They may not be the cars teenagers have pinned to their bedroom walls, but the Fiat 500, Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Micra and Volkswagen Up! are among the cheapest ways first-time drivers can get into a new car.
Particularly when parents are often paying the bills, all four sub-light hatchbacks featured here cost $14,000 or less on the road, all are economical and all feature stability control and front and front-side airbags as standard.
Fiat dropped a bombshell earlier this year when, upon the switch from third-party importer Ateco bringing the range to the country to a manufacturer-backed regime, the entry price of the 500 was reduced to just $14,000 driveaway – around $10,000 less than before. It coincided with the dainty reborn Italian hatchback being offered for the first time locally with a 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine.
It immediately re-aligned the 500 with the Volkswagen Up! that launched here a year earlier. The Up! is the only car of the group that isn’t available with an automatic transmission – which will immediately rule it out for many first-time drivers. But it is uniquely available in both $13,990 three-door form (currently driveaway to match the Fiat) and $14,990 five-door form (also for the moment driveaway) as tested here. Despite forgoing some capacity and a cylinder to the Fiat, the Volkswagen 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine is a close match in terms of outputs.
Two other three-cylinder models fill the quartet, and both the Mitsubishi Mirage ES and Nissan Micra ST are available as five-door-only models, each with a 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine, and at the time of writing are priced from the same $12,990 driveaway.
The gap between the entry-level models is just $1000, although while the Micra, 500 and, of course, the Up! are all tested here with a manual transmission, Mitsubishi could only provide a limited edition Mirage LS Pop Green with an automatic transmission. Although it costs $17,990 driveaway, with the exception of the transmission and slightly larger wheels, it drives identically to the car that costs $5000 less.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
At this bottom end of the new car market, 14-inch wheels with hubcaps, remote central locking, front power windows, power mirrors and air conditioning are standard fare across all four $13-14,000 entry-level models.
There are, however, differences between the equipment lists of each car beyond those common items.
Although the Mirage LS Pop Green limited edition tested here is by far the best-equipped of the field, not coincidentally because it is the most expensive, even the entry-level Mirage ES manual has more kit than the rest, despite offering the equal-cheapest price.
It is the only entry-level model with rear power windows, although equally, it is the only car here with just two-speaker audio (the Fiat and VW get six speakers to the Micra’s four). It also matches the Fiat’s leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, where Volkswagen and Nissan provide only plastic tillers, and only the latter gets controls on it.
Although front and front-side airbags are common to all, and the 500 uniquely gets a driver’s knee airbag, the Up! is also the only car here that misses curtain airbags. Despite this, however, the lack of extra airbags doesn’t necessarily make the Volkswagen any less crashworthy (see safety – below).
The VW also gets a unique feature that prevents a crash in the first place, at least below 30km/h. Called City Emergency Brake technology, and usually a feature found only in much more expensive cars, it will automatically brake the car to avoid a collision at city speeds.
As a five-door model, the Up! gets rudimentary pop-out rear windows, where the Micra at least provides manual window winders.
For just $500 extra, though, and as fitted to our test car, Volkswagen uniquely offers a small colour touchscreen with satellite navigation. It does, however, require this option to match the Bluetooth phone connectivity and trip computer functions standard on its rivals.
That being said, neither the Micra nor 500 include Bluetooth audio connectivity as part of their standard Bluetooth phone call operations, of which both are standard on Mirage and are part of the above Up! option pack.
Mitsubishi, Nissan and Volkswagen all offer capped-price servicing programs to ensure consistency between servicing prices between dealers, where Fiat allows dealers to barter for your business. All programs are not the same however.
The Mirage is the cheapest car to service, but its capped-price program ends after just four years. The 12 month/15,000km intervals cost $250 each, meaning a flat $1000 servicing spend after four years or 60,000km ownership.
Over that time and distance, by comparison, the 500 is ‘recommended’ but not confirmed to cost $1185, while the Up! asks $1510 and the Micra will require a hefty $2297 spend, partially thanks to more frequent recommended check-ups – every six months or 10,000km instead of 12 months or 15,000km visits for the others.
But the Volkswagen and Nissan capped-price programs at least extend to six years or, respectively, 90,000km and 120,000km.
That other long term running cost – petrol – saw the tables turn for the Nissan Micra, however.
Officially, the Mirage is the most economical car here being rated at 4.6 litres per 100km on the combined ADR cycle, ahead of the 4.9L/100km Up!, 5.1L/100km 500 and comparatively thirsty 5.9L/100km Micra.
