Last year I bought a 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. This isn’t just any Evo VIII. It’s a totally stock, fully unmodified example with just one owner from new. The car is a bit rough around the edges, having been parked on New York City streets its entire life. But it’s mine, and I love it.

I love this Evo a bit less now, though. After addressing a bunch of much-needed, well overdue maintenance and wear items, I was finally comfortable enough to take the car on its first real drive. I’m not talking about a commute to work or a quick highway blast. I mean a real drive, with lots of twisties and high-speed dynamic sections. The car didn’t even last a couple of hours before developing a big problem.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Project-07

What Happened?

Last month I hit up a few friends for a group drive up to the Catskills in upstate New York, home to some of the most wonderful roads in the state. We planned to rip through a few hundred miles of back roads, with a break for lunch. Just a few miles before our lunch stop, though, something went wrong.

Pulling away from a stop sign, the Evo’s exhaust suddenly got a lot louder. It was as if a gasket near the manifold had failed, causing a leak. At the same time, the car seemed to stop making boost. I couldn’t hear the turbo spool anymore, and my right foot felt 100 horsepower had wandered off. Not good.

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Which would you have?

The car seemed fine otherwise, holding oil pressure and coolant temperature just fine. So I decided to limp it the rest of the way home. Internet research suggested I might have a cracked manifold, apparently a common issue with this generation. Instead of taking things apart, I decided to take the car to an Evo specialist shop, which found the clamp holding the manifold to the turbocharger had just ... disappeared. It must’ve flown off at some point during the drive, allowing exhaust gasses to dump into the engine bay instead of spinning the turbo. 

A few hundred dollars worth of parts and labor later, and the Evo was fixed. 

Is It Actually Nice to Drive Now?

Before things went south on that Catskills drive, the Evo felt great. Even on a set of aggressive Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, the grip was immense, and power delivery was solid. The best part about this car isn’t the engine or the all-wheel drive, though. It’s the steering. It’s one of the best racks I’ve felt in something with all-wheel drive, ultra-quick and perfectly weighted. It has the speed of something modern, but doesn’t give up any feel. 

The car still isn’t perfect. The cable-operated shifter leaves a lot to be desired, even after a new linkage mechanism and fresh bushings. The semi-spongy feel might be down to tired gearbox internals. It’s not terrible to use, but it’s the biggest indicator of this car’s age. 

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Project-01

There’s also the seats. The factory Recaros were stolen under previous ownership, and replaced by base Lancer seats with next to no bolstering. They provide no support under cornering, forcing you to brace the door or the center console whenever you take a turn quickly. You also sit far higher off the floor with these seats, skewing your sense of balance. It’s definitely the worst part about this Evo right now. 

What Else Have You Done?

Summer’s nearly here, which means I had to get those lovely Blizzaks off the Evo. BFGoodrich was nice enough to send over a set of G-Force Comp-2 A/S Plus tires. Yes, all-seasons, not summers. Let me explain. 

I don’t plan on tracking this car, and I don’t want to put extra stress on the already tired powertrain by throwing ultra-sticky summer tires at it. Plus, this Evo is already plenty grippy thanks to its impressive AWD system. I’d rather have a more balanced tire with a softer sidewall and a longer lifespan, one where I won’t have to be on the ragged edge to break traction every once in a while. So all-seasons it is. 

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Project-04
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That’s not to say the Comp-2s aren’t good performers. They’re worlds stickier than the Blizzaks while being quieter and less floaty. Comfort is about the same, which is exactly what I was looking for. 

A constant complaint I’ve received from passengers is this Evo’s smell. The previous owner let rats get inside the engine bay and cabin, stinking up the place with nests, urine, and feces. The rats are gone and the nests have been removed, but the smell remains. So I replaced the cabin air filter in the hopes that’d improve the odor. 

First-year Evo VIIIs like this one didn’t come with a cabin air filter from the factory, but there’s a space to install one behind the glovebox. All you have to do is cut out a plastic blocking plate over the blower motor and slot the filter in. Unsurprisingly, the space above the motor was covered in rat feces, so I cleaned out what I could before popping in the new filter. 

The cabin isn’t totally free of gross smells, but it’s a whole lot better than it was before. I’d consider that a win.

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Gross.

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This is the first cabin air filter this car's ever had. 

So What’s Next?

With the boost leak fixed and the smell mostly gone, my focus for this Evo turns to the seats. Ideally I’d like to source a set of used OEM Recaros so they match the pattern on the rear bench, though I’m also open to adding a set of more aggressive aftermarket seats, if the price is right.

I’d like to take this car on another fun drive and even a road trip this year. And eventually, I want to get it on some dirt to feel the full potential of that AWD system. Stay tuned.

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Project-12
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