Motoring: Big expectations for Mitsubishi’s smallest car

While Mitsubishi has been paring down its product line, they’ve added a vehicle that should deliver better numbers.

Mitsubishi’s new three-cylinder Mirage starts at a low $12

QUEBEC, PQ: It’s a slice of old-world Europe smack dab in eastern Canada.

With its narrow streets, flanked by 17th- and 18th-century shops and homes that barely clear the incessant flow of traffic, Old Quebec was the ideal proving ground for Mitsubishi’s new three-cylinder subcompact, the Mirage.

Indeed, Old Quebec—the original walled city within the provincial capital—was the starting point for the recent North American launch of this tiny hatchback.

The folks at Mitsu chose this location, not only because this 400-year-old UNESCO world heritage site would, hopefully, showcase some of what’s best about the vehicle, but because the Quebec market is vital to the success of Mitsubishi, now celebrating its 10th year in Canada.

What surprised me during the marketing presentation was not so much that Canadians have embraced the subcompact car, which overall has reached 100,000 vehicle sales in this country, but that Quebecers account for half this number.

And even more important to Japan’s oldest automaker is that this province racks up 40 per cent of all Mitsu sales in Canada with 34 of 88 dealers based here—and begging for a subcompact.

So while the company has been paring down its product line, dropping low-volume sellers like the Endeavor SUV, dated Galant sedan and, sadly, the Eclipse sports coupe, they’ve added a vehicle that should deliver better numbers.

And although the company is conservatively aiming for its usual three to five per cent of the segment, you just know they’re hoping for more.

So, will the Mirage live up to expectations?

The target demographic is roughly one-quarter new buyers and three-quarters older buyers returning to market, and their top reasons for buying are fuel economy, value for the money, purchase price and warranty.

The Mirage is rated at 5.9/4.6/5.3L/100km (city/hwy/combo) with the standard-equipped five-speed manual, and 5.3/4.4/4.9 with the optional CVT.

Mitsu claims the CVT highway figure makes its new car the most fuel-efficient, gas powered (non-hybrid) vehicle in Canada. And whether or not you put much stock in government fuel numbers, Mitsu couldn’t have achieved this without serious thought to nearly every component of the design.

First is the engine. Its 1.2-litre three-cylinder with variable valve timing has been tweaked and tuned for higher compression, reduced friction and oil pump flow, delivering more power on less fuel. Well, not a ton of power, as it peaks at 74 hp and 74 lb/ft of torque, compared to the Chevy Spark’s 84 and 83.

Keep in mind, however, that with its use of high-tensile steel and other weight saving measures, the Mirage tips the scales at only 895 kg compared to the Spark’s 1,029 and Fiat 500’s 1,074. It’s even lighter than the much smaller, three-passenger Scion iQ.

Yet despite its light weight, Mirage is reasonably commodious, providing ample leg and headroom in front, and adequate clearance for most in back. It’s rated for three rear passengers, but two ride more comfortably—preferably when scooting around town rather than on long journeys due to the bench’s light padding.

You’d expect small-footprint vehicles with an upright seating position to have the aerodynamics of a shopping cart. Not so for the Mirage.

With a drag coefficient of 0.28, thanks to its teardrop shape, this subcompact slips through the wind. Less resistance means less fuel.

Also contributing to the Mirage’s thrift is transmission design. Not the five-speed, which you’d think would be tops in fuel economy—but the CVT.

It owes its efficiency to advancements like the world’s first application of an auxiliary gearbox (providing the world’s highest gear ratio of 7.3), smaller pulley, super flat torque converter, high efficiency oil pump, and a function that shifts the transmission into neutral when stopped in traffic.

But these fuel savings come at a cost—$1,200 for the CVT in both the base ES and higher SE trim—and the approximate $100 in annual fuel savings, on its own, won’t justify the added spend.

Its smoothness and relative quietness, however, especially under hard acceleration, make it good choice.

But in this segment, value for the money is about more than fewer visits the fuel pump. Purchase price, although third on the “reasons to buy” list, often seals the deal.

The ES model with five-speed gearbox starts at $12,498, and comes with the basics: four-speaker audio system, tilt steering, 60/40 split-fold rear seats, power windows (front only), front/rear intermittent wipers, seven airbags, 14-inch steel wheels with wheelcovers and front disc brakes with rear drums.

It’s a frugal package, and this barebones car without air conditioning is not likely to attract many buyers. Mitsubishi expects their volume seller to be the SE with CVT.

The SE model with manual gearbox starts at $15,398 ($16,598 with CVT) and adds keyless entry, automatic air conditioning, a full set of power windows, heated front seats with driver’s height adjust, heated exterior mirrors, 14-inch alloys, fog lamps and more.

The Convenience Package bumps the SE price another $500 and adds cruise control, voice-activated Bluetooth, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

Which drives the price into Lancer territory, but keep in mind that few buyers opt for the base Lancer either.

Inside, as you’d expect, the Mirage is lined by plenty of hard plastic, but the texturing and metallic accents add some interest and make the cabin look a bit less “entry level.” The instrument panel is nicely laid out with everything where you’d expect it, and the knobs, buttons and sliders are large enough to operate with gloved hands.

In terms of performance, it would be unfair to set the bar too high, as this vehicle is designed to be a fuel sipper, not a pocket rocket like the much pricier Fiat Abarth, MINI or Golf GTI.

Even with the five-speed, gearing is tall for better fuel economy, so the manual Mirage won’t launch much more quickly than a CVT model. But it’s still more fun to drive.

Let’s just say that the Mirage is as quick as it needs to be in a vehicle that is inexpensive to buy, to fuel, and with its extensive warranty, to keep on the road.

Check it out—the 2014 Mirage is arriving now at dealerships.

Mitsubishi Mirage 2014

Body Style: subcompact five-door hatchback

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

Engine: 1.2-litre DOHC MIVEC three-cylinder (74 hp, 74 lb/ft).

Cargo Capacity: 487 litres with seats folded

Fuel Economy: Five-speed manual – 5.9/4.6/5.3L/100km (city/hwy/comb); CVT – 5.3/4.4/4.9L/100km

Price: ES $12,498 with five speed manual, 13,698 with CVT; SE $15,398 with five speed, $16,598 with CVT; Convenience Package adds $500 to SE



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