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Mitsubishi Mirage


I can't say I'll be sorry to see the end of car manufacturers' current love affair with the styling fad they call monobox.

Everyone seems to have a monobox small/medium model in their line-up, a snub-nosed, tall-roofed car with a near-vertical, wagon-like hatchback rear end.

Peugeot has one in the 307, Toyota's Corolla embraces the style, even Daewoo is in the fray with the new Kalos.

Generally they're not offensive-looking cars, but - save for some of the Peugeot's idiosyncrasies and some nice detailing on the curvy Kalos - there's a look of bland uniformity about them.

Enter Mitsubishi with its new Mirage, a monobox which brings a familiar nameplate back to the NZ market after a short absence.

This is no re-badged Lancer but a distinctly-different car aimed chiefly at the European market and built in The Netherlands.

Initially it looks slab-sided and uprightly bluff-tailed. Closer examination reveals some very nice detailing, like the understated bulges above the rear wheels and the classy lines of the C-pillars as they blend into the roof.

From some angles the new Mirage looks not unlike a bigger, updated variation on Fiat's 1980s Uno hatchback. A Uno for the new millennium as it were.

There's quite a deep chin spoiler with an air intake that echoes late 1990s Mirage three-door styling themes. The mirrors are body-coloured and the 14-inch steel wheels are fitted with spoked-look wheel covers.

The car is tall at 1515mm, compact in length at 4030mm and rides on a 2500mm wheelbase. It's 1715mm wide and sits on a 1475mm front and 1450mm rear track.

The manual, as tested, weighs 1175kg and the auto is 1205kg.

It took a couple of days to appreciate some of the Mirage's styling subtleties, and a little longer to be convinced of its on-road merits.

The initial impression wasn't good. I favour a low-seated driving position with the steering wheel set quite high.

I cranked the adjustable seat down as far as it would go, but still found its front edge a little high for my short legs.

When I adjusted the steering wheel to its greatest possible height it assumed an angle that might ring bells with old-style Mini drivers, Hiace van operators or Stagecoach bus drivers. In short it was doing its best to get horizontal. The effect was heightened by the steering wheel's largish diameter.

I put up with it for a few days then lowered it. Its angle then became more vertical and the wheel was more pleasant to use.

I wasn't all that thrilled by the seats, not just because of the height. They were upholstered in a cloth with a raised pattern that could be felt even through the tough denim of a pair of Levis. If the princess could feel a pea beneath feather down mattresses who knows what she'd think of the Mirage's upholstery cloth.

The seatbacks did offer good support and gripped your shoulders well. The cushion, though, could have done with more side bolstering to hold you in place during vigorous cornering (yes, despite its high-roofed looks, the Mirage will corner vigorously).

In typically Mitsubishi style there are storage spaces to spare, some lidded others unlidded. In fact, the moulded oddments pockets in the front doors are so wide the seat height and rake controls are on the left-hand side of the driver's (and right-hand side of the passenger's) seat.

The only glitch in the storage spaces is the glovebox. It's of the near-vertical type and though it's not as absurdly-cramped as that in the old Alfa Romeo 146, it is "cosy." The test car's owner's manual was missing but we'd imagine that once you stowed it in the glovebox there'd be little room for anything else.

On the quirky side, the container for the driver's sunglasses is mounted on the roof rail at the right-hand side of the cockpit rather than the more usual central position above the windscreen. The test car's sunglasses holder was sometimes reluctant to shut properly.

Several things tell you this is no normal Mitsubishi.

The seat fore and aft adjustment lever, for instance, is at the front of the seat rather than on the side.

The manual gearshift has more feel than those found in some small-engined Mitsubishis.

The column-mounted stalks are mounted about-face, European-style, with the indicator on the left-hand side of the steering wheel and the windscreen wiper control on the right.

There were also some irritating quality-control problems we don't normally associate with Mitsubishis - or any Japanese cars for that matter.

The tailgate rattled even on reasonably smooth roads and the vinyl covering the generously-proportioned driver's sunvisor had ripped adjacent to its swivel point.

The sunvisor - which provided excellent front and side protection from sunstrike - also revealed a design glitch. When it was swivelled from the side to the frontal position its left edge contacted the map-reading light switch, turning on the light.

Now these irritations, many of them admittedly minor, combined to make me less than enthusiastic about the Mirage. In fact at one point I was prepared to dislike it intensely.

