By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Metro’s back!
In spirit if not name.
And in form and function, too.
Mitsubishi thinks the US car market is ready for a return automotive minimalism — perhaps because so many people have minimal money to spend these days — and so will embrace a car like the 2014 Metro … er, Mirage.
Not since the little Geo (last sold new in ’97) has any major automaker sold a four door sedan (a hatchback sedan, in this case)with fewer than four cylinders — and less than 80 hp — under the hood.
The Mirage also registers exactly the same 37 city, 44 highway that the ’97 Metro touted. Sure, it’s slow — but nothing that’s not a hybrid or a diesel (or a motorcycle) can touch this thing’s economy right now.
And with a starting price just under $13k, the new Mirage is also just about the least expensive new sedan you can buy. Only the stripped down version of Nissan’s Versa has a lower sticker price — $11,990 — but the Mirage is nearly 10 MPG more fuel-efficient than the base model Versa.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch — and that applies to the new Mirage as much as anything else.
Let’s get into that now.
WHAT IT IS
The Mirage is an entry-level subcompact five-door hatchback with a price tag of $12,995 to start — $14,195 “loaded.”
It is the first three-cylinder-powered sedan to be sold in the United States since the 1990s-era Geo.
Because of its lowball price — and exceptional high fuel economy- the Mirage has no direct competition.
Ford will offer a three-cylinder engine in the 2014 Fiesta in early calendar year 2014 — but it will be turbocharged as well as optional. A base trim four-cylinder Fiesta sedan starts at $14,400 — so even if the pending three-cylinder “Ecoboost” engine is a no-cost option, the Ford still starts out $1,405 higher. Probably, the three-cylinder engine will add at least another couple hundred bucks to the car’s MSRP.
The other three-cylinder car on the market is the SmartCar — but it’s a both two-door car and a two-seater car.
The Mirage name isn’t but the model is. It’s the first all-new Mitsubishi product in several years — and the future viability of Mitsubishi as an automaker may depend on its success… or its failure.
Mitsubishi has been struggling ever since the disastrous “0 down, 0 interest, 0 payments for a year” marketing plan it tried back in the late ’90s. The plan attracted “buyers” who wanted a car but either couldn’t pay for one or had no intention of ever paying for it — but were happy to take Mitsu up on its offer to let them drive around in a brand-new car for free for a year. Lots of Evos went up in smoke this way — as did Mitsu’s cash reserves.
That’s why there haven’t been many new Mitsus lately — or even major updates of existing Mitsus.
Under $13k sticker — and Mitsubishi’s as desperate as a 45-year-old cougar. Probably, you could buy one — the car, not the cougar — for closer to $11k.
Exceptionally high fuel economy — 44 highway and 37 city. This is better than the diesel VW Beetle I reviewed last week, which only managed 28 city, 41 highway.
AC is standard; Bluetooth is available.
Sensible shoes 14 inch steel wheels.
You can get an automatic — and it’s a fully modern automatic.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Metro slow — about 13 seconds to 60 with the optional CVT automatic.
Iffy status of Mitsubishi.
Iffy quality control history of Mitsubishi.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Mirage’s powerplant is a Metro-esque 1.2 liter three-cylinder engine that makes 74 horsepower. It is actually slightly larger — and slightly stronger- than the ’97 Metro’s 1.0 liter, 55 hp three.
Fuel efficiency, though is identical: 37 city, 44 highway.
There is not another car out there that can touch this. Not unless it’s a hybrid (or diesel-powered) car.
The Fiat 500 three-door hatchback is one of the most gas-sippy new cars available, but only rates 31 city, 41 highway. The larger Fiat 500L has four doors — but registers just 25 city, 33 highway. Perhaps because it weighs 1,340 lbs. more.
Yes, you read that right. A 500L weighs 3,203 lbs. — a pretty rotten automotive body mass index for a relatively small car.
The Mirage’s curb weight, meanwhile, is a small car-appropriate 1,863 lbs.
Coincidentally, this is almost dead-ringer for the ’97 Metro’s 1,832 lbs.
Back to the comparisons… .
The Nissan Versa S offers 31 city, 40 highway — if you buy the extra cost CVT automatic. The base ($11,900) Versa gets 27 city, 36 highway.
It’s not even in the same ballpark as the Mirage.
Even the three-cylinder Smartcar coughs up no more than 34 city and 38 highway — and it’s a car you probably wouldn’t want to take out on the highway.
The pending (spring 2014) three-cylinder Ford Fiesta will — reportedly — exceed 40 MPG on the highway. But in addition to costing significantly more than the Mitsu, the three-cylinder version of the Fiesta will reportedly only be sold with a manual transmission.
This is probably appropriate given the smallness of the engine — and the slowness of performance. When a small engine is teamed up with an automatic, the results are typically not so hot (more on this in a moment). Still, the fact remains that most buyers (about eight out of ten) prefer an automatic. If that describes you, cross the Ford off your list.
Mitsubishi has also given the Mirage a modern automatic.
The optional continuously variable (CVT) is technologically current. The Nissan’s Versa’s step-up four-speed automatic isn’t. (Nissan also offers a CVT in the Versa — but to get this transmission — and decent fuel economy — you have to step up to the Plus trim, which starts at $13,790 vs. $11,990 for the base 1.6 S trim.)
Otherwise, it’s 26 city, 35 highway — which is borderline lousy for a 2014 model year compact-sized car.
Ok. Ready for the bad news?
If you opt for the automatic, your Mirage will take a long time to get going. Zero to 60 happens in about 13 seconds, under ideal conditions. To get a handle on just how leisurely that is, consider: The slowest Prius — the Prius C — is about a second quicker to 60. A four-cylinder Fiesta gets to 60 in less than 10 seconds. The turbo’d three-cylinder Fiesta might even be quicker than that — given it has 123 hp (49 more than the Mirage).
