words: Stu Fowle

Bone stock, the current Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution isn't just a damn fine machine — it's one of the meanest, most entertaining rides for the money. But the way we see it, the Evo is 50 percent awesome, 50 percent blank canvas. After all, 291 hp is impressive for a production four-banger, but decades of tuners have proven that turbo'd Mitsubishis are capable of numbers far more outrageous. The new all-aluminum 4B11 motor is no exception. The Evo X is a good handler, too, so long as you're comfortable with a touch of body roll — but it could be better. And lighter, considering an Evolution MR weighs just a smidge under 3600 pounds.

The proper thing to do in this situation would be to go fetch a new Evo, tear it apart, and report on building it back up to superhero form. But lacking the time, funds, or space in our project car garage, Motive decided to do the next best thing: find one of the most impressively tuned Evos on the road and take it for a spin.

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Those of you who frequent our Car Lounge forums are probably familiar with Ryan Gates's octane blue Evolution, though it may look slightly different here, sitting still with all four tires on the ground. He had all his engine work done at AMS Performance in West Chicago, Illinois, which happens to be where I've met up with him.

For Evo enthusiasts, a tour of the AMS shop is like walking onto the set of a Jenna Jameson video, only words like "blower," "steel piping," and "stripped" are used in a much more literal sense. The organization and productivity inside the warehouse would embarrass most suits managing cube farms, as would the final product delivered. Among AMS's other claims to fame, the geeks there are 1000-hp Evo pros who dominated a recent Mitsubishi-sponsored Evo X track battle following the 2008 SEMA show. If you ever have the chance, stop by to visit. Beyond Evos, AMS's staff also tunes Subarus, Nissans, and Neon SRT-4s. The owner drives a 600-hp Cadillac CTS-V.

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I pull the car I'm driving, a stock Evolution MR, into a spot next to Gates's blue beast. Even though his suspension isn't completely slammed, the difference is immediately apparent: The stock MR looks ready for the most grueling of rally stages by comparison to his track-tuned luge. His car uses JRZ racing dampers and also benefits from a larger 27-mm rear sway bar and a Whiteline roll-center kit. Black-painted 18-inch Volk CE28N wheels and 285/30/18 Advan AO48 tires fill out the wells, giving the car a meaner stance than even the BBS-shod MR model.

With the two cars sitting together, it's clear that simple suspension and wheel modifications go a long way to making the Evo look more serious. Also, as cool as a white Evo looks, the paint doesn't show off the car's complex curves and flares the way metallic blue does.

Inside, Gates's Evo doesn't appear to stray too far from stock. Bride racing seats replace the stock Recaros and air/fuel and boost gauges sit above the steering wheel. Try to listen to the radio, though, and the car's weight reductions begin to reveal themselves. The stereo appears stock but its heavy guts have been stripped, leaving only a non-functioning fa├žade behind. Same goes for the rear seat, which still has its cushions but none of its supporting metal structure. The mounting for the Takata racing harnesses gets in the way of anyone sitting back there, anyway. In all, Gates has taken out 400 pounds' worth of components deemed unnecessary, but he hopes to find more spots to add lightness. We'd start with the giant wing.

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If the MR, with its automated dual-clutch transmission, is the Evo for kids who can't drive, Gates's car is its antithesis. The clutch uses, oh, approximately 1/100th of the available pedal travel to engage itself, making the take-up point hard to find for a first timer. Luckily, Gates still trusts me the second time I crank the engine. We're off with a whoosh.

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I learn quickly that one shouldn't assume anything before getting into a heavily tuned car for the first time. In my case, I assumed that an engine producing 460 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque at the wheels might have enough turbo lag to render the car useless on public roads. That's certainly not the case here, and I have the neck pains to prove it. The best way to describe the power delivery of Gates's Mitsubishi is "911 Turbo-like" — after a short delay, the power comes on in a heavy, rolling wave. It isn't lag-free, but it isn't any worse than a stock Evo. I shift at 7000 rpm and get back into the throttle with uninterrupted results. As I do this again to find third gear, I'm thankful to be on personal terms with a county prosecutor. Icy conditions and traffic didn't allow us to run 0-60 mph numbers, but my internal stopwatch puts the car right in the company of performance legends like the aforementioned Porsche and just about any AMG-badged Mercedes. Gates also practiced restraint with his exhaust system, so running through the gears isn't something that'll have nearby buzz-killers dialing up the local constabulary. If this car could talk it would sound like a latter-day Clint Eastwood — powerful, restrained, and a bit coarse.

A surprisingly short list of engine modifications supports our original argument that the Evo is as much a supercar template as it is a great daily driver. AMS provided Gates's intercooler, intercooler piping, fuel surge tank, and engine tuning, while a larger turbo came from Forced Performance and added 100 wheel horsepower beyond the other modifications. But all the engine internals are original Mitsubishi parts. The car has had no problems and remains reliable despite running a pretty obscene 32 pounds of boost.

Beyond the brutal acceleration, the most notable feature of the tuned Evo is its complete lack of body roll. The stock car has far too much of it because of the taller suspension and softer springs used to maintain the Evolution's rally heritage. I mean, just look at this thing going hard into a corner. Gates's car stays totally flat when pushed, though it doesn't exactly have much suspension to compress. Still, it doesn't feel much harsher than the stock car and even regains a bit of the directness that the current car's steering lost over the previous Evolution. My short drive doesn't allow much brake testing, but Gates assures me his Girodisc rotors and Raybestos ST-43 pads, supported by strong AMS lines, do a fine job stopping his track missile.

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Hopping out of Gates's car and into the MR, the stock car feels like it's traveling in slow motion, despite the fact that 60 mph still comes in five seconds. The turbo build-up seems like little more than an early variable-valve-timing system kicking on. It doesn't help that the MR does the shifting work itself, which Gates notes (and we agree) makes for a very nice daily car but not a serious track star.

So what's the moral of the story? Like its predecessors, the latest Lancer Evolution leaves dealerships ready to be driven hard and tuned even harder. Nothing but bolt-on parts and a few days' work are required to turn the Evo into an M3 fighter for less money (if you don't go overboard). Ryan Gates's car is perhaps the best evidence out there to support this. We'll be watching his build closely, and we advise you to do the same. Maybe he'll inspire you to tune an Evo of your own.

Motive would like to thank Ryan Gates and AMS Performance. You can keep track of the blue Evo's updates and race results at Ryan's site, www.gates311.com. AMS can be visited online at www.amsperformance.com.