The 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage: Little, But Not Necessarily Mighty
Currently, the Mitsubishi trades paint with Chevy Spark for the questionable honor of being the cheapest new car you can buy in America. But for one thing, how cheap is $14K? Even after adjusting for inflation, it seems that entry-level Basic Transportation used to cost less. And second, what are you giving up for that extra few thousand bucks? At the end of the day, it worth it to get the cheapest car on the market, just for the sake of having a new car? Let’s investigate.
First let’s highlight what’s good about the Mitsubishi Mirage. For one thing, for a little bean, it’s got some decent interior room. The rear seats fold nearly flat, which is always nice in a hatchback and opens up a diminutive but cavernous aft cargo space.
Another plus is that it gets great mileage: the Mirage weighs in at just under 2,000 lbs, and with the ultra-efficient CVT, it’ll do 40 mpg all day long. Finally, as stated, the purchase price is outstandingly low by today’s standards. You can get a base model with a stick shift and nothing on it for $13,790 including destination fee. The quasi-loaded ES, the one I had, came in at a significantly less-justifiable $16K. For comparison’s sake I priced a bare-bones Chevy Spark and Nissan Versa Note, which penciled out to $12,995 and $14,800 respectively (Chevy set the Spark’s MSRP at $12,170 so the total could come in below the $13K threshold after destination). Mix in some aggressive manufacturer- and dealer-level incentives, and give or take a few hundred bucks the Mirage is, price-wise, the bottom of the barrel. Unfortunately, it's bottom of the barrel on most other measures as well.
Full disclosure: I don’t want to hate on the Mirage! I actually love little, cheap cars, and I love the idea of ultra-fuel efficient people-movers for commuters so that at least some of our planet’s remaining fuel can be saved for our gas-hungry muscle cars. I was looking forward to trying out the Mirage and being able to champion all the great things about it. But the car just gives you so little to go on. The motor is a 1.2L 3-cylinder, so it really is the Geo Metro of our generation.
It makes only 74 hp, and its struggle under even the slightest load is painful to witness. Merging into brisk traffic, you’d swear that you’re about to blow that pocket-sized powerplant. And that CVT, the one that nets the Mirage such fabulous mpg’s? It’s flabby and boggy on take-off; on a hill, the car almost feels like it’s going to stall, and accelerating at highway speed, the whole drivetrain feels like it’s about to come apart, droning and vibrating throughout the passenger compartment. Throttle response? It’s like flushing a water-saving toilet. With so little power, it’s clear that you need the five-speed to make the most of this ride, but the manual shift wipes out one of the main things the Mirage has going for it: its fuel mileage. Ratings for the manual are only 34 mpg city / 42 highway, compared to the CVT’s 37/44. You really are stuck between a rock and a hard place with this car, though you can take solace in the fact that even a stick would hardly make the Mirage “fun to drive.” The steering is approximate at best, and the dead suspension and dinky 14-inch wheels crack and slam dramatically over even moderately rough city roads. You’d think the short wheelbase would make for a good turning radius, but it won’t U-turn on a normal city sidestreet. Nope, that’ll be a 3-point for you! It’s got a push-button start with the button on the wrong side of the steering wheel, and the sound from the factory speakers is muffled and muddy. Every opportunity the Mirage has to pleasantly surprise you, it meticulously declines.
Okay, so that’s not completely true. I thought the dash interface was nice, though basic, and had no complaints about the cheap materials that other reviewers found objectionable. (My tester was painted in the flashy Plasma Purple--though both "Purple" and "painted" are slight misnomers, since the engine compatment and many visible interior panels were still in grey primer [cheaper to spray the car with the hood and doors closed, I guess] and the hue insisted on coming out pink in photos and most lights). Still, the subtle purple plaid of the upholstery was cute, even if I couldn’t get the manual seat settings to adjust to any driving position that felt even remotely natural. The rear windows roll all the way down, just one feature of a surprisingly comfortable back seat; and I like the super-analog handle release on the rear hatch was vastly preferable to all the counterintuitive nipples and bleepers that hatchback manufacturers typically require to open the hatch these days. I feel like I haven’t seen a good old-fashioned tailgate-like handle on a rear hatch since… what, the 80s? Mitsus have seemed kind of retro lately, and this was a nice touch.
But overall, this car seems like an opportunity missed. Mitsubishi is an underdog manufacturer who I want to encourage to stay weird, in part out of respect to its history but also because it seems they should be stepping in to fill the oddball-shaped void left by Suzuki’s departure from the North American market. With a few decades of scrappy Lancers under their belt, Mitsubishi should be able crank out a fun cheap subcompact with its eyes closed. Why couldn’t they pull it off? Anyone looking for an ultra-cheap subcompact would be out of their mind to drop $14K on this: imagine how far that money would go on an old Honda CRX, Geo Storm, or Ford Festiva instead—you could have the nicest one of any of these cars around, get your 40+ mpg, and come out at least $6K ahead to boot. And for someone with no money who’s really stuck on a new car, the Chevy Spark is all-around nicer, cuter, more powerful, and better-optioned. It’s too bad that the Mirage just doesn’t add up no matter how you look at it. If the car survives to its next generation, I really hope Mitsubishi is able to step it up, address its deficiencies, and make it something that can actually compete in this increasingly crowded segment. The Mirage is an idea that seems like it deserves the effort.
What’s new: the Mitsubishi Mirage is an all-new offering for 2014
What’s hot: great mileage, good useable interior space for a subcompact.
What’s not: steering is floaty, CVT transmission is awful, and the 1.2L 3-cylinder is beyond gutless.
Get this car if: you want one of the cheapest new cars on the market, you’re averse to making a much more sensible investment on a used econobox, and you’ve got something irrational against Chevy's obviously superior competitor?