Enhanced TMR Evo X tackles Targa’s toughest roads
Smoothly self-shifting through to sixth gear, the SST dual-clutch gearbox of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X gives every impression it’s attached to a docile cruiser of a car. Air-conditioning cranked, it’s time for some tunes… but there’s no stereo. It’s a gentle reminder of the car I’m currently driving.
Team Mitsubishi Ralliart (TMR) needs no introduction to motorsport fans. Synonymous with Mitsubishi performance and with a trophy cabinet full of Australian Manufacturers’ Championship titles and Targa trophies, they are the people to contact when it comes to extracting even more performance from the legendary line of Lancer Evolutions.
Debuting on the tarmac rally scene in 2008, TMR-modified Evo Xs took up where its successful IXs left off, and in subsequent years they dominated the Targa championship’s showroom class. The year 2011 was a particular highlight, with category victories at Targa Wrest Point, Targa Tasmania and a crushing podium sweep at Targa High Country. It’s the mountainous, treacherous tarmac of the latter where I’m steering my stead for the day.
The stead in question has several scars, all of which add to its life as TMR’s Evo X Club Spec development vehicle. Certain light reveals a sheen to its bodywork where sponsor stickers were once displayed, and it wears its gravel rash – a legacy of corner cutting in Targa competition – with pride.
Formerly fully-prepared for competition and complete with a roll cage, tricky front differential and bespoke suspension designed to handle the challenges of Tasmanian tarmac, ‘TMR-300’ is today enjoying its retirement as a road car, right down to the MR-spec leather interior trim replacing the Spartan racing cockpit it’s worn in the past.
Of course, small touches remain: the fire extinguisher mounted on the passenger floor (and mounting clips for a secondary device under the driver’s seat), the holes in the carpet where a roll-cage once fed through, and the dead giveaway of a competitor incident response sticker on its off-side sun visor.
While these days close to standard; Brembo brakes, Bilstein shocks, BBS forged aluminium 18-inch wheels, this TMR Evo X nevertheless retains the 270kW engine package which is, incidentally, still available through Team Mitsubishi Ralliart.
TMR Director Alan Heaphy, whose exploits include orchestrating Nissan’s 1990 Le Mans pole position and engineering the legendary ‘Godzilla’ Skyline GT-Rs as part of Gibson Motorsport, says the 53kW and 64Nm (to 270kW and 430Nm) performance increase is a simple matter of understanding the Evo X’s ECU. “We’d developed a pretty good package with the Evo IX, but the X was a fresh challenge with its new all-alloy engine. With things like variable cam timing, we were able to maximise the engine’s tune in 1000rpm increments, by modifying cam and ignition timing, fuelling and boost. We coupled this with a specific exhaust and muffler package as part of the Club Spec package, which was designed to allow people to go to anything from club track events through to Targa’s Showroom class.”
Of course, the ECU kit could be ordered separately, and this is how TMR-300 is specified today. It also retains TMR’s own progressive-rate suspension spring package.
With the final batch of Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs arriving in Australia early in 2015, it feels appropriate to seek out the roads with which it clearly feels an affinity as the sun sets on over 20 years of stunningly capable all-wheel drive Evo terrors.
After a couple of hours highway running (it’s a little noisier than standard, the boosted drone of the Mitsubishi four-pot as heard in the standard Evo X slightly amplified but not uncomfortable), the turn-off to Jamieson from Eildon township is a signal to stop, stretch and find the giveaway ‘TS’ marking on the tarmac which indicates the commencement of the ‘Eildon’ stage of Targa High Country. This 30km ‘stage’ is notoriously hard on cars, and it will truly test the TMR Evo’s ability as a tarmac tamer.
SST set to ‘S-Sport’, the ferocity with which the Evo launches, particularly with the fatter mid-range of this tune, never gets old. While quick, total traction is retained, and each grab of the right-hand, column-mounted gearshift paddle does little to limit progress, a brutal thump accompanying the rev drop as the software engage the next gear almost simultaneously. As time wears on it’s clear that Sport mode gives similarly whip-crack shifts without the driveline thump, which better suits road use. Thankfully, in either mode ‘manual’ is just that, the Evo preferring to head-butt the rev-limiter than change of its own accord, giving you maximum control.
Riding stiffly over the myriad bumps, assorted twigs, leaves and the occasional wash of gravel strewn over this unique road, the TMR feels alert and almost darty in its surface reactions, but you realise that its wheel control remains resolute, and – oddly, for an all-wheel drive vehicle — the feedback through the diminutive, leather-wrapped steering wheel gives you enough surface information to work with. The wheel’s diameter doesn’t do much for the turning circle, however.
Where the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution bloodline deviates from that of its arch-rival Subaru Impreza WRX STi is in the sacrifice of stability for sharper turn-in. Although the Evo X took criticism at launch for its up-market turn and the weight-gain associated with it, the TMR version displays a degree of throttle adjustability in keeping with the Tommi Makinen legend. Mid third-gear, tightening, uphill left, a slight relaxation of the right ankle has the Evo X sharpening towards the apex with a neutral-to-slight-oversteer stance that, in subsequent corners, becomes addictive.
Then the heavens open, and a smattering of rain slicks the leaf-coated surface. Throw in a set of tyres that are past their best and this mix forms a slippery cocktail. Favouring fourth-gear, low-rev corner exits over high-rev histrionics, the transmission never kicks down, instead trusting that fat torque curve to deliver. Again, it’s all about driver control.
If there is a chink in the Evo X’s dynamic armour, it’s the tendency to power-on understeer in such conditions. The helical front limited-slip diff is a weakness in the standard car, according to Heaphy. “With the helical, we found that it was very good in a straight line, but once there was steering angle on the car, and road imperfections were thrown in, that the inside-front [wheel] tended to free-wheel,” he explains. “We developed our own mechanical limited-slip package by playing with ramp angles and locking percentages which helped the driver immensely, both under acceleration and in aiding stability when decelerating.”
In these conditions, the extra bite would be welcomed, the Evo washing wide through corner-exit under power where in the dry it would key, grip and go. Adjustment is simple; straighten up before applying too much the 270kW to the road, but it’s a confidence-sapper.
On a drier, 10km stretch known as Skyline to tarmac rally fans, the Evo X can once more show off its punchy acceleration, which can lag when modulating throttle but comes alive at 3000rpm, and its strong braking via the factory Brembo system, which comprises lightweight, two-piece front discs.
It’s the downhill rush on the other side of Skyline that perhaps best encapsulates just why the Evo has proven so effective as a tarmac rally car. It’s still a small car, enabling accurate placement on the road, and it can be driven smooth and straight, or pitched in and launched out the other side. It’s really up to the driver’s personal interaction with the vehicle, as the road unfurls before them. To those that feel four-wheel drive, turbocharged sedans deliver driving thrills akin to an appliance, we urge you to spend some time in a TMR-modified Evo X.