Mitsubishi is struggling, as it faces an uncertain future in the hyper-competitive U.S. automotive market. The Japanese automaker lost its identity as a maker of sporty, affordable cars and SUVs with the cancellation of the Eclipse, Montero SUV, and likely the Lancer Evolution. Mitsubishi president Osamu Masuko recently announced his intent to instead prioritize mass-market hybrid SUVs and crossovers for U.S. sale. Until enough batteries are available to introduce plug-in hybrids like the Outlander Sport crossover and Montero SUV, the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage will need to help keep the Japanese automaker afloat.

Our 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES is powered by 1.2-liter, three-cylinder engine that produces a modest 74 hp and 74 lb-ft of torque. It features a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a $1000 option that helps the hatch achieve ratings of 44 mpg on the highway and 37 mpg in the city. A five-speed manual is also available, although it yields poorer efficiency at 34/42/37 mpg city/highway/combined. While the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage can claim to be the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid in the country, we’re dubious that this fact alone will enable this car to compete against many rivals that offer more features. At a $1200 premium over the standard CVT-equipped Mirage DE (which starts at $14,790 after destination), the ES trim includes Bluetooth connectivity, keyless entry, cruise control, and 14-inch alloy wheels. Our Mirage also included a $900 navigation system which comes with a rear-view camera. As tested, this Mirage costs $16,890 including destination fees.

When the last Mitsubishi Mirage was discontinued twelve years ago, few buyers wanted a small, fuel-efficient runabout. Now you can find well-made, generously equipped subcompact cars here in America under the banner of almost every brand. The Chevrolet Spark, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 and Nissan Versa Note offer not only fuel efficiency at an affordable price but also a selection of technical features and convenience items previously unavailable to buyers in this most humble of market segments. And while the Mitsubishi Mirage sets itself apart with keyless entry and a rear-view camera, the rubber touchpad to open the door resembles a doorstop, and the rear-view camera looks like it was tacked onto the hatch lid with Krazy Glue.

Moreover, the Mirage doesn’t drive very well compared to its competition. “I get that Mitsubishi is packing a lot of equipment into this car, because the hope is that budget car shoppers care more about GPS and an iPod hookup than anything else,” says associate web editor Joey Capparella. “But I'd like to think that there is a threshold for unpleasant driving dynamics that even the most clueless car shopper would notice. It seems to me that this noisy, uncomfortable and skittish car would get anyone’s attention.”

We did manage to get an impressive 39 mpg average during our two weeks with the Mitsubishi Mirage ES, so the car delivered as promised. There is enough power to make the car usable around the city, but the three-cylinder engine drones like a coffee shop guitarist. We’ve driven good three-cylinder engines (notably the one offered by the Ford Fiesta), but this is not one of them, as it combines a conspicuous lack of power with lots of noise and vibration.

When you're driving in stop-and-go traffic, all you seem to hear is clanking, clattering, and rattling. Even the brakes squeak as you take your foot off the pedal. Meanwhile, the task of merging onto a freeway with just 74 hp and a CVT working for you is a predictably unnerving affair, and the Mirage struggles to gather speed as the traffic whooshes by. When the car did manage to exceed the speed limit, a friendly digital female voice alerted us to our transgression, although at that point it seemed like a congratulation, not a warning.

The Mirage’s short wheelbase doesn’t deliver much straightline stability on the road, and the weak suspension damping doesn’t provide much body control in corners. Sadly, the Mirage not only performs like a subcompact of the past but also looks like one, without a trace of the award-winning style found in the electric-powered Mitsubishi i-MiEV hatchback. Instead, the Mirage looks like it's left over from the mid-1990s, although no Smashmouth album in the Mirage’s CD player could be recovered to confirm this suspicion.

On the upside, comfortable cloth seats and plenty of cargo space (47 cubic feet with the rear seats folded) make the Mirage livable and functional. And since the little hatchback measures just 96.5-inches in overall length, it’s easy to maneuver into tight on-street parking spaces. The touchscreen infotainment system is simple and usable, and the rear-view camera and Bluetooth connectivity work well. As a city runabout, the Mirage reminds us of equally urban-oriented cars like the Fiat 500 and Scion iQ.

Unfortunately, this fully optioned Mirage ES’s asking price of $17,000 is a deal-breaker, due to its lack of performance, refinement, and style. Staff photographer Patrick Hoey says, “The Mirage might make sense as a stripped-down, bare-bones budget car with a manual gearbox, but when it's optioned up, I can't help but turn to the Fiesta.” While the cheapest Mirage DE can be had for just $13,790 with a five-speed manual transmission, we think few buyers will settle for it, because at that price point buyers are better served by the Chevrolet Spark and Nissan Versa Note, which deliver far more performance and refinement.

On the surface, the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES seems like a car for the times, since it’s all about 40 mpg and high-tech electronic connectivity. But it reminds us that it’s harder to build a great small car than a great big car, because performance, refinement and style still matter even when the package is small and the price is cheap. It’s hard to know what the future holds for Mitsubishi in the U.S., but we suspect it will be shaped by the Mitsubishi Outlander and Outlander Sport, not the Mirage.

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