The Mirage easily beat its EPA window label numbers -- 37 city/44 highway and 40 combined.
RICHARD TRUETT

Is the maligned Mitsubishi Mirage a good value?

Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News.
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Editor's note: The Mirage’s EPA rating is 37 city/44 highway and 40 combined. Earlier versions of this blog transposed the numbers.

The Mitsubishi Mirage is one of the strangest cars I have ever driven -- and it’s one of the most polarizing new models of 2014.

Consumer Reports, The New York Times and others have savaged the small inexpensive hatchback. Yet a few popular online enthusiast sites, such as Jalopnik, have been kinder to it.

The Mirage’s design brief is a good one: Create a small, affordable and very fuel efficient lightweight car with just enough frills to make commuting tolerable. Mitsubishi’s execution, though, is uncharacteristically sloppy in some areas. But the good news is that the fixes are cheap and easily done.

The moment I started the 1.2-liter, 74-hp three-cylinder engine for the first time, I hated it. Not particularly smooth at idle and noisy when accelerating, it felt 20 years behind today’s standards.

Three days into the test drive, and my attitude changed. The engine has a sweet spot that is pretty smooth and impressive: 1,500 rpm at about 30 mph, about city cruising speed. It’s also a very capable engine that works hard and drinks little. It does fine on the highway, merging and passing are not issues.

The Mirage easily beat its EPA window label numbers. Driving normally -- not trying to squeeze every inch out of a gallon -- I saw around 40 mpg in the city and near 46 mpg at a steady 60 mph during rush hours on the highway. The Mirage’s EPA rating is 37 city/44 highway and 40 combined.

What really lets down my blue test car is its continuously variable transmission. It occasionally clunked into gear when driving off from a stoplight. The available five-speed manual is the better choice on a car like this, not only because it is $1,000 less expensive than the CVT, but because it sends more of those 74 hp directly to the front wheels.

Mitsubishi could dramatically improve the Mirage by stiffening up the suspension -- the ride is too soft.

The car wallows around corners as if the tires were made of marshmallows. Additional sound deadening materials under the hood would absorb some of the engine’s noise. The brakes are fine and the electric steering was excellent. The Mirage’s turning radius is a tight 30.2 feet, making the car very maneuverable in tight spaces.

Viewed as a car with a starting price of $12,995 that should give most drivers an honest 40 or so mpg, the Mirage has big potential. These days when even supposedly inexpensive small cars routinely cost more than $20,000, the Mirage is a different proposition altogether.

The Mirage asks the driver to forgo some refinement for a low price. I think that is a legitimate trade-off.

There has always been a market for basic, no-frills transportation. The problem is there isn’t much money in it, and few automakers doing business in the United States offer cars like this. But overseas it’s a different story, with Nissan relaunching the Datsun badge on the new Go hatchback sold in India, the Renault Logan and the new Chinese-built MG hatchbacks and sedans on sale in Europe.

Is America ready for a new generation of super-cheap cars? As the price of automobiles continues to soar, the Mirage may well be the canary in the coal mine. Launched in September, the Mirage has sold reasonably well, beating Mitsubishi’s projections. Mitsubishi has sold 11,202 Mirages in the United States since its launch.

 

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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