For all the high-displacement performance cars that populate the all-time best-of lists, there’s an equal amount of egalitarian people’s cars that deserve mention. For every Bugatti Atlantic, Shelby Cobra, Ferrari F40, and Bugatti Veyron, there’s the Ford Model T, Volkswagen, Mini, and the Honda Civic CVCC. But in recent years, the market for cheap, no-frills transportation has all but dried up, legendary or otherwise. After reaching a high-water mark sometime around 25 years ago (for proof, check out Jack Baruth’s ode to cheap steel in Road and Track), the market had all but disappeared by the beginning of this century, held down only by the Kia Rio and a few others that aren’t memorable enough to mention.
Sensing an opportunity, Mitsubishi revived its Mirage nameplate (dormant since 2003), and began importing a small, Thai-built subcompact to stake its claim at the bottom of the market for 2014. It did what all the greats did, offering basic, reliable transportation that was affordable to the masses. At under $14,000, it was one of the cheapest new cars on the market (behind the Nissan Versa and Chevy Spark, respectively), offered over 40 miles per gallon combined, and… was completely lambasted by the auto press.
In a now famous New York Times review titled “It’s Cheap, but Is It Overpriced?,” the paper declared: “The reborn Mitsubishi Mirage lowers expectations, strangles them and buries their remains in a deep unmarked grave. If this car wasn’t disappointing, it wouldn’t be anything at all.” It bemoaned the car for its ’90s-era interior styling, slow sub-11 second zero to 60 time, and its buzzy 1.3 liter three cylinder engine. For months, the car took a beating in the auto press. Hell, it seemingly became the whipping boy for the entire industry. But then, things began to look up.
Buyers started to respond to the Mirage. At its price point, it was certainly cheap, but with vivid colors like Kiwi Green, Plasma Purple, and InfraRed, it was cheerful too. And with a standard five-speed manual, it started to earn a reputation as a slow car that can be a lot of fun to drive fast. It’s already sold 25% more cars this year than last, and with a big redesign coming for 2017, Mitsubishi is looking to make an even bigger splash in the entry-level subcompact market starting next year.
While the Mirage has spent the better part of the past two years getting buried in the press, Mitsubishi has been on a death watch. The company’s announcement that it was closing its Normal, Ill., plant this year only accelerated these rumors. But like the Mirage’s resurgence, there actually appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The Outlander Sport crossover has become a much-needed hit for the company, and a handsomely refreshed Outlander (sans Sport) will bow in 2017 with an optional plug-in hybrid powertrain. By then, the aging Lancer sedan and i-MiEV electric car will be gone, and a coupe-like crossover will round out the company’s SUV lineup, leaving the Mirage as the only game in town if you want a Diamond-Star car.
So the refreshed Mirage needs to be a performer, and from the outset, it looks like it’s got a pretty good shot. The redesign ditches the monochromatic jellybean shape that many likened to a penalty box, replaced instead with a more modern Lancer-esque front fascia. To us, the new design is at least on par with competitors like the Chevy Spark, Scion iA, and Toyota Yaris, if not a little better looking.
Inside, the updates continue, with a redesigned dash, instrument panel, and steering wheel, new seats, and an optional 300-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo system, similar to the units found in the Nissan GT-R and Tesla Model S. It also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making it the first Mitsubishi offered with that connectivity. Under the hood, the Mirage’s 1.2 liter inline-three gets a big power boost – 78 horsepower, up from 74 (that’s precisely 5.26% more power). It also benefits from bigger brakes and a re-tuned suspension. And like the aforementioned Scion, a sedan model will be join the five-door hatch soon after it goes on sale in the spring.
What Mitsubishi is offering with the Mirage is a true entry-level car, something that’s a rarity in today’s auto market. It isn’t fast, it isn’t luxurious, and it isn’t premium. But it acquits itself as a basic little runabout, and for 2017, it’s about to get better. If you’re looking for a new car but are on a tight budget, the Mirage is about to get a whole lot more competitive. Take a good look at it, because if all goes according to plan for Mitsubishi, you’ll be seeing a lot more of these on the roads very soon.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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