Our resident Gearhead reminisces on the timeless art of Rally Car Racing and shares his wisdom on three vehicles that fit the bill today—on or off the track. If you know me, you know I'm all about American muscle. But I do occasionally make an exception, and rally cars are one overseas product that can definitely get my blood pumping.
Growing up in rural America, I first learned to drift a car on all those local dirt roads to nowhere, and that's what rally racing is -- getting sideways on slippery tracks through the wilderness, as fast as your sense of self-preservation will permit. So naturally I've always been drawn to the World Rally Championship (WRC), which started as a mainly European thing but has since risen to prominence almost everywhere except the U.S.
To be honest with you, I'm not sure why there's not more professional rallying on our shores. We've got more land than just about anyone, after all, and that includes countless mountain and desert tracks that would be perfect for rally stages. But for whatever reason, it's never really been an American thing to do, so the only way most of us can experience the thrill of a rally car is by driving one of the few rally-derived models available in U.S. dealerships. Today I want to tell you about the three such models that I'd most like to have in my garage.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Popularly known as the "Evo," Mitsubishi's turbocharged, all-wheel-drive compact sedan is actually on its last legs with an uncertain future, I'm sad to report. Mitsubishi has officially announced that there will be no Evo after 2015, though a lot of diehard fans refuse to believe that the company would just kill off its most iconic nameplate. Whatever happens, the current Evo will go down in history as one of the most capable four-door cars ever built, and not only because of its deep roots in rally-racing history.
The boosted 291-horsepower engine under the hood is just the beginning; this Mitsu also comes with a telepathic all-wheel-drive system that shifts all that power side-to-side during hard cornering, effectively eliminating understeer. Additionally, its dual-clutch automated manual transmission is one of the best, ripping off instantaneous upshifts and flawless rev-matched downshifts that no human could ever match. Bottom line? Mitsubishi nailed everything with this car, and I feel like a WRC champion every time I drive it. It'll be a damn shame if they let the transcendent Evo go out with a whimper.
Subaru WRX STI
The top-of-the-line WRX is known as the STI, and it's the closest you can get to Subaru's legendary WRC race cars. It's also all-new for 2015, and I was lucky enough to get the keys for a full day recently.
As ever, the six-speed manual gearbox -- no automated manual here -- is a work of art, with short, precise throws and perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe downshifts. The steering feels heavier than before, in a good way, and it's razor-sharp, with none of the on-center slop you expect in an all-wheel-drive car.
Another thing Subaru has improved is the STI's body control: the previous generation heeled over in corners like a sailboat, but the new model stays nice and flat, as a performance car should. If I had one of these bad boys, the only thing I'd modify the hell out of is the engine, because it basically hasn't changed in 10 years. Sure, 305 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.5-liter four is nothing to sneeze at, but I expect progress after all that time. Crank up the boost and give me 400 horses, now we're talking. Otherwise, I would gladly drive one of these Subies every day. It would be an honor to be just a few production tweaks removed from Subaru's WRC glory.
Ford Fiesta ST
The subcompact Fiesta comes only with front-wheel drive, so you might not make the rally-car connection right away. But there's a rich history of Fiesta rally cars dating back at least to the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally, when a couple extensively modified Fiestas braved the icy conditions and achieved respectable results.
Since then, numerous Ford rally cars have worn the Fiesta badge, most recently the Fiesta R5 with its all-wheel-drive layout and turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor. Swap out the AWD system for front-wheel drive, add a few creature comforts and voila -- you've got the showroom-ready Ford Fiesta ST. Rated at 197 horsepower, the flyweight Fiesta ST has plenty of punch, and it's also an ace in tight corners thanks to a brake-based electronic limited slip differential.
You can even get a pair of Recaro sport seats that are more or less full-on racing seats in disguise. Throw in the MyFord Touch infotainment system and you’ve got a fully equipped daily driver that just so happens to be a terror on the racetrack, too. For the price -- the 2015 model starts at just over $22,000 -- the Fiesta ST might be the ultimate road-going rally car, absent AWD system notwithstanding.
What's Your Practical Rally Car?
Tell me about your daily-driver rally ride in the comments, won't you? As long as it's got a sporting chassis and some kind of racing heritage, it's fair game in my book.
Editor's note: Rally racing or not, treat your ride right with parts and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.