First drive: 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES

Mitsubishi is approaching near-panic mode, squeezed to near irrelevance by stronger competitors and a product drought. Its latest hatchling, a tiny Thailand-built sub-subcompact wearing the Mitsubishi Mirage badge, comes across like an act of desperation. Its main claim to fame is a combined 40 mpg EPA fuel economy rating. But considering that the Mirage is powered by a sputtering, 74-hp, three-cylinder engine and was clearly designed for developing markets, it’s hard to see the appeal in the United States. (See our original "Just in" report on the Mitsubishi Mirage.)

We just bought a top-trim ES, which comes with keyless entry, push-button start, automatic climate control, and a CVT transmission. There are even steering wheel mounted controls for the audio system and the driver’s window has an auto-up function—features you don’t often find in this price-sensitive segment. The sticker price is $16,050, making it one of the least-expensive new cars on the market. But look closer, and it isn’t exactly a bargain. (Want to get more for your money? Check our our recommended used cars for every budget.)

First impressions: You need to hammer the gas pedal almost to the floor to goad the groggy little engine awake and even then, acceleration is meager, at best. The body shakes and tingles with the effort, vibrating the seat and your internal organs.

The slow acceleration is rather disconcerting, making you feel vulnerable if you’re hemmed in by real cars or merging on the highway next to a tractor trailer.

The clumsy handling is the real eye-opener. The amount of body-roll, even at 25 mph, and the slow steering makes you feel like you’re rowing a dinghy on the high seas.

Trying to climb up to highway speeds on a curving entrance ramp draws a shrieking protest from the modest 14-inch tires. But showing they haven’t lost their sense of humor, the folks at Mitsubishi equipped those modest alloy wheels with lug-nut locks.

At least the turning circle is super tight, so parking is a cinch. And that soft suspension makes the ride pretty decent, absorbing rough stuff nicely, presumably for the rough roads overseas. Wind noise is so pronounced at 45 mph, it’s as if the car was never meant to go faster. And that’s on top of the racket coming from the wheel wells, the road, and the strained little engine. As expected, fuel economy is very good so far, averaging around 35 or 36 mpg on the car’s trip computer.

The long list of features in the ES sounds good, until you see they are layered onto a drab, cheap, blatantly low-rent cabin that looks sad even by early-1980’s standards.

To add insult to injury, our car’s alarm system apparently has a glitch that emits a high-pitch tweet and precludes using the radio. The car is now at the dealer being repaired. We’ll see how fast volunteers line up to go retrieve the car.

CR’s take: Like all mirages, this Mirage is a matter of perspective. You could see it as an upgrade over a motorized rickshaw, but it is not a sound alternative to nearly any other subcompact. And for $16,000, you could get a very substantial used car instead.

—Gabe Shenhar

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