Stumbling upon old family photographs is a funny thing. Sometimes, you find out that your parents were actually pretty cool in their day, devoid of middle-aged paunches or wrinkles, and decked out in stylish clothes, with good-looking but rarely mentioned companions on their arm that elicit scowls and glares when you innocently inquire about their identity. Looking at old photos of the Mitsubishi Mirage is a little like that.
While our North American Mirage was a dowdy also-ran B-segment car for credit criminals and second-tier rental car agencies, the Japanese market Mirage fell victim to the irrational exuberance that plagued the Japanese economy, and paradoxically gave us the greatest generation of Japanese cars to ever exist.
No matter that the Lancer Evolution, Galant VR-4 and Legnum VR-4 (that’s a Galant VR-4 wagon) already existed. American sales and marketing execs were content with just the Eclipse, and aside from the cost of homologation any other nameplate, they likely would have nixed another sporty model, for fear of cannibalizing sales of the Eclipse GS-T and GSX.
But Japan is different. Having overlapping, redundant models sold under the same brand (but different sales channels) was a requirement in the Bubble Era. And so, the Lancer Evolution was joined by the Mirage Cyborg family, which was a three-door hatchback with a naturally-aspirated MIVEC 1.6L 4-cylinder engine making 172 horsepower and a VTEC-esque 124 lb-ft of torque. It wasn’t enough that Mitsubishi had conquered the four-door rally special niche. They needed a competitor to other now-forgotten bubble-era specials like the Toyota Levin BZ-R, the Nissan Pulsar VZ-R and the Honda Civic SiR (are you sensing a trend here?).
While the Levin was primarily known for its innovative 20 valve, individual throttle body engine, and the Civic became famous for arriving in America in the form of an engine with the wiring harness hacked in half, the Cyborg R never achieved much beyond appearing in Gran Turismo. But at least it was cool. Not like the one that’s for sale right now.
Today’s Mirage is either a pur sang back-to-basics subcompact or the world car on sale today, depending on the biases of the journalist reviewing it. I think it would be a great basis for a grassroots Spec Racing series that would cost very little and provide, at the very least, marginal thrills. The production spec Mirage weighs 1,973 lbs in base trim with a manual transmission, or the same as a Lotus Elise, but it puts out just 74 horsepower and 74 lb-ft of torque from its 1.2L three-cylinder engine.
A freer flowing intake and exhaust system might bump up output by another 10 horsepower and 10 lb-ft, while stripping the car out for race duty should shave another 150 lbs or so out of the car. There is no real way to make these things fast while keeping costs down. Off the shelf suspension components and better brake pads might turn the car from a “jellyfish” (as one British magazine described the handling) into something tolerable. With any luck, the cars will lap as fast as an NB Miata, the ubiquitous, but slow entry-level track machine that everyone so politely describes as a “momentum car”. Think of it as a stepping stone to tin-top racing, one rung below B-Spec.