Maybe it's some sort of residual Puritan upbringing, but after getting the chance to hoon $100,000 and $200,000 dollar cars around tracks, I felt like I needed to explore the other end of the market. The low end. I'm going to review the cheapest cars I can get my hands on, starting with the new-to-us Mitsubishi Mirage.
You know you're in for a treat when the fleet guy dropping off your car refers to it as "Kermit the Frog." And, I can't argue, the green hue of the car certainly does conjure up images of a thoughtful amphibious Muppet who finds the state of being green as, well, not easy.
But I really like the color. I wish more cars had the gears to rock such vibrant paint. As it stands now, the only cars you're really likely to find in vivid colors are at the extreme low or high ends of the market. Want a bright yellow car, for example? Well, you can get a Fiat 500 or maybe a Porsche 911, and very little in between. So I was happy to drive something that stood out in the boring automotive sea of white and silver.
This particular Mirage is technically a pre-production model, though I'm told that the only real difference for the one you could buy with your hard-earned $14,990 is that the production one will have a spare tire. I actually asked for the absolute cheapest car, which would be $12,995, but instead I got the slightly fancier one (the ES model): still a 5 speed manual, but it does have the unexpected option of a proximity key.
This Mirage is built in Thailand, and the overall build quality doesn't seem bad, though I did notice a few small cost-cutting measures. One telling one was under the hood, literally: the underside of the hood wasn't painted, just primered. Most US-spec cars get painted all over, even in the areas you don't see — I can't recall the last time I saw primer with overspray on a production car. You don't see this outside the car, but it's evident in nooks and crannies.
The Mirage reminded me of the sort of car that would be considered a middle class family car in India, regularly seating five — even this US-spec one optimistically keeps the middle rear seat belt, though I doubt it'll see any use here outside of the odd canine passenger.
I'm about to go into all sorts of tedious detail, but for those of you with $15 grand to unload before dinner, I'll give you a quick spoiler: I didn't hate it. It's cheap, sure, it's loud, low-powered, plasticky, and gripless, but it's also incredibly light, nimble, fantastic on gas, useful, and almost, in its own way, fun.
One thing I like about the Mirage's looks is the honesty. It's not a little sedan like a Versa, saddled with the absurd burden of "aspiration." I personally think the idea of 'aspirational' designed cars — that is cheap cars that half-heartedly try to look like BMWs or something — is stupid. I respect cheap cars, and I much prefer it when they just accept what they are and do their job well. All good classless cars have been that way, like the original Mini, for example.
The Mirage is a roundy five-door hatch, a sensible layout for a car like this. While it's not at Kei-van levels of extreme space utilization, it's not too bad. There's a nice upward rake to the side window line that's echoed in a character line below, and that helps the profile.
The front end is a little odd, with what appears to be the top edge of the trapezoidal grille bisected by the thick plastic bumper bar. It's that little upper vent that throws me a bit — I want it to be either a little bigger or maybe not there at all. Or possibly if the bisecting area of the bumper bar was black, similar to what a GT-R does, that would give the grille opening some cohesion. Right now, the car looks a bit like it's gagged.
There's a couple little other odd details that remind you it's a budget vehicle, like the stick-on round side reflectors. I saw the white version of these on the Mahindra Maxximo I drove. They do their job, though, I suppose. The interesting roof spoiler sort of makes up for that, though.
The color choice is crucial for a car like this. In bright green, or some similar striking color, the overall effect is fun. The car's cheap, it knows it's cheap, and is fresh out of fucks to donate if you don't like it. This car in white or beige or silver (not matte grey- that could work) just says "this is all I could afford, and I'm hoping you won't notice. *sobs*" It can't take itself too seriously, and that's a good thing.
Let's be clear — this is a cheap car, and the interior materials reflect that. Even so, I didn't actually mind being inside the car, even if it did feel a bit late-Clinton administration in there. The steering wheel is decent and incorporates radio/cruise functionality on it, the radio/HVAC console has a nice glossy black finish, and the shift boot at least pretends to be leather-like and not some molded rubber accordion boot (though I secretly like those.)
