Do an internet search looking for the worst cars sold in the U.S. and you find lists more numerous than posts covering that video of Jay Leno in the Hemi Under Glass drag car that rolled over. Consensus, in the subcompact class at least, gravitates around the Mitsubishi Mirage, a subcompact hatchback so widely loathed by reviewers upon its 2014 debut that it, um, rang up a year of rising sales. Our own road-test review wore a typical headline: “Sad Trombone.” More than 21,000 people heard a trumpet, though, calling them to buy one.
About the time those 2015 sales figures had us wondering if maybe we’d missed something appealing about the Mirage—other than its two advertising-friendly virtues of a low $13,805 base price and bragging rights to the best EPA-combined fuel-economy rating of any nonhybrid vehicle (40 mpg for the CVT version)—Mitsu skipped the 2016 model year. Call it a furlough from the whipping post. The Mirage returns as an early 2017 model, with its lineup now augmented by the Mirage G4sedan, the subject of this test. The sedan’s wheelbase is 3.9 inches longer, most of which benefits space for the back-seat passengers, and the G4 is 20.7 inches longer overall, reflecting the addition of the trunk. That extra space moves this Mirage out of the subcompact class and into the compact category according to EPA/SAE measurements..
Americans, we’re told, strongly prefer sedans over hatchbacks, so count this as an attempt to adapt the car to our market. The hatchback, built in Thailand, competes with similar cars in global (primarily Asian) markets. We’re often asked why such basic transportation appliances aren’t sold in America. The Mirage G4 is a case study in what happens when manufacturers try.
The G4 redesign stretches the potato-like hatchback into more yam-like proportions. It may have a nerdish, pseudo Prius appeal to those wowed by the 37-mpg EPA-combined fuel-economy rating. The Mirage even shares one exterior part with the Lancer Evolution—a chromed metal garnish on the front fender. As on the Evo Final Edition, you can rattle it around with a fingertip.
Packaged for America
In SE form, the Mirage G4 has standard automatic climate control, power windows, proximity-sensing remote locks, push-button ignition, 15-inch aluminum wheels, cruise control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, and a backup camera. Its cloth bucket seats are adjustable six ways on the driver’s side, four on the passenger side, and they’re heated. It also has a 6.5-inch display for the infotainment system; it doesn’t have its own navigation, but it is Apple CarPlay/Android Auto–compatible, and there’s Bluetooth connectivity. That long list of equipment reflects more catering to our market, but it also inflates the MSRP to $17,830, enough money that the list of better alternatives grows very long indeed.
That these features were not initially designed into the car is obvious. There are buttons on the driver’s door and trunklid to release the locks when the proximity key is detected, but approach from the passenger side and all you’ll find is a standard keyhole. The USB port is in the glovebox—grope around, you’ll find it. The speaker for Bluetooth hands-free calling is tacked atop the dashboard on the passenger side while the microphone is found at the end of a wire routed atop the steering column; it got unstuck and we had to tape it back on. The ignition button resides left of the steering column.
We could give a demerit for the glossy finish of the pebble-grain dashtop cover, but, really, this is a car built down to a price, and the materials don’t look worse than some others at the low end of the market, where modern features and a warranty (10 years/100,000 miles on the Mirage drivetrain) entice shoppers away from the used-car lot. Sedan competitors would include the Nissan Versa, the Kia Rio, the Hyundai Accent, and the Ford Fiesta. Differences of $2500 to $3000 between trim levels loom large in this $15,000-to-$18,000 battlefield, but there’s no amount of money you can throw Mitsubishi’s way to erase the Mirage’s weakest link.
What the Mirage needs, much more than a trunk or rear-seat legroom, is a heart transplant. Specifically, its engine is short one cylinder. The 1.2-liter naturally aspirated three-cylinder suffices in many markets around the globe, but even newly uprated to 78 horsepower (from 74 in 2015), it makes about three-quarters of the power its prime competitors offer here. Americans need automatic transmissions, so Mitsu’s three-banger is strapped to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This powertrain objects, loudly and continuously, when urged to move the little car out of its own way. The Mirage G4 SE weighs 127 pounds more than the 2014 hatchback we tested, and the CVT is standard. Only the base ES sedan, the stripper version that costs $14,830, offers a manual five-speed transmission.
These factors together give us a G4 that needs 12.8 seconds to get to 60 mph, a longer time than any passenger vehicle we’ve tested in many years (the hatchback could hit 60 mph in 10.9). Turn off the A/C and select the CVT’s Sport mode, and one could almost be convinced that the G4 has enough power, but we’re talking about less grunt than is offered by several ATVs, some of which, to be fair, also cost more than the Mirage G4.
Those drawn to the Mirage G4’s fuel economy should know that the EPA figure is in reach only if you drive slowly all the time. We floored the throttle pedal a lot to keep up with traffic, and we recorded 33 mpg in mixed city and suburban driving. By contrast, we got 34 mpg in a Chevrolet Spark, also with a CVT. That car has a 98-hp 1.4-liter four-cylinder and hits 60 mph two seconds quicker, and it never feels as overworked as the Mirage G4. Other makers offering three-cylinder engines in city cars in the U.S.—Mini, Ford, and Smart—use turbocharging to overcome their engines’ size limitations.
This lack of oomph becomes a problem on the road. Once, a traffic signal turned green and we watched, astounded, as a landscaper’s diesel pickup towing a flatbed with a tractor on it walked away from us. Yes, the Mitsubishi’s throttle was floored, but we plead guilty to using the A/C on a 95-degree day. When entering freeways in the Mirage G4, assume you’ll have to merge behind tractor-trailer rigs doing 60 mph in the right lane—our track data shows this car needs 8.8 seconds to get from 50 to 70 mph, about twice as long as is typical for family sedans. Once going, the Mirage can maintain a steady 80 mph on cruise control, the engine drone changing as the CVT adjusts for road terrain. Be alert, though, since the suspension tuning seems to reach its limits at 70 mph, after which little road dips and bumps become events to manage.
Can we say some nice things? Sure. The front seats, although short on thigh support, are supportive and better than in some cars another step up the food chain, while the rear seat is now roomy enough that you won’t feel bad asking friends to take a short ride back there. The steering feel is pretty good, and the tight turning circle aids parking maneuvers.
Don’t get too eager, and you’ll find the handling is balanced and predictable; the 0.78 g we measured on the skidpad bests the Versa sedan by 0.02 g and the Smart Fortwo by 0.04. The front-disc/rear-drum brake system worked well, with decent pedal feel. The car stopped from 70 mph in only 170 feet, really strong for the class, and exhibited no fade over six repetitions, although it took so long to get back up to 70 mph that the tiny rear drums always had time to cool. The brake system also employs EBD (electronic brake-force distribution) and incorporates a hill-hold feature.
We’d be interested in driving a manual-transmission Mirage G4, but with it being available only in the no-goodies trim level, it wouldn’t be much surprise to learn Mitsubishi doesn’t offer one for press use—it’d be like wearing a “kick me” sign on your back, at least until they replace that missing cylinder under the hood. And that is a short course on why “basic transportation” automobiles fare poorly in America.