The much-loved motoring series, which is also being broadcast on Sundays on RTÉ2, returned to screens with Evans and former Friends actor Matt LeBlanc at the helm.
Previous frontman Clarkson was sacked for an “unprovoked physical and verbal attack” on producer Oisín Tymon, apparently over catering, and Evans could not resist bringing it up during his opening segment.
He introduced a group of people from an Indian restaurant and asked the audience what they thought they were doing there. One person suggested they were there to prepare the food, and Evans said playfully: “By the way, we don’t talk about catering on this show any more.”
During the first episode, Evans, 50, visited the US naval base which is famously the home of Top Gun, where he raced a Dodge Viper ACR against a Corvette Z06.
LeBlanc, the first non-British host in the show’s 39-year history, went for a spin through the Moroccan desert in an Ariel Nomad.
The pair also braved the cold weather as they raced from London to Blackpool in roofless Reliant Rialtos, and welcomed celebrity guests Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg who took part in the new Star In A Rallycross Car part of the show.
The first episode with the new hosts failed to reach the viewing figures of the last series with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. It drew 4.4m viewers, with a peak of 4.7m, while the last series bowed out with 5.8m viewers.
However, the first episode was still the most-watched programme in the 8pm time slot, beating Antiques Roadshow on BBC One and the British Soap Awards on ITV.
It also trumped the last time the show launched in 2002, when it got 3.5m viewers.
Viewers were quick to slam the show on social media. One tweeted:
Much of the criticism was levelled at Evans’ performance as host, with fans accusing him of shouting and being “too excitable”.
US star LeBlanc, 48, escaped most of the barbs and some fans said that his segment with the Nomad was one of the highlights.
Clarkson and his co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May will be back with a new Amazon Prime motoring show called The Grand Tour, which will make its debut on the streaming service in the autumn.
TV presenter Carol Vorderman was among those to comment online. She tweeted:
Later in the series, Evans and LeBlanc will be seen driving around Co Kerry along part of the Wild Atlantic Way in an episode they filmed in mid-April.
The new Top Gear is a hit. OFFICIALLY. 23 % audience share. 12% MORE than the opening episode of the last series. These are the FACTS.— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) May 30, 2016
Top Gear audience grew throughout the hour. FACT. Won its slot. FACT. Still number one on i Player. FACT. These are THE FACTS folks.— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) May 30, 2016
Top Gear series 1 episode 23, catch it again tonight 7 pm BBC2. That's when it's on. FACT.— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) May 30, 2016