Shitbox Showdown: Nissan Micra vs Mitsubishi Mirage

Let's say you have $13k in the bank and need a second car because the coilovers you just installed on your BRZ are not going to fly in the winter. Or suppose your daughter just turned 16, and because you're a terrible parent you're going to spoil her by buying her a car. What do you buy? There's an almost endless number of options in the used market, but what if you don't want to deal with the hassles of somebody's sloppy seconds? What if you want a new vehicle that's inexpensive to buy, sips gas with the moderation of a Prius, and comes with a full warranty that will keep your coffers safe from costly repairs for the foreseeable future? Does such a thing even exist?

Thankfully, despite a shit economy and the ever-present threat of inflation eating away the pennies lying in your savings account, even a minimum-wage job can put your ass in a new car (if you finance it long enough). For about $13,000 CAD including tax, both Nissan and Mitsubishi offer a poverty-spec econobox that will propel your bum from one point to another and not do much else. Simplify and add lightness, right? Perfect! It's like we're living in the 90s again.

Nissan Micra

I was really excited for the Micra. As a Canadian-exclusive model in North America, it seemed like a special little treat that would be perfect for shitbox enthusiasts like myself. Tipping the scales at just a hair over 2,300 lbs, the Micra is the fourth lightest new car that money can buy. With an inline four-banger that produces a respectable 110 hp, on paper the Micra looks like a zippy little car that should be a whole lot of fun to drive.

The name is deceiving, however, as the Micra proved to not be as small as I expected. Despite being five inches shorter in length than my Mazda 2, the Micra actually looks larger. I attribute this to the fact that the Micra is two inches taller than the Mazda, and features a clown car-esque cabin profile. Overall the car doesn't look bad, but it's not as sleek as some of the competition. The upside is that the Micra boasts a ridiculous amount of headroom. Despite being 6 feet tall, looking up made me feel like I was in the Sistine Chapel. Backseat room is generous enough for a car this size, and is sufficient for transporting mannequins or unconscious bodies (i.e. anything incapable of vocalizing complaints). Trunk space exists, and is actually a fair bit larger than the Mazda 2. But enough boring shit, on to the test drive!

While examining the couple Micras parked out front of the dealership, my smile quickly faded when I discovered that none of them featured a manual transmission. The salesman said there might be a Micra con manuél in the back, but handed me the keys to a CVT-equipped variant for the test drive. [Edit: The transmission is actually a four-speed automatic; the salesman lied to me. This fact doesn't make it any less terrible.] God-fucking-dammit!

My first impression of the car was that the steering is very light while maneuvering through parking lots, and the turning circle is ridiculously tight. The steering got a little heavier with speed, but the car always felt rather light and nimble in my hands, though not particularly communicative. Thanks to the presence of the somewhat reluctant driver nanny to my right, I wasn't able to thrash the car around turns like I wanted to, so I can't comment upon how well the Micra handles when pushed hard.

If there's any fun to be had in this car, the -CVT- automatic transmission sucked it all away like a black hole of shittiness. The transmission was rather reluctant to build up speed, and liked to settle for boredom-inducing high gear ratios. Pressing the accelerator deeper doesn't do much unless you push it all the way, at which point the trans kicks into "ugh, not this" mode and jerkily brings you up to speed.

Overall, the Micra elicited more than just a micro-sized "meh" from me. I'm sure it would be worlds better if it was equipped with a proper transmission, but at least in the form in which I test drove the Micra, I can't recommend it. The car was rather soulless and unexciting, lacking even the most mundane offerings of joy. I am also forced to ask the question of why the Micra even exists in the North American market. It is nearly identical to the Versa Note in every dimension, except that the Note is seven inches longer (five of which are dedicated to rear passenger legroom; the rest goes to the larger boot). The Micra and Note even share the same engine. Yes, the base Micra is significantly less expensive than the base Note, but if you spec the Micra similarly in features, the two cars are within a few hundred dollars of each other. If Nissan wanted a bare-bones econo hatch, they could have just stripped out the Note a bit and dropped the price accordingly. The two cars are not different enough to warrant their simultaneous existence.

Mitsubishi Mirage

Disappointed with my test drive of the Micra, I wandered over to the Mitsubishi dealership 10 feet away and began inspecting the row of Mirages parked at the far end of the lot. Much to my delight, I discovered that at least half of these cars were equipped with a manual transmission!

Once inside the dealership, I began examining the Mirage up close. Despite only being marginally smaller in size than the Micra, the Mirage looks quite a bit tinier thanks to a less clumsy profile. The front seats will be popular with the older folk, as they offer a healthy amount of lumbar support (but not so much as to be uncomfortable to a young'un like myself). The rear seats have comparable space to the Micra. By the numbers, the trunk of the Mirage is larger than the Micra, but I find this hard to believe because it looked pretty fucking small when I opened it up. You would need to fold the rear seats down to fit a decent load of groceries in the Mirage. Overall, the car does not look particularly modern, but I found something charming about its simplicity of design. I would recommend the blue or green paint hues for the car, as the black, white, and grey will look too bland. The rear third-quarter view is the most interesting angle of the car, but needless to say, the Mirage won't be turning any heads.