Over a test route that comprised an even mix of freeway, urban and country road driving, however, the Volkswagen used the least fuel, recording 6.6L/100km, compared with the Nissan’s 7L/100km, the Mitsubishi’s 7.1L/100km and the Fiat’s 8L/100km.
Translate our results to hip-pocket wear-and-tear, though, and the Nissan actually becomes the cheapest to run, because as with Mitsubishi, it can run on 91RON regular unleaded fuel, where the Volkswagen (and Fiat) needs 95RON premium unleaded.
At the time of writing, unleaded was priced at $1.45 per litre while premium was 10 cents more expensive, meaning over the 15,000km the average Australian travels per year the Micra will cost $1522, marginally eclipsing the Up! ($1534), Mirage ($1544) and 500 ($1860). Call it $6.50 per week saved in fuel costs for the Nissan compared with the Fiat.
Particularly notable for safety-first parents, the Volkswagen still achieves a five-star ANCAP safety rating despite its lack of curtain airbags, achieving 33.37 points out of 37 overall, which includes 14.2 out of 16 for front crash protection and 14.17 for side crash cover. It's also less likely to be dented at low speeds, thanks to its sub-30km/h crash avoidance auto-braking technology.
The 500 (tested by Euro NCAP) and Mirage (judged by ANCAP) also get the full complement of stars, though, both rating a higher 34.91 and 34.07 out of 37 respectively. Although the Mitsubishi scored a lesser 14.07 out of 16 for the front crash test – which the Fiat also bettered with a benchmark 15.11 out of 16, no doubt thanks to its driver’s knee airbag – the Mirage achieved a perfect 16 for the side test, where the 500 was just off with 15.80 points.
The Micra, meanwhile, despite getting curtain protection over the Up!, is the only car here to be rated at four stars, with a total 31.11 out of 37 partially made up of 12.79 out of 16 (front crash) and 15.32 out of 16 (side crash) scores. ANCAP noted in both tests a “slight risk of serious chest injury for the driver”.
There’s a division between interior style and practicality that is split almost exactly down the middle of this quartet.
The Fiat 500 has the brightest, most adventurous and – subjectively – cool cabin design.
The cream-coloured steering wheel and trim interplays with circular piano black dash buttons to create a fun and semi-premium atmosphere. The dimpled hard plastics feel a bit scratchy, but that’s expected at this end of the market.
More impressive than the design, however, are the nifty little touches that are unique to the Fiat in this company.
The audio controls on the steering wheel light up at night, the seat backrest adjustment is infinitely adjustable via a rotary dial rather than a dial with presets, and the headlights automatically turn themselves on and off with the car.
But the three-door Italian has by far the least accommodating rear accommodation of the group, with very tight legroom and tighter headroom. The 185-litre boot is also the tiniest here by about 50L, and the rear seat backrest isn’t split, but tumbles over as a single piece to reveal a 550L maximum – almost half that of the Up!.
The Volkswagen, as with the Fiat, only gets four seatbelts, where the Mitsubishi and Nissan seat five. That’s crucial for young people who may often carry mates around, but the Up! is far better packaged than the 500.
Despite measuring up with 6mm less length than the Fiat, the Volkswagen has a higher-set rear seat that allows legs to drop further down to the floor; more space between rear seat base and front seat backrest; heaps more headroom; and a 251 litre boot that extends via a 60:40 split-fold rear seat to a full 951L.
The Volkswagen also uniquely gets a split boot floor and a full-size spare wheel.
The Up! interior may not be as overt as that in the 500, but it’s still a cool place to sit, and boasts the best fit and finish of any car here.
Doors and a glovebox that close with a thunk, subtle bits of piano black trim, silver-finished door handles, quality roof lining, and consistently matched plastics mark the Up! as a quality effort. The painted exposed metal is a nice or cheap touch, depending on your perspective, though interestingly the Volkswagen also has the least amount of boot and under-bonnet primer of any car here. The lack of proper central air vents is also a reminder that the Up! plays in the sub-light car class.
The optional touchscreen is worth the $500, though. Although it looks aftermarket perched high on the dashboard, it’s a cinch to use, the graphics are high quality, and the trip computer and digital tachometer and oil pressure gauges add to the funk. The audio system is by far the best here, with among the most clear, crisp sound experienced from any mainstream audio system. Kids will love cranking the doof-doof to maximum without distortion…
At the other end of the scale the Nissan Micra offers the lowest interior quality here but counters the highest level of practicality.
It has shiny and scratchy plastics, with noticeable panel gaps, overstuffed front seats that are the hardest and least comfortable here, clacky toy-like controls and an audio system with simple auxilary input only – no USB connectivity – and basic graphics.