And then I took it for the open-road test. It turned my opinion around. The irritations mentioned above remain, but the car's perky open-road behaviour compensated for them.

In city running, including Auckland rush-hour commuting, the Mirage had acquitted itself well.

It steered accurately, the gearshift was pleasant, the clutch light. The clear, easy-to-read instruments are where they should always be - in front of the driver and read through the steering wheel.

The four-valves-per-cylinder 1600cc single overhead camshaft four cylinder motor provided good, lively city performance. It develops 72kW at 5000rpm and peak torque of 150Nm at 4000rpm.

As a city runabout the Mirage was well up to the task, its good front and rear cabin legroom and generous headroom providing a comfortable environment.

The luggage boot is well-shaped and comes with a roller-blind security cover.

The rear seatback and be folded forward and the squab folded to create a roomy cargo area.

So the Mirage is strong on practicality.

The test car had a Sport sign on the flanks that had me sniggering. The Mirage certainly didn't look like a sporting car, nor was its performance or exhaust sound in the sporting realm.

The first few corners taken at open road speeds were approached with caution. A tall-bodied car doesn't always feel the most secure when you're pressing on.

But the Mirage tracked well, turning-in nicely and feeling reassuringly stable. There was no hint of tall car feeling in anything but the sharpest of corners. Even then there was never any sensation that it might want to heel over.

The power-assisted rack and pinion steering loaded up nicely at speed and kept you reasonably well-informed about what the front wheels were doing. Its only low point was a degree of vagueness in the straight-ahead position. You could move the steering wheel a few degrees from the straight ahead without having a turning effect on the front wheels.

Understeer is the predominant handling trait, though the car didn't sledge badly even on very tight corners. The greatest awareness of its understeering nature came from the amount of steering lock needed in tighter corners and from the amount of road the car used on the way out of bends.

The back wheels stayed firmly planted and there was little feeling of weight transfer to the outside rear wheel in hard cornering.

The car changed direction briskly on left/right/left/right corner sequences.

The best recipe for cornering it fast is the classic early turn-in front-wheel drive technique that was a hallmark of the original Mirage of the late 1970s.

Our only real complaint about the Mirage's handling was a tendency for the front wheels to scrabble and try to self-centre on the rough, corrugated tarmac of a couple of ultra-tight corners on the test route.

We spent an enjoyable morning hustling the Mirage along our 160km handling route, and though we still don't see it as a sporting car, we concede it has enough chops to have sports pretensions.

The gearshift is smooth and quick in fast running and the willing engine provides adequate power for brisk cross-country driving.

The seats, though, could use more lateral support, especially given their rather upright shape.

Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and multi-link at the rear. There are stabiliser bars front and rear. Ride is good and the car dealt with bumps well. Noise levels are moderate.

The brakes - disc on all wheels, ventilated at the front - performed well and without fade.

The French-made 185/65 R14 tyres gave good grip on dry surfaces (we didn't drive the car on wet roads) and weren't noisy.

The fuel tank holds 55 litres of 96 octane petrol.

Standard equipment includes a Kenwood four-speaker sound system with dashboard-mounted single disc Compact Disc player. It's good in the sense of its sound delivery, though it has pre-set modes for rock, pop, jazz, classical. It's not so good in its fiddly operation. Its front swivels horizontally at the press of a button to allow the CD to be loaded. The controls are also fussy.

Air-conditioning is standard, along with power windows and exterior mirrors and central door-locking. There are front apron-mounted driving lights, tinted side windows, and mudflaps on all four wheels.

Safety equipment includes lap/sash seatbelts for all five occupants, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, dual front airbags, and side impact beams in the doors.

Curiously for a European-oriented and built vehicle, the car doesn't have ABS anti-skid braking.

The manual Mirage lists at $27,700. An automatic version with the INVECS II four-speed which can also be shifted manually is available for $28,900.

The new Mirage is an interesting, European-biased interpretation of an established Japanese nameplate.

We're not fans of the monobox look, but the subtleties of the Mirage's styling grew on us.

There were minor quality issues that could probably be sorted out quickly and easily, but generally the Mirage proved to be a competent vehicle with some character. Its general layout and looks suggest a stolid nature, so it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover how much fun it can be to drive quickly on demanding roads. As they say, you can't always judge a book by its cover and looks can deceive.

AutoPoint Road Test team: story and photographs by Mike Stock.

Auto Trader New Zealand