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WHEN YOU THINK of high-performance, exotic cars, Mitsubishi and Subaru are not the first two nameplates to sprint into your brain. However, these two Japanese carmakers have recently created a pair of compact sports sedans (with World Rally Championship DNA) that can give the most high-end sports cars a race for their pink slips.
The sticking point is that Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution and Subaru's Impreza WRX STi still look basically like run-of-the-mill econoboxes. Well, almost. They do have enormous rear spoilers and, in the case of the Subaru, a hood scoop so vast it could suck the lipstick off of Cameron Diaz. So the question becomes, is this just bolted-on silliness, or are these cars the real deal?
Behold reality. The Lancer Evolution and Impreza WRX STi are two of the hottest cars we've ever tested, especially if you believe driving, like sex, should be done with great enthusiasm. Both of these turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sedans are veritable road leeches when it comes to traction and handling, and both provide outstanding acceleration and braking performance. And while they look quite similar on paper (both even include buttons to shoot water on the turbocharger intercoolers for extra thrust when desired), they display very different personalities when you're strapped in behind the wheel.
The Lancer Evolution offers an eclectic driving experience, for while its chassis is truly forgiving and user-friendly when driven hard, the engine is downright boisterous. At low RPMs, there's not much going on, but once the revs climb and the turbocharger gets spinning the power slaps you like a ticked-off dominatrix. The AWD system provides a 50/50 split of power to the front and rear wheels, and this, in combination with outstanding balance and steering feedback, makes the Evo a joy to blast through challenging switchbacks. The ride is firm and can get harsh over rough roads, but the tradeoff is outstanding control during hard cornering and terrific high-speed stability. Most interior appointments are typical economy car fare, but the race-quality Recaro front seats are seriously supportive and comfortable.
The WRX STi offers more refined technical sophistication, ride quality and interior ambiance. It also has a motor that is a true marvel in the way it delivers its 300 HP. From the basement of the powerband all the way to the Flat Four's 7000-RPM redline you get smooth, seamless power with little discernible turbo lag. But while more sedate in character, the STi is the equal to the Evo in performance, with the exception of steering response (which isn't up to the Mitsubishi's incredible feel). Traction also seems a hair behind the Evo, although the Subaru sports a driver-adjustable center AWD differential so you can alter the 35/65 standard torque split between the front and rear wheels if desired. Very cool.
Ultimately, what we have are two incredible ways to fly without leaving the ground (or mortgaging your home). Amazing performance is provided in both the Evo and STi; you just have to pick the personality that suits you best. If you truly enjoy driving hard and fast on the relative cheap, though, we think you can't go wrong with either.