to brave the insecurity of irregular gas stations and take the more direct cross-country route.
These are the roads the Evo and STi were made for: too narrow for supercars, bumpy, twisty and extremely slippery. Although they were born of a similar brief, the two cars’ approaches are quite different. The Subaru has the more characterful engine and is more immediately rapid; its boost comes in earlier and lasts longer.
The Evo is much more clinical in its delivery. Some in the office have uncharitably likened its engine note to that of a washing machine, which is a touch harsh, but not totally unfounded. But you cannot question the effectiveness of the Evo’s 354bhp 2.0-liter motor. With a specific output of 177hp per liter, you can forgive it a bit of turbo lag, and when it gets going the Evo is nothing short of brutal.
To an extent, the STi vs Evo battle is a matter of personal preference. The Subaru presents a more solid, obviously all-wheel drive experience; the Evo is initially more pointy and less nose-heavy but then appears to conjure magic from its differentials. But even Matt admits that when you’re on the right road and in a certain frame of mind, the Evo is the more satisfying and accomplished machine. The Subaru, while still incredibly capable, suffers from more body roll, and doesn’t convey quite the same taut, incisive feel of the Evo.
Several hours later, as we climb the hairpin roads towards our overnight halt in Flaine, we find snow. The roads are clear, treated and drama-free. But when tackling an unknown route lined with thick snow banks in the dark, the assurance of four-wheel drive is a comfort.
As we arrive at our hotel, having racked up 670 miles in a day, the STi and Evo have proved capable long-distance sluggers. There’s something relaxing about driving a car with the reserves of performance and grip offered by the Subaru and Mitsubishi. And while neither car offers the pinnacle in interior fit and finish (the Mitsubishi in particular, which has suffered from dashboard squeaks and rattles), both possess a mechanical robustness that suggests they could take abuse for years to come.
In our 12 months of motoring, other than rattles, some wheel damage and the Evo occasionally needing a few churns before firing, neither has missed a beat. The only question mark hovers over the SST gearbox of our first Evo, which never felt quite right pulling away from cold and engaged the odd gear with an almighty bang.
Thankfully, servicing an Evo is no longer the ruinous experience it once was, with a trip to the dealer now required every 10,000 miles. We had to service the FQ-300 towards the end of its time with us, and the FQ-360 soon after it arrived (an initial check at 1,000 miles) at a combined cost of $888. That may sound steep, but in more normal circumstances we could have opted for the service package ($654 for three years/30,000 miles). The only other cost has been $952 for a set of tires for the FQ-300.
The Subaru’s rubber was changed too, when the standard 17in wheels were replaced with 18in Prodrive alloys wrapped in Dunlop Sport SP9000 rubber at a total cost of $3,634. The service intervals are frequent, at 9,000 miles, but costs are lower. The first was $378; the second, which would have cost the same, was taken care of by Subaru at the same time as the car’s upgrade to 325hp.
When morning comes we realize just how high we’ve climbed, and just how much fun lies ahead. The ice circuit is only two-thirds of a mile long but it’s full of twists and even includes a jump. The track is everything from a playground for the local heroes (one is already dancing his Evo IX around as we arrive) to a venue for corporate bashes. Or, like us, you can turn up and pay by the hour, either in your own car or one of the school’s.
To do the circuit and cars justice, it probably would have been wise to fit snow or spiked tires, but that would have required unprecedented levels of forward planning, so we stick with our worn road tires.
The track is carved from ice rather than snow, and is practically impossible to stand up on, but the Evo and STi more than prove their credentials. Getting going is tricky, but once on the move it is possible to adjust the line on the throttle and use the momentum to your advantage.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is one of the most amusing things I’ve done in a car. But it’s also pretty informative, with the discovery that switching the Evo’s Super All Wheel Control to the snow setting does improve the car’s traction and balance. The Subaru also benefits from a bit of tweakery of its settings – putting the throttle response in Sport and flicking the center diff one notch towards the rear improves neutrality – but it still understeers more than the Evo. Where pitching the Mitsubishi into corners on the brakes necessitates a “dab of oppo,” Matt finds that the same technique in the Impreza still requires “a whiff of pozzo.”
Against the clock the Evo just pips the STi, although our race isn’t the scientific test we’d hoped for (watch the video for full details)
. It’s been a trivial outing, perhaps, but our ice adventure has proved that the STi is more refined and has the sweeter-sounding engine, but in chassis balance the Evo is king.
With the current crop of hot hatches snapping on the heels of the likes of the rally reps, some say the Evo’s and STi’s days are numbered. But from our experience, if you want a car that will serve you every day of the year, even when the going gets tough and the rest start flailing, there are few that cope as well as the STi and Evo.Words: Jamie Corstorphine, AutocarPictures: Autocar