The cars we loved.
Happy Independence Day to all of those in America. One of the benefits of market place freedom is that we often have plenty of choices. Even so, most of us are forced to make compromises when we buy a car, especially if it’s our first one. For first timers during the 90’s, small hatchbacks were a given. For those who strayed from hatches, the rewards were the acknowledgement of not having what looked like the owner of a “My First Car”. This was why the Cavalier was preferred to early Escorts. The hatch just got a bum rap in upwardly mobile America.
Coupes were by far the preferred form factor for sporty cars, even if it was entry level car. In the beginning of the 90’s the choices were plentiful and varied. You could opt for the smaller cheaper Toyota Paseo, Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Scoupe or move up the chain to larger more optioned rides like the Cavalier, Civic or base models of the Diamond Star coupes. The Civic of course was the leader in this segment and got the bulk of the attention while cars like The Neon and Cavalier cars were seen as disposable trash (by West coast dwellers). The Mitsubishi’s Mirage was in many ways just as interesting as the Civic, but did not excel in much of anything except overall value. As a fringe low volume choice, it was consigned to the bottom of most shopping lists if on it at all.
For its part Mitsubishi has been quietly holding up the value proposition for small cars with Chrysler for decades. Its popular Colt/Mirage has been everything from a coupe to a mini SUV. The platform had become something of a pocket rocket (before the Sentra SER !) with the Mirage and Colt Turbos of the early 90’s. The little 1.8 L four cylinders in these hatches packed an impressive 135hp. Chrysler later branded its version as the Eagle Summit. When a new model came in 1997, Mitsubishi would be the sole provider of a revamped Mirage that came to the US as a sedan and coupe only while in other parts of the world it was still available as a three door hatchback.
By the later half of the 90’s small inexpensive coupes were fading fast. The Scoupe had grown up in sophistication and price as the Tiburon, while Toyota ended production of the Paseo in 1996. Other stalwarts like GM’s J cars remained an alternative, but did not offer the same overall value due to shaky quality and dated mechanically. The Civic remained but was approaching the size and cost of earlier Accords. The Mirage was one of the few holdouts for anyone looking for an attractive coupe that was great on gas and cheap to own and operate. The Nissan Sentra, then the Ford Escort ZX2 may have been the only real competition in America and it held out till 2003.
As a low price car, the Mirage was simple. As it’s namesake might suggest it appeared more expensive than it was due to its sleek shape and Civic coupe like proportions. Once inside however, it was plain to see where Mitsubishi had cut corners. The interiors were mostly grey with little difference in surface textures. The cloth seats had stitched designs on them that were very 80’s looking, but were otherwise nondescript. The control layout was simple and uncluttered, befitting the Mirage’s status as the least expensive car Mitsubishi sold in America.
Like lower end models of the Civic, all Mirage models came with a pair of SOHC four-cylinder engines.Starting with the base DL and the better equipped LS, buyers could choose from a true bare bones car or a real Civic EX competitor. Most buyers went for the bare bones DL or somewhere in between with it’s 1.3L 98 hp engine. When equipped with the standard 5 –speed manual transmission, the DL could be competent in most traffic if you were willing to do a lot of gear work. The LS with its attractive and subtle ground effects had a more powerful 1.5L with 113hp. That was enough to make a manual equipped car feel sprightly, especially considering that a loaded LS still weighed well under 3,000lb.
Light weight aside, cars equipped with the smaller engine and automatic transmission were down right transit bus like to 60 from a stop (13.4 seconds). The LS with a manual was better at 9.5, but was well below what the Mirage was during its performance heydays of the 90’s (8.6). The ride was well controlled, but could be a bit busy due to the coupe having a shorter wheelbase than the sedan. The little 14in wheels and thin tires on the DL probably did not help grip, but optional 15 inch alloys with wider tires were on the LS improved matters. The independent strut and multi-link suspension did offer a decent ride and road holding if you didn’t push it too hard. Motor Trend magazine described the Mirage as “pleasant” in a 1998 article. This was a surprising technical treat in its class considering that many small cars were still using some form of a solid beam rear suspension. The Civic at this time was using a double-wishbone system and was considered the standard-bearer for the class.
No one really bought the Mirage for performance. As a good-looking commuter its value proposition could not be beat. At a starting price of only $8,000 for the DL and $10,000 for the LS, the Mirage promised to be easy on your pocketbook. The frugality continued at the pump with EPA estimated mileage for highway driving in the high 30’s low 40’s range depending on which engine and transmission you chose. The Mirage was an all-around good car, but its relatively low sales volumes and sparse dealer network meant that it would not be a common site, especially in the middle parts of the country where Fords and Chevys rule. Mirage production ended in 2001. To date, Mitsubishi seems to have abandon the concept of a small, inexpensive coupe (remember when the Eclipse used to be?) in the American market.
That’s a shame because the Mirage remains one of the best kept secrets for anyone looking a dependable low-key commuter or second car that will not arouse the suspicions of the law. The Mirage has enough aesthetic appeal that putting a set of nice rims on it would not look out-of-place. The only trouble is finding one. With less than 2% of the US market share, Mitsubishi cars are more likely to have been Eclipses, Lancers or Galants. The Mirage sedan outsold the coupe yet neither was ever on the top of Mitsubishi’s own sales charts. The Lancer replaced the Mirage in America, while in Japan and other markets the Mirage returns to its roots as a small hatchback.