Driving the Highest MPG Car in America (That's Not a Hybrid)

Mitsubishi Mirage CVT

A few weeks ago, Ford announced that its new 2014 Ford Fiesta with a 1.0 liter Ecoboost 3 cylinder engine was the highest MPG car you could buy that wasn’t a hybrid with its 32/45 (37 combined) mpg rating. Almost immediately, the Mitsubishi fan base started grumbling. “Not so fast, Ford!” they said. “Mitsubishi has the highest MPG car you can buy that’s not a hybrid, the Mirage CVT that gets 37/44 (40 combined) mpg.” For the most part, though, a lot of the media guys that I know dismissed the Mitsubishi, with one even saying “Mitsubishi’s not a thing anymore.”

Could that be true? Could it be that the driving force behind the DiamondStar turbos and the 2.2L Dodge Shelbys of the 80s were simply “not a thing anymore”? I didn’t buy it, so I reached out to Mitsubishi and asked to drive one of the new Mirage CVTs- a few days later, a 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage CVT ES in “Infrared” showed up at my door in Oak Park.

My first impressions of the Mirage were largely positive. It’s a cute little car, with much better proportions than the neighbor’s Smart despite the tiny wheels. The Infrared paint, too, was deep and reflective. So far so good, I thought as I looked through the Mitsubishi paperwork- the $15,990 ES PKG included all the usual power this and cruise that, along with ABS, traction control, a CD player, and a few other safety gizmos. It even had a few options (which ticked the price up a bit, of course) like fog lights and a Bluetooth system.

Getting into the highest MPG car in America was easy enough, and I was met with my first happy surprise …

Mirage-CVT_13

… a starter button.

I know, I know- in 2014 a starter button is nothing to get excited about, but my last exposure to a Mitsubishi was a 2011 Galant. That experience was not positive, so to find a little bit of sporty playfulness in the Mirage gave me some hope. Glancing over at the 140 MPH speedo (see, above) also made me chuckle, since the Mirage, in stock trim, makes just 74 hp from its 1.2 liter non-turbocharged engine.

I was already smiling before I started the car. The little engine buzzed to life and settled into its idle as I adjusted the seats. Nothing special there, but they were significantly more comfortable than, say, the seats in the Sonata Hybrid I drove in Texas. I put the little Mirage in “D”, and puttered off with the wife in the passenger seat.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Why doesn’t it have a mirror up here?” she asked.

It was a question answered with a question, so I knew the little car was in trouble. Sure enough, there was no mirror in the passenger-side sunshade. “That’s pretty janky,” she said, flipping the sunshade up, dismissively. “You know what happened,” she began. “They had a group of people in a focus group somewhere, and they thought ‘Yeah, I usually drive alone, so I don’t care if there’s a mirror over there’, but that’s the kind of thing that would make me, as a passenger, think it was a cheap car.”

I had to agree with her, and not just because I’m a little afraid of her. I looked at the steering wheel of the Mirage, and I felt like I didn’t need the audio controls. I would have traded those for a mirror on the passenger side. I had a tachometer, too, in a car with a CVT. I’d have traded that for a mirror, too- which reminds me: in D mode, the Mirage is absolutely misrable in-town.

Yeah, no “car guy diplomacy” here. In D, the Mirage CVT “upshifts” too early, is never on boil, and is genuinely bad. There’s a fix, however, and it looks like this:

Mirage CVT in B Mode

B mode. In “B” mode, the Mitsubishi keeps its engine right around its 4000 rpm torque peak, and throttle response becomes instantaneous. The effect, on a car this small, light, and otherwise low on power is utterly transformative.

Instead of behaving like a miserable little “econobox”, the Mitsubishi Mirage CVT in B mode behaves like a cartoon turtle with a nest of angry honeybees crammed under its shell. It scoots, too! Driving around town in B mode, I never felt like the Mirage was underpowered- and during Monday evening’s snow dump on Chicago, I got to test the Mirage in snow, on the interstate, in heavy rush hour traffic. I never felt like I was in a cheap car (helped, I’m sure, by the comfortable seat and leather steering wheel/shifter, which were all I touched, for the most part).

After a week of fun, inner-city running about with the little Mirage, I was more than a little sad to see the car go.

“Your gonna miss your little friend, aren’t you?” asked the wife, condescendingly.

“You know, I actually am,” I said.

She eyed me suspiciously. “Did Mitsubishi just sell you a car?”

“Maybe,” I said. “It kind of depends what we can get out of that engine block.”

“What did you get out of the race car?” she asked, referring to the white DSM drag car me n’ the boys are planning to run next year.

“That’s making about 800 wheel,” I said.

“At least you’ll be able to get it to 140, then,” she said.

That’s true- but will I actually buy one? If I did, I’d go for the lower-end DE version and skip the cruise control and steering-wheel audio buttons, but I’d fight the dealer pretty hard to get the leather wheel and shift knob. I’d get mine in “Kiwi Green”, too, since I decided the Infrared looks like it’s trying way too hard to be an “upscale” color and it plays better with the “bee-ridden turtle” analogy that I came up with earlier … and the fact that I’m even that far along in the process should tell you how much I dug driving the highest MPG car that’s not a hybrid.

What did you think of the Mirage? Have you driven one? Did you like it? Let us- and Mitsubishi!- know, in the comments.

 

Original content from Gas 2.

 

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.