It may be more difficult these days to buy a $12,000 subcompact car than it is a $60,000 luxury machine. There are dozens of small cars that sell for between $10,000 and $12,000. You could spend hours comparing and test driving and still not find the right car. On the surface, this week's test car looks like a fine entry into the crowded subcompact field. Mitsubishi gave the Mirage CoupeL S a stylish new body, an attractive set of five-spoke alloy wheels, and made it available in a rainbow of bright and sporty new colors. But a closer look reveals that the Mirage doesn't quite measure up to competitors such as the Geo Prizm, Saturn SL1 and Ford Escort. PERFORMANCE The Coupe LS version - the up-level model - features Mitsubishi's 1.8-liter, 16-valve four cylinder. This engine develops 113 horsepower; that compares the 92 horsepower available in the 1.5-liter engine in the base model Mirage. Despite its sporting aspirations, the Mirage Coupe LS is not a pulse-quickening mount. The engine offers respectable performance, but it always lets you know are driving an economy car. The engine is a bit loud when revved, and a notchy shifter made gear changes stiff and balky. With the air conditioner on, the engine idled roughly and seemed ready to stall several times. In rush-hour traffic, the Mirage can be tiring to drive. If you dislike shifting, this is one car where the optional four-speed automatic may be the better choice. However, fuel economy was excellent. In combined city/highway driving, the test car returned 36 miles per gallon on regular unleaded. On a trip to New Smyrna Beach and back - about 120 miles - I calculated fuel consumption of 41 mpg. HANDLING Reasonably sporty is the best way to describe the Mirage. In most situations it's a well-mannered and agile car that's easy to steer, stop and control. Standard equipment includes power-assisted rack and pinion steering, power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes and independent suspension. But the Mirage Coupe LS is not a high-performance machine. And it does not feel as solid as a Saturn or Escort sedan. During the week I spent with the Coupe LS, I noticed a bothersome trait. Heavy gusts of wind tended to blow the 2,127-pound car slightly off course. The Mirage may be susceptible to being bothered by high winds because it weighs so little. FIT AND FINISH Interior design and attention to driver and passenger comfort is the Mirage's strong point. For a small car, the Mirage offers excellent room for both front and rear passengers. It has about the same front legroom as the midsize Acura Vigor. Its trunk can swallow a lot of cargo - something on the order of eight grocery bags or two suitcases. The rear seats split and fold forward to accommodate longer items. The interior layout is simple and efficient, though not really stylish. All the switches are sensibl y located and labeled and easy to use. Unlike many small cars these days, the Mirage does not have a driver's side air bag. Instead it comes with motorized shoulder belts and manual lap belts. Because the shoulder belts automatically swing into place when the ignition key is turned on and because the driver and passenger have to remember to manually connect the lap belts, some might view this setup as an inconvenience. Visibility is excellent. Though the Mirage is a subcompact, you never feel claustrophobic. And I couldn't find any production flaws in the test car. If you are in the market for an economy car, the Mirage is one of the nicest looking. But if an air bag is important to you, you'll have to look elsewhere. Truett's tip: Mitsubishi has done a nice job restyling its entry-level subcompact. But cosmetic improvements aside, the new car doesn't really perform much better than last year's model. And there's still no air bag.