A young salesman was dispatched to my aid, and quickly found a set of keys for a manual-equipped Mirage for me to test-drive. Like the Nissan salesman, he accompanied me for the ride, but I didn't mind at all because we ended up chatting for an hour about video games and television shows while tooling around town. Salesmen, take note: I will want to buy your car 1000x more if you act like a normal human being and not a soulless extension of the corporate machine. It also really helps if you let me drive the car for more than 10 minutes.

Once behind the wheel, I pushed down on the clutch a few times to get a feel for it. The clutch has a significantly longer throw than the Mazda 2, and has a feather-like weight to it. I had once thought that no clutch could be lighter than the 2's, but it's safe to say that the Mirage won't be putting any strain on your left leg whatsoever. As I later found out, the lightness of this clutch is an asset for creeping through bumper-to-bumper traffic, so you can't use "my leg will get sore" as an excuse for driving an automatic anymore. When getting moving from a stop, clutch pressure builds gradually and the friction point is very wide; smoothly transitioning through gears is even easier. The end result is a clutch that is exceptionally forgiving and incredibly easy to use–a stark contrast from the brutally vengeful clutch of the Mazda 2, which demands every ounce of concentration your brain has to offer, and kicks you in the teeth for the slightest misstep. This ease of use comes at the cost of a lack of preciseness, making the Mirage not as rewarding to drive well as the Mazda 2, but the Mirage has to be one of the easiest cars in the world to learn how to drive stick on. It is so stupidly simple that there is simply no excuse for buying the CVT automatic–any dumb idiot with two legs and half a brain can figure out how to drive a manual Mirage. This is a good thing.

The shifter feels loose and the throws are long, but it's not rubbery and there's no guesswork involved in gear selection. Like the clutch, the gearbox is easy to use, but it lacks the tight preciseness of the Mazda 2's five speed. First gear feels sluggish, which I suspect might be the result of engine tuning because the car feels like it's holding back, much like my second gear did before some fiddling with ignition timing livened it up. Second gear in the Mirage is much livelier than first, and is actually a fair bit of fun. The rest of the gears are not particularly noteworthy, they just do their job.

The tiny 3-cylinder engine of the Mirage produces a similarly diminutive power figure of 74 hp. But tipping the scales at a mere 1,973 lbs, the Mirage is the second lightest car on the market; it could be powered by hamsters running inside the tires and it would still keep up with city traffic. The car never felt fast, but there was certainly sufficient power for any kind of city commute, though you might want to consider a more powerful car if you plan on doing a lot of passing on the highway. You're going to need to push the engine into the higher RPMs if you want to get any speed out of it, and thankfully it doesn't protest to being worked hard. Speaking of the engine, the three-pot emits an interesting deep tone that actually sounds pretty cool and a hell of a lot better than the buzzsaw-powered Micra.

The ride of the Mirage could use some work, as it's rather unrefined. The front suspension wasn't too rough, but the rear torsion beam sent every little bump directly into your body. But if you want Cadillac-like ride quality, you shouldn't be expecting it from a $13,000 car. Handling is light and nimble enough, and gave a more direct feel than the Micra, though it was not as well sorted as the Mazda 2. I liked maneuvering the Mirage around traffic, as it's handling doesn't feel sluggish like some similar cars I've driven in the past, but it's not sharp enough to feel sporty. "Sufficiently competent" is the description I would use.

Although nothing I've said about the Mirage is overwhelmingly positive, I walked away from my test drive with a smile on my face and warm feelings towards the car. Is the Mirage a great vehicle? No. At this price, such a thing is impossible. But what makes the Mirage remarkable as a shitbox is how unremarkable it is without being bad. Over the years there has been no shortage of inexpensive commuter cars on the market such as the Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire or Dodge Neon that offered no-frills transportation. But these cars were so goddamn terrible that driving them is akin to driving pencils into your eyeballs. The Mirage is so much better than that. The Mirage has a clear purpose in mind, and it does it fucking well. It's light, has no fancy gadgets, comes with a decent manual transmission, returns hybrid-rivaling gas milage, and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. It's the perfect little shitbox that feels like it was transported from a time long ago and long forgotten by other auto makers. A time when cars were simple and unburdened by "infotainment" systems, CVTs (continuously vulgar transmissions), heated power seats, etc. Of course, many of these options are available on the Mirage in upper-tier trim packages, but you'd have to be fucking insane to buy anything other than the base spec model, as far better cars such as the Mazda 2 can be had for $17k+. And maybe you'd even have to be a little crazy to pay $13,000 for a base Mirage new because that kind of money can go pretty far in the used market. But within a couple years you will start to see Mirages popping up on Craigslist as once-impoverished young adults sell their first car in favor of something bigger and more stylish, and then the Mirage is going to be an incredible bargain for anyone looking to buy a second car.

The world needs more cars like the Mirage. It's the last of an endangered species of lightweight and economical (in more ways than one) automobiles that aren't terrible to drive. Unless something changes drastically within the auto business, there's a good chance that within 10 years cars like this will be extinct. Roads will instead be congested with bloated elephants masquerading as passenger vehicles, struggling to achieve 40mpg with hybrid technology. Hell, they already are. Dinosaurs like the Mirage are on their way out, but dinosaurs are fucking cool! Enjoy them while they last.