The door panels are decently designed, with nice texturing and deep, useful pockets, but seem to be made out of the same plastics as a Cozy Coupe. The upholstery, carpet, and seat feel are adequate, and that's about it.
There's some storage cubbies and whatnot, but I feel like there could be more, though they do provide somewhere to stick the proximity key which is nice, since even in Mercedes-Benzes they always seem to end up in the cupholders. Room in the cabin isn't bad, though it's not cavernous, but it seems like unless you're really huge, you should be able to adjust the seats to fit. In extreme cases, that'll likely kill rear seat legroom, which is otherwise as expected for a car of this size.
A baby seat fits fine in the back, and the rear doors make access easy. And while this isn't a strict Will It Baby review, it will, and I used my bulky-item standard, the folding jogging stroller, to check the rear luggage space. If you remove the hinged parcel shelf thing, it does fit, though it's tight.
If anything, the interior of the car made me really appreciate the wisdom of my wife's boxy first-gen Scion xB, which manages to enclose much, much more interior room on something close to the same wheelbase as the Mirage. There's a reason Japan's full of tall little wagon/van things.
This is the first press car I've reviewed with power numbers in loogie-hocking distance of my old Beetle: 74 HP and a nice matching 74 lb-ft of torque. Those aren't, obviously, huge numbers. In fact, they're likely within the bottom three of new cars you can legally purchase in the US today, but I don't mind that. Horsepower in the mid-70s doesn't have to feel all that terrible if the car is light enough, and the Mirage certainly is: 1996 lbs.
That comes to right about 26.9 lb/HP, which isn't too far off from a 1978 BMW 318i's power-to-weight ratio of 25.5 lb.HP. That's about as far as I want to compare the two cars right now, but it should give you a rough idea of what the propulsive force is dealing with.
It doesn't feel all that slow, but the 1.2L three is clearly working pretty hard to get you up to highway speeds. I never felt really fast in the car, but driven with a happy disregard for both the little green ECO light and sanity, it's quick enough. I was able to pass and merge on the highway with minimal pants-soiling.
If off-the-line speed is what gives you joy, then you're either obviously barking up the wrong tree here or looking for a novel home for your LS1 transplant. If that's not you, then you'll find the Mirage's get-up-and-go acceptable if not inspiring.
If there's anything I've learned testing cars, it's that drum brakes must be really, really cheap. There's no other reason for them to be hanging around at the back ends of all these entry-level cars for so long.
There's discs up front doing all of the heavy lifting, and they do their job fine. I tried a panic stop, and felt the ABS kick in, and found myself coming to a halt in fairly short order. The low weight of the car really helps here, and I suspect that a combination of low weight and a relatively basic hydraulic assist system is what makes the pedal feel not so bad. It's less numb than you'd expect, and you can feel what the wheels are doing through the pedal — for good and bad — pretty easily.
Okay, the ride's not great. Part of that has to do with a quality of the car I rather like — the featherweight part — and part I think has to do with the realities of budget car construction.
If there's a bump in the road, your ass acts like a biological seismometer and registers that bump. If it's a big pothole, the car jumps and skitters like it sat on a tack. I wasn't expecting too much comfort from the start, so I wasn't too disappointed, but you will notice the difference when compared to cars a step or two up.
Overall, I was never actually uncomfortable, and you can at least say this car doesn't over-insulate you from the road, which really isn't that bad a thing.
The handling on the car is a pretty mixed bag. On one hand, I liked the way it felt. The Mirage is (and, as importantly feels) so much lighter than almost everything else out there that driving it around gives a curiously liberated feeling. The first hour or so I drove it I had an almost giddy floating on a pillow sensation.
It's quite maneuverable, the turning circle is nice and tight, and the steering is pretty quick and direct. Those are the pluses.
In the minus column, the efficiency tires are hard as forgotten biscuits and about as grippy. The Mirage can get skittery on poor road surfaces, and it does understeer. The steering feel is light but a bit numb, and despite feeling every pebble in the road it's not that easy to get a sense of what those front wheels are actually doing. You can hit this car's handling limits pretty easily.
