LATER IN life, Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Imprezas would get faster and more powerful. They would become more technologically advanced and in every measurable or objective way they would get better. Right here, though, is where they peaked. Launched within a couple of years of one another in the late Nineties the Lancer Evo VI Tommi Makinen Edition and Impreza 22B STi are, by general consensus, the pinnacles of their respective breeds. They are the apex four-wheel drive rally refugees.
And they hail from that era, too, that five-year spell from 1995 to the turn of the century during which Subaru and Mitsubishi dominated the World Rally Championship. The Evo VI TME and Impreza 22B capture a moment in time and preserve it in aspic. But is there more to these cars than a cloying, bobble-hatted sentimentality; any real substance beyond misty-eyed visions of heavy dust trails kicked up and stones sent flying wildly? Box-fresh examples of both, the best roads in the central UK Peak District and a blessedly dry late January day will tell us everything we want to know.
First, though, the history lesson. Early in 1998 Subaru unveiled a limited edition version of the Impreza WRX STi. Built to celebrate both the marque’s 40th anniversary and its third-straight WRC Manufacturers’ title, the 22B was billed as the production version of Subaru’s already-iconic two-door World Rally Car. With its swollen arches, wider by 80mm, and high-rise rear spoiler it was as close to Colin McRae’s rally car as any normal punter was ever going to get. It wasn’t a homologation special; more of a road-going replica.
Between March and August 1998, 424 22Bs were built – predominately for the Japanese market – with just just five being manufactured for the Australian market and 16 for the UK. The UK cars were modified by Subaru’s rally team, Prodrive, with a longer final drive, a miles-per-hour speedometer and revised headlights. Before Prodrive could get around to registering those 16 cars in the UK, however, more than 50 diehard Subaru devotees had imported cars directly from Japan themselves. In Australia, fans of the brand also went out of their way to personally import them, too.
The ‘22’ in 22B denoted the engine capacity, up from 1994cc to 2212cc. Officially the turbocharged flat-four developed 206kW, but the real figure almost certainly exceeded that figure by some margin. The ‘B’, meanwhile, stood for Bilstein, the damper supplier. At least, that’s one explanation. Whether by luck or judgement 22B also happens to be the hexadecimal conversion for the number 555, the name of the cigarette brand that had long been Subaru’s WRC sponsor.
Other upgrades included a twin-plate clutch and 17-inch wheels, up from 16 inches. The car cost $132,000 in period ($7000 of which, Subaru Australia claimed, went towards ADR approval). Little wonder most onlookers thought it a touch on the rich side.
Mitsubishi’s retort followed 21 months later. With Finnish driver Tommi Makinen having just wrapped up a fourth-straight WRC Drivers’ title – the first competitor in the category’s history to do so – Mitsubishi launched a limited edition Evo VI at the end of 1999 in his name to celebrate. Over a standard Evo VI it got a lighter and fasterresponding titanium turbo compressor, a lower ride height, a front strut brace and quicker steering. Many of the key components came from top-line suppliers, such as the Momo steering wheel, white Enkei wheels, Brembo brakes and Recaro seats that were embossed with Makinen’s name.
Over the two years the TME was on sale more than 3000 were built, making it much more common than the 22B in Australia despite the fact it was never officially sold Down Under. Perhaps that’s why you’ll pay twice as much like-for-like for the Subaru today... if you can find a 22B, that is. With lower pricing when new it was more affordable than the gold-dust Impreza, too, and whereas the 22B was available in Sonic Blue or not at all (very Henry Ford), the Makinen was offered in white, blue, black, silver or, as here, in red with rally-inspired decals.
On a bitterly cold Tuesday morning, long before sunrise, the Evo’s engine fires to a noisy, busy idle. With the fluid in the dampers moving around like cement in a mixer at this chilly pre-dawn hour the low speed ride is tough and unyielding. The whole car drops heavily at one corner and then the next as you thud through potholes and sunken drain covers, the entire structure rattling in protest. With some warmth in the fluid the ride does settle, but the real switchover comes with speed. Beyond 80km/h or so the car starts to plane and seems to levitate half an inch above the road. Rather than crashing and banging across the surface it glides, all of a sudden becoming so wonderfully pliant and forgiving that you’d swear the suspension had been replaced wholesale somewhere between third and fourth gear.
Over a bucking, rollicking moorland road the impression you get is of the body staying calm and composed as the suspension underneath works frantically to allow the wheels to rise quickly and fall in an instant, suspension arms nothing less than a blur. Unnatural features in the road surface – potholes and drain covers, as well as those sharp lateral ridges that are left when a trench is dug and clumsily filled in again – do shunt their way through to the body, but all of the natural shape and texture that you get in a road by laying tarmac over a soggy moor is dealt with masterfully. You wouldn’t need to read the TME’s sale brochure to know its suspension had been tuned for a tarmac rally stage.
When the road spears across the hillside rather than twisting and turning over it and you get into fourth and fifth gears the Evo feels edgy. The chassis has such a hyper-agility about it that you constantly nudge the steering wheel this way and that just to keep it in a straight line; the car is so desperate to turn into corners that it tries to do so even where there isn’t one. It means that the TME will carry huge speed into a bend before it starts to push on, snapping into direction changes like a terrier chasing scents.
