With its trunk-mounted wing spoiler, aluminum wheels, and fiberglass side skirts, Mitsubishi's diminutive new Mirage LS coupe looks and feels more like a pocket sports car than an econobox.
In fact, of the two new cars Mitsubishi has introduced so far for the 1997 model year, the inexpensive, entry-level Mirage subcompact is far more exciting than the luxurious Diamante.
Buy a Mirage LS coupe in black, which disguises many of the econobox styling details, and no one will know you may have spent as little as $13,630. For that money, the new Mirage gives Mitsubishi a competitive edge in a market where its sales have been sluggish. None of the competitors - the Dodge Neon, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla, Saturn or Honda Civic - is as sophisticated.
The real differences, compared with its competition and its forebear, lie under the skin. Mitsubishi engineers have spent long hours refining and stiffening the chassis and work smoothing the Mirage's engine and transmission.
The most obvious result is how quietly the car is. While it's still no Cadillac or Jaguar, the Mirage engine emits only a pleasant hum on the highway, with none of the obtrusive buzz and rattle that often define cars in this price class.
The Mirage comes as a two-door coupe or a four-door sedan, both available in base DE or upscale LS trim. The bare-bones DE coupe starts around $11,000; air conditioning, stereo, and power steering add $1,500. Antilock brakes aren't available on this model. The DE sedan, at $12,500 to $14,000, is a little less Spartan. Prices for the well-equipped LS range from $13,420 to about $17,500.
The LS models, such as the sporty coupe tested for this review, use the higher output 1.8-liter, 115 horsepower engine. While this four-cylinder engine hardly qualifies as a fire-breather, it is above average in the economy class. (The base DE models come with a 92 horsepower four-cylinder.) In top gear on the highway, the LS coupe's performance is ho-hum. But that's not the whole story. Downshift one or even two gears and the little engine growls impressively and hurls the car forward. This engine winds up eagerly and gleefully encourages high-spirited driving.
The transmission, and the steering on all but the base DE coupe, also benefit from long hours of polishing their designs. The standard five-speed manual gearbox, such as the one in the test car, has impeccable gearing, and has a truly silky shifter.
The new four-speed automatic is even more interesting. It uses electronic logic circuitry to constantly adapt to the driver's taste. Most other electronically controlled automatics determine when to shift only by how hard the driver is stepping on the gas. This one, by contrast, keeps track of recent throttle-use patterns to determine whether the driver is in a relaxed or hurried mood and tailors the shifts accordingly.
This works well, for instance in mountain driving and on winding roads that call for frequent acceleration and deceleration. While other manufacturers have been using this technology for a couple of years, the Mirage easily represents the lowest-cost car to employ such a logic-controlled transmission. Again, the little Mitsubishi delivers more than its price suggests.