Conversely, however, it has the roomiest back seat.
It can’t quite match the Mirage for legroom, but betters it for headroom and uniquely provides its rear riders with roof grab handles.
It also matches the Mitsubishi to claim an equal-benchmark cupholder count, tallying three, in addition to two door bottle holders.
Its 267-litre boot is also the most capacious, beating Up! by 16L, Mirage by 33L and 500 by a full 82L.
The interior quality of the Mitsubishi Mirage is nothing special, either, though its dimpled plastics are clearly superior to the Nissan's.
The digital climate controls and chrome door handles unique to this LS Pop Pack limited edition also lift the ambience considerably compared with the base ES we’ve previously experienced.
Exposed wires in the glovebox are a let down, though the front seats do adjust for height, which matches only the 500.
Lanky teens will enjoy the most legroom here, but will also have their heads tilted over, as the head of this 178cm tester was already brushing the headlining.
There are also no grab handles back there.
Each of these engines and transmission combinations have their own flaws and quirks. Forget traffic light drag races with this group, because each offers a 0-100km/h time of around 13 seconds.
The punchiest and sweetest engine is the Nissan 1.2-litre three-cylinder. With 56kW of power at 6000rpm and 100Nm of torque at 4000rpm, it feels noticeably the perkiest of the lot, moving the 932kg hatchback with relative ease. Coming out of a tight bend and up a steep hill on our back-to-back test loop, the Micra powered past 100km/h towards 120km/h in third gear, where the Up! and 500 refused to push past three digits. The Nissan engine is also the loudest, but what it emits sounds like – no exaggerating this – half a Porsche six-cylinder, which is both amusing and endearing.
That it’s the quickest and (on test) the second most frugal is especially commendable, although the five-speed manual is unfortunately the worst here, with a rubbery and long-throw shift. The optional four-speed automatic isn’t likely to help the engine, either.
That’s where the Mitsubishi automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) of our test car makes a case for itself, proving better than the standard, and similarly rubbery, five-speed manual previously tested. Not only does the CVT have no ratio ‘gaps’ where regular autos – especially ones with just four gears – slur and hunt to the detriment of driveability and refinement, but the CVT also allows the Mirage’s engine to spin at just 2800rpm at 120km/h, aiding freeway quietness; the others all buzz at above 3000rpm.
The engine itself has just a single extra kilowatt of power than the Nissan, and an identical torque figure, and each maximum even comes on tap at the same revs. The Mitsubishi 1.2-litre three cylinder is also quieter, but doesn’t sound as sweet or feel as fast as the Micra – at least in auto versus manual form – despite the Mirage weighing 42kg less overall, at 890kg.
The CVT’s major downside is that it takes ages to wind up off the line, making the Mirage feel sluggish and slow moving from zero to about 40km/h.
Conversely, it’s at those lower speeds where the only four-cylinder engine of the group – the Fiat 500’s – makes the best case for itself.
This little 1.2-litre is a revised three-decade-old engine that actually makes less power – 51kW at 5500rpm – than the Nissan and Mitsubishi three-cylinder units. But its maximum 102Nm is made at 3000rpm and the 500 feels torquiest of the quartet at low revs around town – where most sub-light hatchbacks spend their time.
It’s a bit breathless when revved, though admirably refined, but the five-speed manual transmission is a big let down, with a soggy throw between gears. Worse is the ridiculously tall second gear that necessitates the driver too often going back to first gear around town to get the three-door moving. It has torque, so it is tractable, but not power, so it is slow.
With the smallest capacity, the Volkswagen 1.0-litre punches above its weight more than any car here, its 55kW at 6200rpm being just one and two kilowatts behind the 1.2-litre Micra and Mirage, respectively. That the Up! is also the lightest car here at 880kg means that foot-flat performance is almost a match for the Nissan and is way ahead of the Fiat. It is the only car here that can’t crack a triple-figure for torque, though its 95Nm is at least produced over a broad 3000-4300rpm range.
The Up! is nearly as torquey down low as the 500, but is much more refined, in addition to being sweeter and punchier to rev out. That said, the Volkswagen can feel doughy at the bottom end – like the manual equivalent of the Mirage – and is ultimately a bit slow when trying to gap traffic.
It is, however, the nicest drivetrain of the lot, mostly thanks to the wonderful shift quality and beautifully spaced gears of the five-speed manual transmission. Although it isn’t as peppy as the Micra, its extra refinement, strong body and shift tactility deliver a level of engineering integrity beyond its modest price tag.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
Absolutely the same is true the way the Volkswagen Up! steers, rides and handles.
