All grown up
Micro cars are bigger than they used to be
FORGET hybrid cars. These three tiny tots are kindest to your wallet — once you take into account the purchase price.
Not only are they superfrugal on fuel — using barely more than a petrol-electric vehicle — they are among the cheapest cars money can buy.
The industry calls them “micro” cars because, well, they’re tiny. But as with every other car on the market, they’ve grown over the years, both in space and sophistication.
Previously you needed to crouch to get in, open the windows with a handle and adjust the side mirrors by pushing the lens.
Today, thanks to the marvel of mass production and cheap labour (these cars come from Thailand, India or Indonesia despite their Japanese badges) most mod cons are covered.
With the arrival this week of the all-new Suzuki Celerio (it replaces the popular Suzuki Alto) it was time to get reacquainted.
The Mirage is one of the unsung heroes of the pint-sized brigade.
It may not be drop-dead gorgeous but it is smartlystyled, has a relatively upmarket interior with good storage, a smooth and refined three-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, and a decent five-year warranty.
Mitsubishi recently halved its servicing costs by extending the service intervals from six to 12 months or 10,000km to 15,000km (whichever is first).
As with all cars in the bargain basement, timing is key when it comes to discounts.
Until February 18 the Mirage ES hatch automatic can be had for $14,990 drive-away with a $500 fuel voucher.
This is as sharp as the Mirage price has been since it was launched in January 2013.
The Mirage is not quite halfway through its model cycle yet so an all-new model is about three years away.
But Mitsubishi gave it a minor update in October and it is the only one of this trio with an auto-up driver’s window.
Mitsubishi has improved the smoothness of the engine by adding a third engine mount and it works wonders. It’s just a pity they haven‘t upgraded the car’s steering and suspension.
The Mirage hatch is comfortable in a straight line until you hit a sharp bump; the suspension runs out of travel and makes a loud bang while you get a jolt.
The steering is light and easy but the car has a tendency to lean in corners, even if you’re not going fast.
Mitsubishi has the ingredients for a great car. It just needs to finish it.
Behind the Micra’s cutesy looks is a roomy cabin and one of the best steering and handling combinations in the class.
You may find this hard to believe but the Micra was nearly Car of the Year in 2011.
But the Micra’s price has bounced around with the countries from which it is sourced — now India, but previously Thailand and Indonesia.
Unfortunately cheaper labour hasn’t always translated into sharp prices for customers. For example, last month the automatic could be had for $14,786 drive-away, but Nissan’s website currently has the price at $17,280 drive-away. Why Nissan doesn’t put the $14,786 drive-away price up in lights and be done with it is a mystery. Instead, buyers run the gauntlet at a time when the Micra’s rivals have transparent pricing.
The Micra also has the dearest capped price servicing in the class, almost double the Mirage.
Although the Nissan engine is almost identical in power to the Mitsubishi, it’s not as refined or as energetic (in part due to the four-speed auto rather than the CVT found in the Mitsubishi and Suzuki). A big blot: the Micra is thirstier than cars the next size up.
The Micra is also the only car among this trio to lack Bluetooth audio streaming, a USB port, and map pockets.
It also has wind-up windows in the back.
This generation Micra has been on sale since November
2010 and an update is due in April this year. Expect Nissan to address price and equipment.
It’s not going to win a beauty pageant but there’s much more to the Suzuki Celerio than meets the eye.
Suzuki has opted for substance over style and in doing so has created the biggest car in the “micro car” class.
It’s roomier than the Micra and Mirage front and back and has a bigger boot. The interior has a more upmarket appearance than before, with good oddment storage.
On the road it feels more composed and better at coping with bumps than the Mirage, and is almost as fun to drive as the Micra.
The addition of a continuously variable transmission has helped slash fuel economy to the best here.
The Celerio earns a four-star safety score but arguably offers occupants better crash protection than the five-star Mirage and four-star Micra.
The Mitsubishi scores 34.07 out of 37 in crash tests and the Nissan scores just 31.11, while the Suzuki would earn 34.49 out of 37 if it did a pole test.
But this formality was not undertaken because new ANCAP rules won’t give five stars to cars without one of up to 40 safety accessories such as a rear-view camera, automatic headlights or daytime running lights. Translation: if the Celerio were tested last year it would have scored five stars.
Even though the Celerio has a smaller engine than the others, our testing found it accelerates on par with the Mitsubishi Mirage.
However, our sample car had some hesitation on takeoff and rougher than normal idling. The test vehicle had only done 68 kilometres, so perhaps it’s not indicative of all Celerios.
What is hard to go past is the price: $13,990 drive-away for an automatic is not a misprint and not a one-time offer. It’s a steal.
If Nissan can add more equipment to the Micra, sharpen the price and reduce servicing costs, it would be a much stronger proposition. But this time it was first off our list.
The Mirage mounts a compelling case, but the Suzuki’s cheaper price and the Nissan’s better driving dynamics robbed it of a win.
Which leaves us with the Suzuki Celerio. It drives well and gives buyers the most metal — and equipment — for the money in a category where price is paramount.
The result comes with a caveat, though. Between our road test and publication, Suzuki stopped delivery of the Celerio after the brakes failed during a high-speed test by a UK magazine.
Suzuki is holding the 100 or so cars in stock as a precaution while it investigates.
During our test, we did not experience any problems with the brakes and Suzuki says a left-hand-drive version of the car has been on sale for three months in overseas markets without any complaints from owners.
Suzuki Celerio (front) Mitsubishi Mirage (L) and Nissan Micra (R). Photos: Joshua Dowling. Venue:
Heffron pedal park, Matraville.