Los Angeles Times's view

The average price of an imported car is close to a clammy $18,000, and the subcompact Mitsubishi Mirage costs less than half that.

Do not infer that the 1993 Mirage has less than half the comfort, performance and desirability.

Truth is, in a category where affordable often is synonymous with cheap, and compact is a euphemism for cramped, the new Mirage LS coupe is surprisingly roomy, very nicely welded together and a commuting whippet.

* Space: Up front, about the same head and legroom as the subcompact competition of Honda Civic, Toyota Tercel and Nissan Sentra. But with more shoulder and hip room.

* Construction: Interior vinyl and fabrics look economical but not chintzy. Doors clump shut without clattering. Rough roads set up shudders but no rattles.

Recognizing that a stiffer platform allows finer tuning of a more sophisticated suspension system, Mitsubishi has spent a goodly portion of its Mirage redesign time increasing the structural rigidity of the car. On that firm foundation rests a fully independent suspension system with a multi-link rear setup that gives the Mirage handling and stability way beyond its class.

* Performance: With its sporty image emphasized by five-spoke alloy wheels and decorative spoiler, performance comes from the littlest motor in Mirage’s six-car lineup–a 1.5-liter four-banger delivering 92 horsepower.

Thanks to three valves per cylinder and sequential fuel injection pushing a car that weighs just over one ton, its 92 ponies are quite enough. It certainly fulfills the Mirage’s visual promise: endless months of mischievous driving.

Building any subcompact is a fretful juggle of price, dimensions and efficiency. Little cars can’t take too much styling or they start looking fussy. Costs must be contained to the nearest nickel.

The result is a bumper-to-bumper compromise. The Mitsubishi Mirage, however, barely shows its shortcuts.

The car comes as a coupe or a four-door with three trim levels in each category. Air bags are not available, but three- or four-speed automatic transmission is an option. So are anti-lock brakes, tilt steering wheel, power steering and a CD player. Fully loaded, you’d still be under $13,000.

The base coupe selling for $7,649 is somewhat spare and arrives with vinyl upholstery to stick to your thighs, steel wheels without covers, black door handles, only one coat hook and no map pockets.

That could be roughing it.

But not if you set subcompacts precisely where they belong: As basic transportation to be enjoyed by those who cannot or will not put more money into a car than their parents spent on a first house.

And that glow starts with the first $15 fill-up. Which should propel four people–we simply will not accept Mitsubishi’s claim that any Mirage is a five-passenger car–over 400 miles.

The stylists have done well with the profile of the Mir age LS Coupe. With integrated bumpers, ovoid headlights and standard aerodynamics, the silhouette is generic miniaturized sport coupe. But it’s a pleasant shape that breaks free from restraints usually imposed by reduced dimensions.

The rear–thanks to the flow and unity of spoiler with teardrop light clusters and integrated bumper–maintains the harmony. The front end is awful.

Mitsubishi has opted for a grille that is a broad, narrow mouth broken by vertical and horizontal bars. It may have been an effort to induce a little snarl into the car’s approaching end. It looks more like a Styrofoam wine rack.

One of the interior’s joys is that in the interests of subcompacting, accessories are kept to a minimum, which decreases clutter.

So we’re left with three basic analog gauges, more blank space than buttons on the dash and only basic controls on stalks. That has not produced a sea of bland vinyl, only induced a sense of simplicity.

Absent ai bags, Mitsubishi chooses to meet the federal government’s passive restrain t requirements with mechanical seat belts. You know the kind: A gerbil runs around a door rail and sets the shoulder belt. The driver must remember to fasten his own lap belt but rarely does.

In the coupe at least, do not consider the rear seats to be accommodations for real persons. Maybe two cairn terriers. But not a couple whose friendship you cherish. Even Mazda’s 323 offers more leg and breathing room back there.

Two of Mirage’s four-doors–the ES and LS models–come with a 1.8-liter engine developing 113 horsepower. But the less powerful engine contained in all the coupes is remarkably athletic.

True, acceleration from rest won’t collapse your lungs. Clutch throw is a little short and stiff, and the throttle inclined to snag unless stroked carefully. But dexterous work with the five-speedwill keep the car carving merrily through spotty traffic. Adding to this enjoyment is a wonderful steering setup that responds in a wink and is true to the nearest hair’s breadth of driver demands.

It is not wise, however, to push the car big time.

The Mirage is light, front-driven and simply was not designed to forgive major trespasses. That means a certain amount of roll and the push of severe under-steer under hefty cornering.

And for modern motorists spoiled by larger cars and the directional control allowed by anti-lock brakes, expect the Mirage to display some really interesting configurations when braking and turning hard.

Yet these are small penalties for the advantages of simple, thoroughly enjoyable driving in a frugal car that in earlier years might have been sold through the Sears catalogue.

This is a small car that simply doesn’t feel tiny. It is a conservatively powered vehicle that doesn’t drive like one. It is engineered and equipped to the point where subcompact is no longer a pejorative.

It is a given that we always get what we pay for.

In the case of the Mirage, expect a little bit more.

1993 Mitsubishi Mirage LSCoupe

The Good Solid engineering in small car that doesn’t look, sound or feel like one. Five-figure motoring on a four-figure budget. Spirited performer, deft handler.

The Bad No air bag. Rear seats for sardines.

The Ugly Front grille.

Cost Base: $10,299 As tested: $11,472 (includes air-conditioning, CD player, tilt steering, remote fuel-trunk release, tachometer, rear spoiler, alloy wheels and power steering.)

Engine 1.5 liter, 12 valve, four cylinders, developing 92 horsepower.

Type Four-seat, front-drive, subcompact coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 11 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 115 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA average, city highway, with 5-speed, 31 and 39 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,127 pounds.

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