I’m very lucky in what I do. My work writing about cars has taken me all over the world, I’ve seen and driven all kinds of cars, and I’ve had access to areas of the automotive world that many can only dream of. One such place being the inner workings of the World Rally Championship in Portugal. For nine consecutive years, I worked on event as a media delegate, talking to WRC champions, mocking Sebastien Loeb and transcribing interviews with drivers and team bosses. As a man who loves the WRC, this was amazing. It became even more amazing when Tommi Mäkinen came back as the Team Principal for contemporary WRC’s young upstart, Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Tommi was the man when I was growing up, gleefully watching the rally highlights on TV. I loved all the drivers of course, but there was an eccentricity to Tommi, a slightly bonkers vibe. To be a rally driver, you have to be bonkers, but most of them hide it with their cool press conference demeanours and “for sure” soundbites. Tommi never did. Tommi was always a bit mad. But in a nice way. Some of you may remember him reaching stage end only to proudly tell the reporter that “something, a stone, up through the seat, up into Timo’s (his co-driver) asshole!”. Bless him. You can’t imagine Latvala or Tänak coming out with something so… colourful.
And he was a lunatic on the stages, too. He worked his cars hard and to within an inch of their tolerance. Tommi, on stage, was focused on winning no matter what. Rear wheel come off? He’ll carry on. Rolled it? He’ll carry on. Gravelly colonoscopy for his co-driver? Plant the throttle.
His persona, both on and off stage, is what brings us to the car you’re looking at here. This is a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen edition, and that’s where the problem lies. I’ve met Tommi, albeit in a professional capacity, and he was every bit the man I hoped he would be. But what about the car? Rallying sells cars, or it certainly did in the ‘90s. What if I jumped into this machine, emblazoned with his name, only to find it was nothing more than a cash-in on his name?
It. Is. Not.
Being a bit of a ‘pinch myself’ moment, I first took the time to drink in the visuals. The Evo VI is not a pretty car. And before you send me an angry email, really, look at it. It is not elegant, it is not flowing. It is a dull saloon car with a lot of guff glued to it. But it’s needed. And that makes it menacing, it makes it angry, it makes it mean. And that’s good. This is a rally car for the road. It shouldn’t be beautiful. It should be missing teeth when it smiles.
Inside, well, there is no other way to put this, it’s boring. Cars from ‘90s Japan weren’t exactly noted for their thrilling interiors and this Evo is no exception. The Tommi edition Recaros are nice, of course, but the dash is flat, endless expanse of black plastic with a bit of red detailing (though I did enjoy the retro Kenwood Mask stereo). But I’m not here to talk about plastics. I’m here to drive the thing.
Turn the key after fumbling with the annoying ‘90s immobiliser and, oh no, it sounds really… normal. Have I made a mistake here? Should I have left the driving impressions of this car to the road-tester of my imagination? This is a 2.0, twin-cam, turbocharged four-pot with over 270bhp. How can it sound so pedestrian?
I plough on regardless and engage first from the five-speed ‘box. There’s a nice mechanical feel to the gear change, press on, revs climb fast, second, holy crap… third, it’s still marking a frenzied grab for the horizon. Fourth. I keep my foot in, but by this point I hear the car fill up with giddy laughter – it’s me, the car has grabbed my senses and I’m laughing like a drain. This thing isn’t fast for an old car, it’s fast full stop.
Wind back off the power, drop a cog, feed the power back in for the bends. The car feels substantial. I don’t want to say it’s heavy, that would be remiss of me, but it lets you know it’s got some heft to it. It feels purposeful, not delicate. Hold onto third, revs climb as does the speed, but Tommi’s company car doesn’t falter. It feels confident and safe, it instils confidence in me. I like that.
With a sharp right-hander coming up, I work down through the gears to second and lean on the Brembos as I do. The reaction from the brakes is immediate and focused – it can scrub speed as well as it can collect it. Turn into the corner, reintroduce the throttle pedal to the carpet and we regain the speed we lost for the turn. Bang, third gear again, rinse and repeat.
It’s an unhinged, lunatic of a car when you press on. You can see, even in road trim, why this machine was so formidable on the rally stages of the late 1990s. Crucially though, it’s so tight, so concentrated and focused. It doesn’t feel like a twenty year old car. It feels like a new car, but one in which the driver interacts with it by mechanical devices, not sensor this and fly-by-wire that. You feel connected to it – crucial to the car’s very being. I never felt like a passenger in a powerful car. I felt like the boss, the commander, like Tommi.
And that’s remarkable when you consider that this model of Evo does have electric aids. For example, the full-time four-wheel drive system is electronically managed. Then there’s the clever active yaw system, that stops you from getting spat into a ditch when the turbo spools up mid, high-speed bend. It’s clever stuff, but it’s there to aid, not to get in the way.
And just like Tommi himself, when I wound off and relaxed the car into normal traffic, it was calm, quiet and civilised. It behaved, but with a captivating cheekiness. I look in the rear view mirror, for example, and past that dull interior sits the dominating rear spoiler, filling my field of view. The odd pop-back through the exhaust here, the occasional down-shift there. It was playing nicely, but without ever letting me forget what it really wanted to be doing. What a car.
So no, Mitisubishi wasn’t trying to cash in on the big man’s name. This car is a deserving, qualified base on which to affix the Mäkinen name. It’s a riot, it’s a bit mad and you’re going to enjoy every moment you spend with it. Plus, the stripes and graphics only serve to make you feel like a proper rally driver, even if you are only popping to Tesco Express for milk.