It doesn't offer anywhere close to today's standards of refinement or performance, when we compare it not to cars that are much more expensive but to those that are of the same price range. And those inadequacies can't mask any of its positives.
This Thai-built Mitsubishi, from the start, is an unlikely entry to the U.S. market, as safety regulations have kept some of the world's most budget-strapped subcompact cars and minis out, and cast them to “emerging markets.”
The good: fuel-stingy, spacious, well-equipped
But first, here's a brief outline of what's good about this car: With a fuel-stingy three-cylinder engine, it gets great gas mileage, without the need for (or cost of) the complexity of a hybrid system. It makes pretty good use of a conveniently small (146 inches long) parking footprint, And, at least according to the feature sheet, it's a relatively well-equipped car for the money.
First, over about 120 miles of gentle, careful driving, with sparing use of the climate control and a light right foot (but not accelerating so slowly that we'd inconvenience other motorists), we averaged nearly 46 mpg in our test Mirage ES.
You can also realistically fit four adults in the Mirage, and it rides quite well, provided the road is straight.
And that's about where the positives ended. Over nearly a week driving the Mirage, this fan of economical small cars in general was reminded of how undesirable some subcompacts used to be—and how far small cars have come in recent years, this model excluded.
The 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine in the Mirage makes just 74 horsepower and 74 pound-feet; and even though the Mirage stands as one of the lightest models for sale in the U.S. market, with a curb weight of about 2,000 pounds, the engine seems to struggle at times with our test car's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
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From the first moment you fire up the little three-cylinder, it's abundantly clear that this is not a refined powertrain. It revs up with a promising, unusual off-kilter note that gives itself away as a triple right away, then settles to what's without a doubt the roughest idle we've experienced in a normal production car in years (the Smart Fortwo also has a Mitsubishi triple, but it's nowhere near as uncultured from inside).
When the engine settles down to its 650-rpm low idle, the floor vibrates so vigorously that it looks blurry, and you feel a secondary, syncopated rhythm that quakes through the brake and accelerator pedal when just starting to press them at idle. Over the course of the week we discovered some tricks—for instance, that switching on the A/C brings the idle up to around 900 rpm, which smooths it out.We'd almost certainly rather have this car with the base manual gearbox. The CVT seems to underscore the lack of low-rpm torque in this engine, and it cuts the Mirage's get-up-and-go to dangerously slow levels from a standing start. Facing up a familiar, somewhat steep neighborhood hill—one that seldom causes most vehicles to break a sweat—the Mirage, on a full-throttle takeoff, would drift an inch or so backwards for a moment, before slowly gaining progress.
On level ground, the combination is adequate, but no more; some outlets have reported just short of 12 seconds to 60 mph, but our test car seemed to be taking a second more. Keep your right foot light, and the powertrain is easygoing and tolerable; push deeper and the engine heads into its raucous and unrefined upper ranges.
Less spectacular mpg when driven quickly
And when we started asking more of the combination, driving the Mirage in a more spirited fashion and aiming to move right with the flow of traffic in nearly all instances, our average over another 40 miles ended up at about 36 mpg—a figure that's marginally lower than what we saw a few weeks earlier with the far more enchanting (and not much more expensive) Ford Fiesta SE.
Don't expect much precision in the Mirage's driving experience, either. While other minis and subcompacts, from the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit to the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500, all pride themselves in offering a communicative, somewhat sporty experience, the Mirage is light and detached. Oddly, the electric power steering is way too light and overboosted above 20 mph, with a disconcerting dead spot around center that leaves you bouncing back and forth between lane boundaries, but assist is remarkably absent when you're trying to get quickly out of a tight parking spot.
And the suspension is way softer (under sprung and under damped) than I'd expect in this kind of car—to the degree that it skips over potholes or expansion strips with nonchalance but then heaves up and down once or twice afterward. This isn't the sort of car that is enjoyable to drive on any kind of corner or curve, and you'll be slowing down for cloverleaf-style expressway ramps if they're poorly surfaced.
A critical mass of disappointment that not even purple paint could mask
It's also more of a one-size-fits-all car than Americans might be used to. The driver's seat doesn't seem to slide fore and aft with as much range as we expected, and the steering-wheel doesn't telescope at all; luckily for this driver it was set about right, but we think it might be too close for some shorter drivers.
Front seats are very short in their lower cushions, so taller drivers such as this one will find all the seat pressure on their rump, leaving nothing to rest a splayed right leg on either. The seats, in our top-of-the-line ES, were covered with a mouse-fur type material that we also haven't seen much of since the 1990s. The dark shade with purple checks at least gave it some visual interest.
The Mirage actually has a very roomy back seat. It's easy to get into and out of, and both headroom and legroom are quite good. But comfort isn't as good as it could be, because of a squishy lower cushion that feels like it's made of foam pillow material.But there are also lots of surprises in design and functionality—unfortunately, mostly of the disappointing kind. For instance, the back seats are split 60/40 but don't actually fold flat. The dash has the hard-and-hollow feel that was quite common in the cheapest models from most Japanese and Korean brands just a decade ago. There's a center console with some bin space, but it's also made of the same thin, brittle-looking plastic and it doesn't quite fit the curvature of the carpet. In our supposedly upmarket Mirage ES there was no lighted vanity mirror—no vanity mirror at all, actually—and the sunvisors themselves a super-flimsy, vinyl-covered affair. Furthermore, the hatch closes with a rattle, and the doors close with a disconcertingly light thunk.
And above 40 mph or so—at least on the coarse road surfaces that are typical around Portland, Oregon, where we drove the Mirage—road noise actually drowns out the turn signal clicks.
Yet amidst all of this, the Mirage has automatic climate control—quite strong, effective climate control, really—which factors in as perverse counter to the lack of civility in so many other ways.
A throwback to 1990s econocars, only at no special price
As you might agree by now, we found plenty of “yes but” responses in our time with the Mirage, as well as plenty of details that made it feel like a throwback to 1990s-era price leaders.
Our test car, in Plasma Purple, carried a bottom-line price of $15,990. For the $1,200 premium of the ES over the base SE, you get alloy wheels with 165-width tires, cruise control, a height adjustment for the seat, fog lamps, steering-wheel audio controls, and Bluetooth connectivity. Again, some surprises...like how the start button only cranks the engine, so you have to hold it down until the engine starts.
That price tag pretty much sealed the deal against the Mirage. Simply put, there's no way we'd ever buy—or recommend—this model over all the better-finished, more sophisticated, and more enjoyable-to-drive models that start in the same price range, like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Spark (or Sonic), or Kia Rio (or the very frugal Toyota Prius C). We'd even much rather take a gasoline Smart Fortwo or a Nissan Versa Note—two of our least favorite models in this segment—over the Mirage, which is saying something.
While Mitsubishi still offers a few good vehicles here in the U.S., like the new Outlander and, to some degree, the Outlander Sport, the Mirage is a flat-out disappointment, and a car that feels dumped here so that an already poorly regarded dealership network can sell more cars to subprime-credit shoppers.
It's probably not what those stuggling shoppers need, and not what Mitsubishi needs either, frankly.
If your definition of a 'perfectly competent' car is to have road manners that match up with those of a 1988 Daihatsu Charade or 1995 Hyundai Accent, then you won't be all that disappointed. But if you drive anything—and we mean anything—else that's new, this is a step backwards. Thinking you're seeing anything else is a mirage.