On the other hand, if you can handle shifting for yourself, the manual-equipped Mirage is capable of getting you to 60 in about 11.6 seconds — still slower than manual-equipped small cars like the Fiat 500 (10.5 seconds) but within striking distance of a Prius C.
ON THE ROAD
Yeah, the Mirage is slow.
But is it too slow?
The answer depends on your frame of reference — and what you’re comfortable living with.
For instance, compared to a ’97 Geo Metro, the new Mirage is downright speedy. The Metro took almost 14 seconds to hit 60. Yet people drove it in traffic — and on the highways. If it was doable then, it’s certainly doable today. It just takes a driver willing — and able — to work with what the car’s got. A driver who knows the tricks of maintaining momentum, of anticipating the ebb and flow of traffic. If the light up ahead is red, he will try to pace himself so that by the time he reaches it, it’s gone green again — so he doesn’t have to stop. If he’s already rolling, he’s got a big advantage over even a speedy car that is stopped.
I’ve owned several really slow cars — cars that made even a Metro seem like a tri-power 427 Corvette. One of them was a ’73 Beetle I drove in DC rush hour traffic every day for several years. Which can actually be fun — if you like to drive — and if you know how to drive. There is a saying that contains a lot of truth:
It is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
When I lived up in the DC area, one of the most frustrating things I had to deal with was getting something like a new M5 or Viper to test drive — and find myself jockeying for position in the bump-and-grind with cars like my ’73 Beetle — and Geo Metros. I wasn’t getting there any faster than them — and they weren’t getting 15 MPG.
Is it not smarter to save the M5, the Viper, the Corvette — the fun car, whatever it happens to be — for when you can have fun with it?
Meanwhile, you can amuse yourself well enough in a car like this Mirage — when it is driven in its element, which is stop-and-go traffic. True, it’s a bit out of its depth on the highway — but then, so was the Metro (and so was my old Beetle). Doesn’t mean you can’t take it out on the highway. You absolutely could.
You just have to know its limits — and yours.
AT THE CURB
The footprint of the ’14 Mirage is actually smaller by nearly a foot overall than that of the ’97 Metro sedan: 148.8 inches vs. 164 inches. But — as is the trend in new car design — the Mirage sits much taller: 59.1 inches vs. 55.4 for the Metro. It is also several inches wider: 65.6 inches vs. 62.6 for the ’97 Geo.
What you end up with is a stubby — but tall/wide — car that fits into tight spaces outside but which isn’t too tight-fitting on the inside. The Mirage has 41.7 inches of legroom up front, and 39.1 inches of headroom and 51.7 inches of shoulder room. This is decent — very decent, actually — for a subcompact.
Again, some comparos:
The much smaller(and two-door) Fiat 500 coupe has 40.7 inches of front row legroom, 38.9 inches of headroom and 49.4 inches of front row shoulder room. Its backseat has just 31.7 inches of space.
The four-door Mitsu offers 34 inches — exceptional, for a car in this size bracket.
The four-door 500L — which is a larger than the Mirage — only has 40.7 inches of front row legroom — and a preposterous 30.7 inches of second row legroom. That’s less than the two-door 500 — and three-plus inches less than the Mirage sedan has.
It’s also a tight squeeze in the Ford Fiesta — which has about an inch less shoulder room in both rows (50.6 and 49 inches, respectively, vs. 51.7 and 51.0 for the Mitsu) and just 31.2 inches of second row legroom (the Ford has slightly more legroom up front, 42.2 inches).
Nissan’s Versa gives you more interior space in both rows — including 37 inches of backseat legroom — which is more than many mid-sized sedans have. But as mentioned earlier, the Versa’s not nearly as fuel-efficient as the Mirage — even when ordered with its extra-cost CVT transmission.
On the numbers, this looks like a winner. The sedan layout is inherently practical; 37 MPG in city driving is better than several cars in the compact class manage on the highway. The base trim car — the one that’s not quite $13k at full MSRP — includes automatic climate control air conditioning (a step up from manual AC), seven air bags (five years ago, that would have been more air bags than you’d have gotten in an S-Class Mercedes), keyless entry and a decent stereo with iPod hook-up. Plus power windows and door locks.
Really, what else does one need?
And the car doesn’t come with things you don’t really need — like 17 inch (or even 16 inch) alloy wheels (fragile) and the expensive tires that come with those “rims.” Instead, as is proper for an A to B transportation appliance, the Mirage comes standard with 14-inch steel wheels and tires that cost $70 a piece to replace instead of $150 a piece. The fourteen inchers have other advantages, too — including less rolling resistance (helps fuel economy) and they’re easier to handle (as when you have to deal with a flat) being smaller and thus, lighter.
Mitsubishi offers alloy wheels, LED interior lighting, parking assist and navigation — even leather trim — but to me, adding such stuff to a car like this is like tipping the drive-thru kid at McDonald’s $20 on top of the the $8.00 bag of burgers he just handed you.
This car makes sense if you stick with the program. If you want something more than an inexpensive, functionally unobjectionable way to get around — there are better choices. But if you mean to keep your costs down to the absolute minimum without torturing yourself, this one’s an excellent choice.
Especially if you strong-arm the poor bastard trying to sell you one. Pity Mitsu salesmen — and dealers. They know you know how desperate they are.
Make the most of it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you missed out on the Metro back in the ’90s, now’s your chance to relive history — the good and the bad.
It’s a shame that America needs a car like this — but the fact is a 44 MPG A to B unit that you can probably take home for $12k or so is exactly the right car for these very wrong times.