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2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES: Back to basics

by: MITSUBISHI MOTOR SALES OF AMERICA - Mitsubishi returns to its roots with the 2014 Mirage, the company's first new subcomapct is years.Although I'm very much in favor of small cars that get high mileage, Mitsubishi made it hard for me to like the 2014 Mirage, it's first new subcompact in years.

For starters, unlike most test cars, it had almost zero options. Although a navigation system with rearview camera is available, it was not included on mine.

One option it had was a Continuously Variable Transmission, which increases mileage but reduces performance. With just 74 horsepower on tap from the 1.2-liter inline three cylinder engine, I would have preferred the base five-speed manual transmission.

And then there was the color. Pink. Bright pink. Glow in the dark pink. The build sheet said Plasma Purple, but trust me, it was pink. Not my style.

But despite all that, I ended up having some fun with the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage during a week of mixed driving. Yes, the engine and CVT transmission were noisy. And yes, the ride was unrefined. And yes, the interior materials were cheap looking. And yes, the blunt nose, abrupt rear end and skinny tires made the Mirage look like the most basic form of transportation available.

Call me foolish, but driving the Mirage was like taking a trip back in time to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Japanese companies like Mitsubishi were just breaking into the American market with small, inexpensive economy cars.

Did I say the Mirage starts at under $15,000, making it just about the lowest-priced car on the market today? That helps put everything in perspective, doesn't it.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Mitsubishi originally partnered with Chrysler and sold their cars as Dodges and Plymouths under the names Colt and Cricket. They were very simple but offered a decent amount of interior room and got a a lot better mileage than the V8-powered gas guzzlers that Americans were parking because of soaring gas prices caused by the Arab Oil Embargo.

By the 1980s, most small economy cars had switched over to front-wheel-drive, which allowed for even better economy and more interior room. They were still very simple, but were more fun to drive thanks to increased responsiveness.

Several of the small front-wheel-drive cars had three-cylinder engines that eked out more than 40 miles per gallon, like the new Mirage. They included the Chevy Sprint, the Chevy/Geo Metro, the Daihatsu Charade, and the Subaru Justy. The Mirade is most like these cars, although — with the exception of its noisy driven train — it is much better than any of them.

Mitsubishi started selling cars on its own after awhile, and continued offering small models, including a front-wheel-drive Mirage. But subcompacts eventually fell out of favor as gas prices stabilized and bigger cars started offering better mileage.

Interest in small economy cars increased again during the Great Recession, when everyone started worrying about expenses. It produced a new wave of subcompact cars, including the Chevy Spark, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. Mitsubishi is actually late coming to the party with its completely redesigned Mirage, but at least it's finally arrived.

On the road, the Mirage drives like it looks — unsophisticated. The engine and CVT transmission groan under even moderate acceleration. The ride borders on choppy. The steering is, well, less than precise. And freeway driving is largely a matter of building up and maintaining momentum.

But that's part of the fun. It's easy to drive the Mirage at the ragged edge and still stay within the speed limit. Whenever I felt the acceleration was too slow (which was often), all I had to do was look at the dash and see the 35-plus miles per gallons I was getting. And the brakes are just fine, in large part because the car is so small and light.

The interior of the Mirage is surprisingly roomy for such a small car, thanks to modern manufacturing techniques that allow for thin but strong frames. There was plenty of headroom, and the front bucket seats were reasonably comfortable. The back seats were best for children, of course, and the cargo space was limited with them up, but the Mirage is so short that it could be squeezed into ever the smallest downtown parking space.

Anyone considering a subcompact should test drive a number of them, of course, including the Mirage. And as for the color, well, it turned out girls like it, so that's something.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Mirage.

• Manufacturer: Mitsubishi.

• Class: Sub-compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback car.

• Engine: 1.2 inline 4 (74 hp, 74 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Five-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission - as test.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 34/42/37 (5S); 37/44/40 (CVT - as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $14,000 ($15,990 as tested).