Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII

Test venue: rural Leicestershire

Mitsubishi may have taken a year out of the FIA World Rally Championship to develop a new Lancer WRC derivative, but the Cirencester-based Colt Car Company has been busy introducing the stunning new Lancer Evolution VIII into the UK market through its dealer network for the first time - rather than sitting on the sidelines as the 'grey import' business flourishes.

The high-performance rally car derivative - built in conjunction with the Mitsubishi WRC team and Ralliart - went on sale earlier this year and Mitsubishi has already sold around 400 of its 900 predicted allocation for the first 12 months.

The new Lancer Evolution VIII is slightly cheaper than its predecessor - the Evolution VII - and more user-friendly, although it has lost a little of its individualism and raw appeal.

Sit behind the wheel of the new Lancer and you are greeted by a bland, plasticky-looking dashboard, with the emphasis on a basic design rather than one which is appealing to the eye. The rev counter takes centre stage on the dashboard and it is difficult to fix your gaze on the speedometer for any length of time - it is small and situated to the left of the rev counter.

As Mitsubishi's UK Sales and Marketing Director joked at the recent UK launch at Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray: ~You shouldn't worry about your speed because the police will tell you how fast you were going!~

Figure-hugging Recaro sports seats and the three differential settings for tarmac, gravel and snow are the only real indications that you are sitting in one of the most powerful cars on the road today. Glance in the rear view and you will see the massive rear spoiler, but it's when you have deciphered the immobiliser and fired the two-litre, intercooled and turbocharged engine into life that the attraction of this car comes to the fore.

My criticism of the Evolution VII was a jarring ride for a passenger and a fierce clutch in slow moving traffic, but Mitsubishi personnel admit that the latest circa 300 bhp offering is more user friendly. Improvements have been made to aerodynamics and it features a stiffer body, bigger intercooler, redesigned intake manifold and more aggressive front styling.

The suspension is no longer as severe and the ride is more comfortable without losing the performance qualities you would expect from one of the few cars on the road which would give a Porsche 911 Turbo or the latest Ferrari a run for its money.

There is little turbo lag. The engine accelerates ferociously from 3000 rpm to around 8000 rpm, although you will need to master the slick, close-ratio gearchange for maximum performance. The new Lancer reaches the speed limit in five seconds and is capable of a restricted 157 mph. But its forte is stomach-churning, mid-range acceleration and its major plus points are effortless handling, awesome grip and the buzz effect it gives you behind the wheel.

It is available with two specifications; you can opt for the Evo VIII with a standard 276 bhp - priced at 26,999, or the tuned FQ-3000 package, which boosts power output to 300 bhp and is available for 28,999.

The Lancer Evolution VIII is likely to attract both the local constabulary and the local thief and is categorised in Insurance Group 20D for these reasons. In competition form derivatives of the Lancer have dominated Group N rallying across the globe and this is probably the closest you will get to driving a rally car on the road.

The new model features Super AYC (Active Yaw Control), a revised active centre differential, a new six-speed transmission and massive Brembo brakes, which will stop you on a sixpence when necessary.

Perhaps the latest Subaru Impreza is slightly easier to drive on the limit and handles better than the Evolution, but the Mitsubishi has a little more raw appeal, wow factor and is less prone to understeer on hard acceleration out of a corner. The Lancer sounds awesome to boot when pushed hard and its sheer presence on the road attracts numerous envious admirers.

But Mitsubishi's latest offering is totally impractical as a first car, except for the discerning enthusiast. It is expensive to insure, drinks fuel when pushed hard - you will see around 18-24 mpg - and is hardly ideal for taking the new-born baby to the shops or the family out for a run on a Sunday afternoon.

But, if it's a car to get you from A to B faster than anything else on the road under the 30,000 price bracket, only the Subaru Impreza comes anywhere near it. And you'll have a smile on your face for days.....

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