Why this anonymous-looking $14,490 car is one of the best sedans money can buy.
Meet Australia's cheapest sedan from a mainstream brand, the new Mitsubishi Mirage. Its boot is almost as big as a Holden Commodore's and, thanks to a super-frugal three-cylinder engine, it's almost as miserly as a Toyota Prius hybrid.
It's not the prettiest car on sale today but given that the eyesight of the target audience -- golden oldies -- is probably a bit shot, chances are few buyers will notice let alone care. Besides, their eyes will be more keenly focused on how much money they're saving.
The starting price is $14,490 plus on-road costs (which typically add between $2000 and $2500 at this end of the market). This price is so sharp I had to triple check it wasn't a mistake: it undercuts the Honda City by $1500 and the Nissan Almera by $2500.
Automatic adds $2000 and metallic paint adds $495, but these prices also apply to most rivals (although automatic transmission in the Honda City adds $2500).
The Mirage sedan is not only one of the cheapest cars to buy, it's one of the cheapest to run, with servicing costs about half as much as its rivals, and a fuel bill that comfortably undercuts both.
The capped price servicing costs for the Mirage sedan are $870 over three years compared with $1737 for the Nissan Almera and $1645 for the Honda City.
Based on the official fuel consumption averages of these cars, the annual average of 15,000km of driving, and an average petrol price of $1.50 per litre, the Mirage sedan should use $1102 in fuel per year versus $1507 for the Nissan and $1282 for the Honda. The Mirage sedan might be cheap but it's certainly not nasty.
The usual mod cons such as six airbags and air-conditioning are covered, but the Mirage sedan also has Bluetooth audio streaming (not just the phone connection, as some other cars in this class are restricted to).
The dearer of the two models comes with a remote sensor key and a push button start: just grab the door handle and, providing the key is on you, the door will open. This feature was exclusive to luxury cars only a few years ago.
How does Mitsubishi provide this much equipment for such a low price? As with most cars in this category, the Mirage sedan comes to Australia from Thailand, with whom we have a Free Trade Agreement.
So the Mirage lands here free of the 5 per cent import tariff that is imposed on most cars. And our currency is still strong, so the exchange rate is favourable, too.
The Thai government has been offering huge financial incentives and tax breaks for car companies to expand their manufacturing operations there.
It means car makers can assemble these cars more cheaply in Thailand and therefore recover their manufacturing costs more quickly.
But despite these significant head starts, the price of the Mirage is still super sharp when compared with the Honda City and Nissan Almera, both of which also come from Thailand and receive the same financial leg-up.
It's little wonder the homegrown Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore can't compete and are about to face extinction when their Australian factories close by the end of 2017.
Sure, the little Mirage isn't as large as the big Aussie sedans but with its roomy cabin, big boot and frugal motoring it suits the needs of an aging population.
Indeed, the people who helped drive the sales success of locally-made Holdens and Fords in the 1980s and 1990s are now approaching the Mirage sedan stage of their lives, whether they are ready to accept it or not.
ENGINE / TRANSMISSION
Mitsubishi has taken the lessons learned from the Mirage hatch released six months ago and used them to make worthwhile refinements.
The three-cylinder engine feels smoother and the automatic transmission less whiney in the sedan than it does in the hatch. Extra noise deadening has made the whole experience quieter too.
Mitsubishi also wisely revised the steering and suspension and, aided by the sedan's larger footprint, it drives a lot better than the hatch (see driving).
For the non-technical people among us, it's time to grab a cup of tea for a paragraph or two.
For the technically-minded, here's the official explanation: the CVT auto has a smaller torque converter, new ratios and new gear shift control calibration that also reduces the "slip" sensation when accelerating.
Noise and vibrations have been suppressed thanks to an extra engine mount on top of the engine (bringing the total up to three from two).
Translated: it's not just my imagination. Mitsubishi engineers have given the sedan a fairly comprehensive revision.
It's not going to win a beauty pageant but none of the cars in this class ever do.
If you think the Mitsubishi Mirage sedan's bum looks big in these photos it's because it is.
Small sedans are popular family cars across Asia and boot space is a key requirement.
The Mirage stacks up pretty well with 450 litres of boot space (the Holden Commodore has 496L) even though it is smaller than its class rivals, the Nissan Almera (490L) and Honda City (536L).
Inside, visibility all around is good thanks to the large window area, and wide-view mirrors on both sides.
Some drivers, particular older drivers, don't like the distorted view that wide-view mirrors create.
However, please take our word for it, you'll get used to it after a week or two.
It's worth persevering with because wide-view mirrors provide a much better view of traffic in the ‘blind spot' over your shoulder, which means you can keep your eyes on the road ahead for longer and do fewer ‘head-turn' checks.
Because the sedan is longer and wider than the hatch the cabin is also roomier.
Finishing touches: Mitsubishi fitted alloy wheels (when most rivals come with plastic wheel covers), a chrome grille and front fog-lights to give the Mirage sedan an upmarket appearance.
Six airbags, stability control (which can prevent a skid in a corner or on a slippery road) and a strong body structure give the Mirage sedan a five-star safety rating.
There are adjustable head rests and three-point lap-sash belts in all five seating positions.
A rear camera is standard on the Honda City (a class first) but the Mitsubishi Mirage sedan does not even get rear parking sensors; they're a $300 dealer-fit option (make sure the dealer fits the genuine accessory, not an inferior aftermarket item).
Let me come straight to the point. This car is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me.
Not a Ferrari, not a Porsche, not a BMW -- but a cut-price, anonymous-looking, three-cylinder sedan.
That it costs just $14,490 only makes it all the more remarkable. In that regard it resets the benchmark for what is possible in the most affordable end of the new-car market.
Why is it so good? Mitsubishi has used the lessons learned from the hatchback it released six months ago, and made numerous necessary improvements.
Never before have two versions of the same car been so far apart (now for Mitsubishi to make the same upgrades to the Mirage hatch).
The steering is easy, light and yet direct. The turning circle is among the smallest of any new car on sale today (9.6 metres) making it a cinch to manouvre in car parks and into and out of tricky situations.
The suspension is comfortable over bumps yet this has not come at the expense of how confident and stable the car feels in corners.
Even though mankind can fly astronauts to the moon and the automobile recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, it is still not easy to design suspension that is both comfortable in a straight line and agile around corners. Customarily, one comes at the expense of the other. The Mitsubishi Mirage sedan aces both.
The brakes have a reassuring feel and all controls are well placed and easy to see and use.
Powered by a tiny three-cylinder engine, the Mirage sedan suits those with a more relaxed attitude to driving, but it's more than capable of city and suburban commuting.
Although it has about 30 per cent less power than its four-cylinder peers, the engine is zippy enough (a short test drive should be enough to remove any doubts) and well-matched to the auto, which is a lot smoother than the one in the Mirage hatch.
It's so easy and comfortable to drive I would happily drive it around Australia -- if it had cruise control. (Cruise control is being developed for an update later on, so maybe I should be careful what I wish for).
Areas of improvement? The Bluetooth works well but is a nuisance to connect for the first time (make sure the dealer pairs your phone before you drive home, or you'll be stuck in your driveway until the next Soccer World Cup trying to figure it out).
As with most cars in this class, the only way to open the boot is via the remote key or a tab near the driver's seat (there is no boot release lever on the boot itself). And while rear visibility is good, rear parking sensors would be nice.