Curbside Capsule: 1996-2004 Mitsubishi Mirage – A Gremlin Without The Gremlins

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American Motors Corporation followed a simple formula to make its Gremlin subcompact. First, take a popular compact. Second, cut off the rear end. Voilà, a subcompact, albeit one that wasn’t terribly space-efficient, economical or satisfying to drive. Who would’ve though that, years later, Mitsubishi would follow the same formula and end up with a much better result.

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Mitsubishi has been shuffling names around for a while now. What North Americans knew as the Mirage from 1995-2003, Australians knew as the Lancer. Today, in both markets, there is a subcompact known as the Mirage. Its critical reception in North America has been chilly, with the new small Mitsubishi being chided for being tinny and cheap. It really is more of a microcar than a subcompact and it is very different in concept from the last car Australians knew as the Mirage.

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It’s funny what a repositioning can do. The 1996 Lancer was never considered a class-leader – Which Car? magazine ranked it 6th out of 10 compacts in a 1998 megatest – but as soon as Mitsubishi chopped off the tail and priced it up against the Ford Festiva, it became a critical darling. This was much the same as how the 1996 Mitsubishi Magna/Verada (Diamante) was far better-received as a family sedan in Australia than it was as a near-luxury offering in North America.

mitsubishi mirage interior

Unlike America, where subcompact (B-Segment) sales take a dive every time fuel prices go down, this segment has long been consistently popular in Australia, particularly with first-time car buyers. And unsurprisingly in this price-conscious segment, bang for buyers’ bucks goes a long way: witness the extraordinary success of the 1995 Hyundai Excel (Accent), whose driveaway pricing and almost Corolla-rivalling dimensions catapulted it to the very top (and even briefly the #1 slot) of the sales charts. The Mirage charmed buyers by making them feel they had more car for their money than a Festiva or Starlet buyer and scarcely less car than a base Lancer which retailed for around $4k more.

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The 1.5 single overhead cam four-cylinder engine (92 hp, 92 ft-lbs) had been criticised for being too weak for a base engine in a compact. In the Mirage, it became the most powerful engine in the segment. The interior, shared with the Lancer, was criticised for having materials merely adequate for the compact class. At the Mirage’s price point it was considered much more pleasing. The ride and handling balance was praised. Mitsubishi Motors Australia had been missing a B-segment car since the aged, Aussie-built Colt was retired in 1989. With the Mirage, Mitsubishi had found the formula for success in an intensely competitive segment. Sharp pricing helped seal the deal: the Mirage, most years, was priced at $13,990 driveaway, the same as a base model Hyundai Excel. 

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A mild 1998 facelift freshened the styling and after that, the Mirage stayed mostly put. It still continued to earn plaudits and, although it was generally outsold by a small handful of rivals, it remained a strong seller right until the end. In its final full year on sale, 2003, an impressive 6,661 Mirages were sold, making it the 5th best-selling car in its class and besting rivals from Ford, Holden and Mazda. This was even more commendable considering almost all of its rivals offered a much more practical five-door body style.

The Mirage would be replaced by the tall and boxy Colt, dusting off an old nameplate, but that car never achieved the critical acclaim or commercial success of the Mirage. It wasn’t a bad car but it was rather forgettable.

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I have fond memories of the Mirage as one of my best friends, Betsy, bought one in 11th grade (2006). As I was yet to obtain my license, being several months younger than her, she often played the role of chauffeur for me and our friends. As testament to the car’s excellent reliability, Betsy still has her Mirage today and it has well over 200,000kms on the odometer. It never felt like a penalty box to passengers; despite a rather low seating position, the cabin was commendably spacious and even the back seat had acceptable legroom for someone of my height (5’11’’). The only major criticism levelled at the Mirage during its run was the level of road noise that permeated the cabin but I never found it to be too raucous. 

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The Mirage was a solid hit for Mitsubishi and provided a compelling blend of space, value, economy and driving dynamics. The Gremlin Formula proved to be a recipe for success.

Related Reading:

Automotive History: Trying To Make (Business Coupe) Sense Of The Gremlin

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