Still, my stunt driver friend has told me that any car is fun right at its limit, and I suspect she's right about that. Which means, with the right attitude and venue, you probably could have a pretty good time in this car. Autocrossing the Mirage would be entertaining, if nothing else, and I have a feeling that in 10-15 years these may become worthy skid-plate racers.
In fact, if Mitsubishi knows what they're doing, they'll field a few of these as skid-plate cars right now. I mean, really, they have nothing to lose, and if the cars do well, lots to gain.
It's a five-speed manual. It's probably been around in one form or another for a while, and it feels like that, but not in a bad way. The ratios are well-selected for the meager engine output and for economy, and shifting was easy and pretty much hassle-free.
The shifter never felt vague, and while it certainly has a somewhat mid-90s character, it gets the job done. There's also a CVT which I believe delivers better mileage, but I think this car will be far more tolerable with the old-school stick.
Plus, you can pop the clutch in first and lay a little bit of rubber, which is, of course, crucial.
The audio is certainly interesting on this car, and I think a bit of a harbinger of things to come as three-cylinder engines become more common. A three doesn't really sound like a four. It's rougher, a bit chattery and whinier, sometimes. It's inherently an uneven-sounding engine, since with a four, you know that there will always be at least one cylinder firing per revolution, since it's a four-cycle setup Mr.Otto gave us. With a three, there's always going to be a gap, one moment where no one is firing, and that makes for a somewhat pulsing, uneven note.
I took this quick video to show how much more it vibrates than an average four, too. Which I don't see as a problem, since enterprising companies could take advantage of this to offer new shaker hood options.
But the weirdest part of the sound is after letting off the throttle in hard acceleration, there's a jet-turbine-sounding whine as the engine spins back down. I think this may be because of the three-cylinder's use of an eccentrically-weighted flywheel, but I'm really not sure.
It is a bit odd, and while I didn't mind it, I suspect it'll drive some folks crazy.
This was better than I expected, mostly because of the included proximity key. Whatever old-man issues I have with these systems, it's still something I only would have expected on a much higher-priced car.
And it was pretty convenient, really. When you have a crazy 30 lb human in your arms, engaged in trying to find out what daddy's eyeballs feel like with pokey little fingers, not having to fumble in your pockets is a pretty good thing.
The head unit the car came with didn't sport a fancy color LCD or nav, but it did include Bluetooth connectivity, complete with phone controls on the steering wheel, and a USB jack in the glovebox. For a bargain-bin car, it's not too shabby.
There's power windows and mirrors, and it looks like a nav system and rear-view camera are even available if you want to throw down some cash like a big shot.
This is where a cheap car really needs to pay off, and the Mirage mostly does. First off, it is one of the cheapest cars you can buy, starting at $12,995 — the one I tested was $14,995, and they top out at right around $15,000. That's still a good chunk less than the Fiat 500's starting price of $16,195. Though I won't lie, I'd take the Fiat.
The Mirage is also no slouch at all in gas miserdom: I was routinely and without trying able to get 38-40 in city driving, and over 48 MPG on a highway trip. That's really damn good. In fact, that's really damn close to Prius C good, and the Mirage is about $7 grand less expensive, and I think far less of a one-ton sleeping pill than the Prius C. I've driven both, and would take a manual Mirage over a Prius C in a heartbeat.
In a lot of ways, the Mirage reminds me of the new Datsun that's being launched in India and similar up-and-coming economies. That Datsun is going for around $7000, which does make me wonder how low the Mirage could go. Would a sub $10,000 version be possible? If so, then I'd think they could really have something impressive. The low end of the market is a brutal place to do business, I know, but I'd be impressed to see something like that.
Engine: 1.2L Inline 3
Power: 74 HP @ 6000 RPM / 74 lb-ft @4000 RPM
Transmission: Five-speed manual
0-60 Time: No one's saying. I bet I know why. Probably 12 sec or so?
Top Speed: probably a bit over 100. Everything does 100 nowadays.
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 1,996 LBS
Seating: 5 people (it has a fifth belt, so there)
MPG: 34 City/42 Highway (EPA — I did see over 45 on highway)
MSRP: $14,995 (as tested)