Threesomes aren’t always as fun as they sound. Sure, there was the sexy BMW i8 I tested last year with its turbocharged three-cylinder electric hybrid making instant, all-wheel drive power. And the 2015 1-liter Ford Fiesta with its overachieving 123-horsepower three-banger was Usain Bolt in a bottle.
But there was also Fiesta’s classmate, the 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage ... three cylinders of disappointment.
If the Fiesta was the subcompact class valedictorian, Mirage was the kid who showed up for class in his pajamas carrying last year’s textbook. He obviously didn’t care if he got a failing grade. Mirage was a dud. So the wee Mitsu did the sensible thing: He took a year off to get his act together.
For 2017 Mirage is back in school, redesigned as a sportier GT model and prepped for the exam. Groomed and fit? You bet. Where the old model looked like a toaster with headlights and a rear spoiler glued on, the ’17 Mirage has spent some time in front of the mirror.
Swept headlights and a coiffed, chrome-lined grille give the Mirage presence. The spoiler is properly integrated into the rear hatch and the wheels — wow, Mirage is that really you? — are sculpted, multi-spoke jobbies that would make more expensive Honda Civics proud.
Let’s bring out the subcompact class stud for comparison: the 2016 Fiesta 3-cylinder. Bolt in a bottle. The holy trinity.
Before you judge me for leading a Mirage to slaughter, let me reassure you that this is a fair contest. It wasn’t easy. In fact, finding a three-cylinder Fiesta in Southeast Michigan is harder than finding a four-leaf clover. In these days of under-$3 a gallon gas, 3-cylinders aren’t in favor. I found —appropriately — only three on Metro Detroit dealer lots. Thanks to Bill Brown Ford of Livonia for letting me take their tike out with Mirage for a play date.
Both my testers go for under $18 grand. The Mirage for $17,330. The Fiesta: $17,670. For the price, the Mirage is well-equipped, indeed.
There are those Mirage wheels I mentioned. Very classy. And the GT gets pushbutton start. The key-operated Fiesta, meanwhile, is stuck with base wheels that look out of place on a car with a face modeled after Aston Martin. It’s like Cinderella showing up at the ball in army boots.
Fiesta has a choice of better wheels. But they will cost you. As will Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the fashionable smartphone app twins. Mirage has ’em, base Fiesta does not. Ford offers the combo in its excellent SYNC 3 console unit — a $995 upcharge.
Though both subcompacts offer similar interior dimensions, cloth interiors and hard-plastic dashes, Fiesta’s attention to detail makes it the more livable space. The Ford is 400 pounds heavier for a reason: better interior quieting and engineering. And it has soft-material elbow rests and center console storage that the Mitsu lacks. Only on console knee-room did the Mirage feel more comfortable, which I discovered while taking both three-bangers to the limit.
I flogged them across interstate and rural real estate, because what you really want to know is whether three is enough. Can you really live with just half a six-pack?
Both cars deliver on the three-cylinder’s core premise: fuel economy. Mirage gets 39 mpg combined, Fiesta 36. But Mirage lags badly in other metrics.
That’s because Mitsubishi stubbornly sticks to its old, normally-aspirated 1.2-liter three with just 78 horsepower. That’s four more than the last go-round, but I think my leaf-blower has more horsepower. And sounds better.
Mated to a CVT transmission, the Mirage’s triad sounds like a bloodhound howling at the moon. HAWROOOOOOOOOOO! No stepped upshifts like Nissan or Honda CTs. Just one, continuous drone when you stomp the pedal. HAWROOOOOOOOO!
That said, the Mitsu’s fun factor has improved considerably thanks to GT suspension tweaks. I took the Mirage to my favorite roads outside Hell, Michigan, expecting it to topple over like a fridge on rollers. But its short wheelbase was a hoot to throw through corners. Coming out was a different matter. With just 74 pound-feet of torque and a CVT, I had to bury the throttle just to keep from going backwards. Which destroys that vaunted fuel economy — I recorded just 30 mpg.
The trip back to Detroit on the I-96 race track — the closest thing this metropolis has to high-speed Autobahn — reminded me of a trip to Germany years ago. I rented a Porsche 944 to fully enjoy the Autobahn (and a side trip to do Nurburgring laps, of course) — and found myself being drafted in rural areas by Fiats, Renaults and other tiny tin cans. With their foot to the floor, they were determined to use my Porsche to help them maintain 90-plus mph speeds over the rolling countryside.
With traffic on I-96 moving along at over 90 mph, I tried the same trick here. Drive any other car with your foot screwed to the floor in top gear and you’ll get arrested. Do it in a 3-cylinder Mirage and you’ll just be keeping up with Detroit traffic.
The Fiesta, by contrast, needs no help in the power department. Unlike the Mirage, this 3-banger isn’t the subcompact’s base engine (a mere, 1.6-liter I-4 is). I rowed this 1-liter, turbocharged delight with a manual. You can get an auto, but it’ll cost you ($1,095). With 8.3-second 0-60 time and 148 pound-feet of torque, you’ll want to take it out just to beat up on bigger fish. Merging onto I-96 near Brown Ford, I apologize to the three sedans I laid tire tracks over.
For all its pep, the 1-liter Fiesta won’t wow you in the handling department. If cornering is your game, then take a stroll over to Fiesta’s own GT — the so-called ST, a hot-hatch carnival ride. But once again, it’ll cost you. The Fiesta ST starts at $22 grand.
So applause to Mitsubishi for saving the Mirage from ignominy with its affordable, drivable ’17 makeover. At under $18 grand, the Mirage finally belongs in the U.S. market. Just be sure and speak up when you have a passenger — so they can hear you over the leaf blower.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2016 Ford Fiesta 1-liter
Front-engine, front-wheel drive,
five-passenger sedan or hatchback
1-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder
Six-speed manual or automatic
2,537 pounds (manual as tested)
$17,670 base (as tested)
123 horsepower, 148 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car
and Driver); top speed: 120 mph
EPA 31 mpg city/48 mpg highway/36 mpg
The 3-cylinder mouse that roared; easy on the gas
Base wheels don’t match upscale styling
Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★
2017 Mitsubishi Mirage
Front-engine, front-wheel drive,
Continuously variable automatic
$17,330 base (as tested)
78 horsepower, 74 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 12.8 seconds (Car and Driver
estimate); top speed: 100 mph (estimate)
EPA 37 mpg city/43 mpg highway/39 mpg
Much-improved styling; smartphone connectivity
Underpowered; droning CVT