The way the Up! deals with small road irregulations and deep pot holes is of a different standard to the remaining trio. It delivers lovely compliance in those situations, yet also completely ignores more irregularities on a country road while at the same time offering the best body control. The steering is also the best of any Volkswagen product, and one of the most outstanding electro-mechanical systems regardless of price – light, consistently smooth, and decently quick.
It complements the excellent chassis balance of the Up!, which performs a rare dual role of entertaining the driver and ensuring basic chassis safety before the electronic stability control system needs to intervene.
The Fiat 500 is also plenty of fun, but in a perverse way. Its suspension is among the bounciest we’ve tested in a car, mimicing a pogo-stick the way it playfully bobs up and down over a rough country road. Around town it can’t match the compliance of the Up! but still delivers a good low-speed ride.
The steering has a ‘City’ mode which below 30km/h ramps up the power assistance to make the steering feather light. It sounds awful, but thanks to quick turn in and basic agility from the small, light body and short wheelbase, actually enhances the 500’s easy, chuckable nature.
Although the Fiat turns in quickly, the steering is actually quite slow, meaning plenty of arm twirling in parking spots, which is bizarre for a city car likely to regularly fling between tight city spots.
Being based on a previous, previous-generation Renault Clio chassis, the Nissan Micra is also fundamentally fun to drive.
It’s a bit dated and crude with elements of its refinement, but also rides decently – more composed than the 500, but not as smooth as Up! – and even offers direct steering, though it shares the Fiat’s need for too many turns lock-to-lock.
The surprisingly dynamic chassis teams with the strongest engine here to deliver among the quickest country road point-to-point times.
The only car here that isn’t particularly fun to drive, nor comfortable around town is the Mitsubishi Mirage.
The steering is nervous, so when commuting it requires constant corrections to keep it on line. Yet there are electric ‘notches’ with the system, meaning slight turns aren’t as smooth as they should be. When parking, the ordinarily light steering suddenly gets heavy, as if the electric motor that feeds in the power assistance can’t keep up with quick turns.
Likewise, the Mitsubishi’s suspension delivers also delivers a lumpy ride around town – restless over ostensibly smooth surfaces, and too sensitive to surface changes. On country roads the Mirage fails to improve, yet it delivers wooden handling that relies solely on the grip of the excellent Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres fitted to the test car (the VW’s Falken Sincera, Fiat’s Bridgestone B250 and especially the Micra’s Maxxis MA-307 are all 14-inch and all more squeal-prone).
As a basic ownership proposition, the reborn Mitsubishi Mirage makes sense. It’s cheap to buy and run, reasonably roomy and well equipped. But it’s also retrograde in terms of the way it feels and drives – flawed around town, yet no fun for the driver – proving that cheapness is a very different thing to being genuinely good value.
If space is required, though, it makes more sense than choosing the Fiat 500. Yet the Fiat is a classic Italian car – at once charming and flawed, stylish and cramped. It takes a solid third place.
The Nissan Micra makes more sense again than the Mirage, challenging it for space and practicality and exceeding both it and the 500 on the road. It is, however, expensive to service, dated inside and lacks the expected connectivity.
The five-door Volkswagen Up!, then, may cost a bit more than the Micra, but it’s ingeniously packaged, well built inside, offers competitive fuel and servicing costs, has cheap options and will please both those who love to drive and those who see cars as commuting conveyances. It is the only car here to feel a class-above, and it is therefore also a cut-above these rivals.
Photography by Easton Chang. Special thanks to St Paul's Catholic College, Greystanes, NSW, and to the students of Year 11 for their assistance with this photo shoot.
Fiat 500 Pop
Price: $14,000 driveaway
Engine: 1.2-litre 4-cyl petrol
Power: 51kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 102Nm at 3000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 5.1L/100km claimed (8.0L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: n/a
Mitsubishi Mirage Pop Green
Price: $17,990 driveaway
Engine: 1.2-litre 3-cyl petrol
Power: 57kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 100Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: Automatic continuously variable transmission
Fuel consumption: 4.6L/100km claimed (7.1L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: n/a
Nissan Micra ST
Price: $12,990 driveaway
Engine: 1.2-litre 3-cyl petrol
Power: 56kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 100Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 5.9L/100km claimed (7.0L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 138g/km
Volkswagen Up! five-door
Price: $14,990 driveaway
Engine: 1.0-litre 3-cyl petrol
Power: 55kW at 6200rpm
Torque: 95Nm at 3000-4300rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 4.9L/100km claimed (6.6L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 114g/km