All grown up

Mi­cro cars are big­ger than they used to be

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

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.

MIT­SUBISHI MI­RAGE

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.

NIS­SAN MI­CRA

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.

SUZUKI CELE­RIO

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.

VER­DICT

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.

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