CHANDLER, AZ – Mitsubishi Motors Corp. drew a hard lot in making the 10th-generation Lancer Evolution more attractive to discerning buyers without abandoning the rally sedan’s hardcore performance ethos.

The previous I-IX iterations held fast to a minimalist formula and methodically improved over 16 years with ever-greater infusions of technology and capability.

However, Mitsubishi overall is grappling to regain its composure in the marketplace. Products such as the base Lancer have matured to include body structures and engines shared with other auto makers, a concern for loyalists who fear the pedigree of the all-new ’08 model, now simply called the Lancer Evolution, will be lost in the dilution.

In sampling the new Evo’s family jewels at Firebird International Raceway here, it proves delightful to toss into a tight bend at warp speed and is one of the few vehicles that can make a driving hack feel like a motoring god.

Steering is super sharp without being twitchy, and the big Brembo disc brakes halt the commotion with confidence. Electronic stability control is a first-ever safety net for the Evo and kicks in softly to keep the sticky Yokohama Advan performance rubber out of the weeds. However, arcing 4-wheel drifts are best managed with a firm tug on the wheel and the ESC turned off.

To reach a wider, more affluent audience, Mitsubishi split the new car into distinct MR and GSR models.

The MR is the headliner, with its automated 6-speed Twin-Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST) from Getrag GmbH and column-mounted paddle shifters. Sporting three driver-selectable settings (normal, sport and S-sport), the new gearbox introduces the Evo to relaxed cruising for the first time but is advanced enough to manage track days in automatic mode.

Also featured are 18-in. forged BBS wheels, as well as Eibach springs and Bilstein shocks for the new aluminum-intensive suspension.

The less-expensive GSR, equipped with a robust 5-speed manual, less window dressing and a simpler chassis setup, is similar in feel to the MR but is the purist’s choice.

Parked next to the previous IX model, the shark-nosed ’08 Evolution appears far more substantial, with rounder curves, a higher beltline and chunkier proportions. High-strength steel is added in key stress areas, while several aluminum body panels shave off extra weight.

Note to designers and marketers: Change the wimpy dual exhaust tips and make the garish rear spoilers optional.

Both models share the same all-aluminum turbocharged and intercooled 2.0L 4-cyl., making 291 hp and 300 lb.-ft. (407 Nm) of torque.

Loosely based on the “World Engine” architecture shared with Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Chrysler LLC, the quick-revving 4B11 features Mitsubishi’s Innovative Valve Electronic Control on intake and exhaust tracts and is nearly 28 lbs. (13 kgs) lighter than the iron-block 4G63 of generations I-IX.

The MR and GSR also share a battery of traction systems in their Super-All Wheel Control (S-AWC) networks, which individually direct power to each wheel through an array of electronic brake functions and smart differentials.

The Active Center Differential, for instance, is adjustable for tarmac, gravel or snow with the steering-wheel-mounted toggle. The Active Yaw Control system can apportion power to either rear wheel, improving stability and/or helping rotate the car in tight corners.

All that traction makes for tricky off-the-line acceleration in the GSR. An automatic launch control program in the MR’s TC-SST minimizes abusive clutch slippage, but full-throttle runs in both cars indicate the once-chiseled Evo has put on a beer gut in the form of seven standard airbags and other luxury amenities.

That Mitsubishi’s product presentation mentioned the Audi S4 and BMW 1-Series as cross-shopping rivals – and not the Subaru Impreza STI, the Evo’s longtime nemesis – speaks to the auto maker’s up-market vision for the new car.

’08 Mitsubishi
Lancer Evolution GSR/MR
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.0L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 291 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 300 lb.-ft. (407 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 9.0:1
Transmission 5-speed manual/ 6-speed twin-clutch auto-manual
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 177.0 ins. (450 cm)
Overall width 71.3 (181 cm)
Overall height 58.3 (148 cm)
Curb Weight 3,517-3,594 lbs.
(1,595-1,630 kg)
Base price range $34,000/ $39,000 (est.)
Fuel economy 16/22 mpg (15/11 L/100 km)
Competition Audi S4, BMW 135i Sport, Subaru Impreza STI
Pros Cons
Fun, agile, fast Not as much so as IX
Sleek exterior Less tuner-friendly
Upgraded interior Added weight

Interestingly, the 3-year/36,000-mile (57,936-km) basic and 5-year/60,000-mile (96,561-km) powertrain warranties are significantly shorter than before, a move Mitsubishi says will reduce claims from tuners and track-driving enthusiasts.

Much of the ’08 Evolution’s cabin is shared with other Lancers, which is to say it’s well accented, comfortable and a welcome improvement from the previous model’s drab-plastic innards.

The driving position and primary controls are near perfect, while the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate infotainment system makes the ride far more tolerable when the throttle isn’t on the floorboard.

However, a $40,000 luxury carriage it is not, even with the fancy transmission, added sound insulation and bear-hugging Recaro sport seats.

As the pre-production vehicles driven here were quite rough, Mitsubishi plans one last software update for the lightning-quick TC-SST automated manual, which occasionally proved vulnerable to heat and finicky under moderate abuse.

GSR models will be on U.S. dealer lots in February, with MRs coming sometime in spring, a spokesman says, noting a near-even split is expected in the annual production mix of at least 5,000 vehicles.

For its composed, at-the-limit behavior combined with surprising drivability, the new Lancer Evolution feels twice the car as its predecessor. Yet, its famed bloodlines come across slightly muted by the thick blanket of technology guiding the experience.

Like a rowdy football player returning from business school, the Evo is emboldened with a greater level of sophistication that makes its abilities easier to appreciate.

It’s just not as much fun as it used to be.

msutton@wardsauto.com