The limit of front-end grip is so well telegraphed that you hang the thing right on the edge of understeer corner after corner, and while the steering does have a strange springiness to it right around the straight ahead it actually becomes brilliantly crisp and detailed with a few more degrees of lock.
On these dry Peak District roads you’d never know much was going on in the rear differential. On a wet or low-grip surface you’d feel the Active Yaw Control shuffling torque here and there, but today it just seems as though the car has infinite drive and traction. The gearshift couldn’t be better and with five very tightly stacked ratios you bang through them like Manny Pacquiao throwing combos. The car feels punchy on a wide-open throttle. Nothing much happens until 3000rpm, but from there the motor rips around to 7000rpm with a free-revving energy.
There’s no doubt about it, the Tommi Makinen Edition is a very special car indeed. Parked up alongside the Impreza, though, it looks less exotic somehow. That two-door Impreza shape will always be so evocative, even more so with the 22B’s unique pumpedup arches. It also does away with things like the TME’s decals. The Subaru has the much better seating position, too; you sit lower, with the steering wheel presented to you within closer reach and at a more natural angle. The seats, meanwhile, wrap around your sides like a bear hug. You instantly feel connected to the car.
Like the Evo it rides stiffly at low and medium speeds, perhaps a little less so, but it too switches over at around 80km/h to become brilliantly fluid and composed. There’s none of that straight-ahead steering stiction that troubles the TME. In fact, the 22B steers beautifully. Its quicker rack – see the small sticker on the rear window that reads ‘Quick Steering’ – is perfectly suited to the rest of the chassis, which means you place the car with precision at every turn.
Whereas the Mitsubishi lives on its front-end, the Subaru always feels more neutral. Turn into a corner and it instantly works both axles, leaving you suspended oh so sweetly between them. It’s an addictive sensation. And I don’t think you’d ever get bored with adjusting the centre differential torque split using the dial in the centre console.
With 10 per cent more displacement the 22B’s engine instantly feels more muscular than the Evo’s. In fact, the mid-range is almost unnervingly strong, flinging the car up the road as though it’s been shot from a cannon. With the redline set at 7900rpm the Impreza’s engine keeps on spinning willingly as the Evo’s is crashing into its limiter. Subaru claiming this car had 206kW in period is a colossal fib.
By a cigarette paper I prefer the Subaru, but that might be a legacy thing from having been a McRae and Richard Burns fan rather than a Makinen supporter 15 or 20 years ago. Objectively, there’s very little between them. And while that nostalgic rally connection is undoubtedly a good part of the appeal of these cars, it isn’t the whole story. What’s more significant still is that the Tommi Makinen Edition and 22B really are the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru Impreza at their very best.
Now known as the ‘classic’ Impreza, the mid-Nineties is the cheapest way into quick Impreza ownership. And with 155kW they still feel plenty fast enough today
Okay, it’s the one most want to forget, but the polarising ‘bug eye’ STi uses a 195kW version of the EJ20 and remains quick and rewarding to drive when stirred
The second-generation Impreza looks fresher than the classic and isn’t much more expensive. Even the later ‘hawk eye’ model, the best looking of the lot, is very affordable Average value: $15,000
With 206kW the STi models are more in keeping with the image of a high performance Impreza. There’s a very good selection of well-cared-for cars at this price point, too
The most recent WRX STIs – which dropped the Impreza name – may not be as revered as some earlier versions, but they are more powerful and better to use every day
The 22B is the ultimate incarnation of the first-gen WRX and you’d be gullible to believe it’s only pumping out 206kW/363Nm. Understandably, we said it’s the closest a road car could get to the full-fat WRC car. Bilstein dampers, Brembo stoppers and a driver-controlled centre diff only adds to the hardcore approach.
The neck-snapping driving experience with a flexible bottom end transitioning into a whooshy, raspy crescendo got our hearts racing. The styling, too, commands attention: “In signature WRC Blue, arches bulging with deep offset BBS alloys, it turns the heads of those who know it’s no version 5,” we said.
The close-ratio ’box gained praise and despite the race car-taut ride, the whole package offered a togetherness that could only be judged a fitting farewell.
The Evo VI produced the same sort of point-to-point pace that scared supercars and shamed the likes of the BMW M3 at the time. Yet it’s based on a humble Lancer, which makes it a bit of a contradiction, we said.
With the right torque split, the Evo resists the urge to understeer, while its mechanical grip was found to be a match for the sticky rubber. However, we’re still not buying the 206kW/373Nm claim.
In the June 2004 issue of MOTOR, tester David Morley said: “On a racetrack, the Evo VI just can’t be tricked into doing anything nasty, despite the outrageous speeds of which it’s capable. Stopping power and pedal feel are not things the Evo is short on. On public roads, it’s safe, secure and totally unflappable. The caveat here, though, is that if you do get it wrong in an Evo VI, your crunch will be a big one – that’s the only size they come in.”