Rallying has spawned countless classic performance cars over the years. Some, like the Alpine A110 and Ferrari-powered Lancia Stratos, were purpose-built performance cars. Plenty more have shown that clever engineering applied to everyday cars can yield exceptional results, cars such as the Mini Cooper, the RS Escorts and the Lancia Delta Integrale.

Modern rallying rules encourage involvement from manufacturers with the result that today's top rally cars are all much-modified versions of cars you can see on the road every day. While the rally cars sport turbocharged engines and four-wheel drive, most of the road versions are humble front-drive hatchbacks - but two manufacturers make cars which are a step closer to the rally machines.

One is Subaru, the other Mitsubishi, and though the cars have always traded wins in international rallying Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution has always been forced to stand in the Subaru Impreza Turbo's shadow in the UK thanks to its grey-market status and the Impreza's continual stream of special editions with ever more power and performance.

But the latest incarnation of the Lancer Evolution, the Evo VIII, is now an official import, and even better news for UK drivers is that there's a special FQ-300 version with still more power, available only in these shores.

Mitsubishi claim the standard Evo VIII produces 276bhp, but some years ago Japanese manufacturers agreed amongst themselves to stop quoting high power outputs - so the real figure could easily be more. The FQ-300 is claimed to produce 301bhp. Both have their top speeds limited to 157mph, and can sprint from rest to 60mph in less than five seconds.

Power comes from the latest version of Mitsubishi's 4G63, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, which has 16 valves operated by twin overhead camshafts and a turbocharger blowing through an intercooler. For the Evo VIII the turbo and intake manifold have been redesigned, and the larger intercooler can be cooled by a water jet which can be operated manually or automatically.

Compared with previous Evo models the new car has lower, stiffer suspension to move the centre of gravity closer to the ground, and there are revisions to the four-wheel drive transmission. With a new six-speed gearbox and a slightly lower final drive than before, the spread of ratios is now wider than with the previous five-speeder: first, second and third gears are much the same but fourth and fifth are lower and sixth in the new box is slightly higher than fifth in the old.

An integrated computer control system looks after both the centre differential (now an electronically-controlled multi-plate clutch rather than the Evo VII's viscous coupling) and the 'Super AYC' yaw control, which transfers torque between the rear wheels to improve traction and reduce understeer.

Also noticeable are styling changes (including reshaped air intakes and a new V-shaped nose) which are said to reduce drag and lift, and improve both straight-line stability and cooling efficiency. New wheels and new rear light clusters also set the Evo VIII apart from its predecessors. It's a comprehensive set of revisions, then, but one which comes without the expected price hike. Ralliart, the Mitsubishi motorsport and performance car division, is now an in-house sub-brand rather than a semi-independent operation, and one result is that prices have dropped, to £26,999 for the Evo VIII and £28,999 for the FQ-300 tested here.

From outside, the Evo VIII idles with a menacing burble but inside there's little to indicate the potency of the turbocharged engine. Response is docile as low speeds, but beyond 3000rpm the turbo comes alive and the Evo sprints for the horizon. Given the engine's off-boost lethargy, rapid progress means extensive use of the close-ratio gearbox to keep the engine speed in the top half of the rev counter scale: fortunately both clutch and gearchange, while heavier than the average shopping hatchback, are light for mechanisms built to deal with up to 301bhp (at 6200rpm) and 300lb ft of torque (at 4500rpm). Unless you're caught in the wrong gear out of a corner, performance is simply astonishing.

And you shouldn't have to slow down too much for the corners. The steering is direct and well-weighted (though the turning circle is bigger than you would expect) and body control exceptional thanks to anti-roll bars at both ends and firm damping. Traction is tremendous: apply the prodigious power out of a corner and the Evo simply bites into the tarmac and rockets away, no matter what the weather conditions, the computer-controlled transmission juggling the torque between the wheels to quell understeer and avoid wheelspin.

Given a smooth road the Evo never feels less than secure, but the bumps and potholes you find on the average country road - the ones down here in Kent, at least - start to upset the Mitsubishi's composure. That feeling of security vanishes as the steering wheel fights in your hands, and the nose of the car dives left and right chasing every bump in the road.

Bumpy backroads are tricky to negotiate as a result, the Evo proving to be more of a handful than it should be on just the sort of roads where you would expect it to excel. As it is the Evo doesn't deserve the unstinting praise that some motoring scribes have lavished upon it because it doesn't deal sufficiently well with real-world road surfaces. On a smooth track I'm sure the Evo generates prodigious grip, but on a bumpy road it simply isn't as good as it ought to be.

While we're listing the demerits, let's also deal with the wooden ride (another result of that stiff suspension set-up), the low-rent interior trim and the relatively low level of equipment. But it's important to understand how important, or otherwise, these concerns will be to buyers: most people who are attracted to the Evo won't worry too much about the interior or ride or equipment, and will be pleased that that their money has been spent on the engine and transmission that gives the Evo its electrifying performance.

Certainly the Evo is one of the quickest road cars available, and the lack of fuss with which it can deploy its power is remarkable. But the spartan interior and stiff ride limit its appeal to enthusiast drivers - and the way it struggles to cope with bumpy roads compromises its appeal as a driver's car. As a car to deal with every road, in every circumstance, it struggles - but its appeal as a track day flier has never been greater.

Mitsubishi Motors