Snobs are not welcome here. Through the ages micro cars that are slammed by many as uninspiring tin cans on wheels have actually afforded their owners the best of simple pleasures.
While cars that are the automotive equivalent of King Island double cream can steal people’s cholesterol-filled hearts, models that use simple, stripped-bare ingredients can provide more than just basic sustenance.
I grew up with three cars from a certain Japanese micro car specialist, so I know. Who would that be? Daihatsu, that’s who! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
From going to the New South Wales Snowy Mountains in our Charade CX second car, rather than our thirsty VB Commodore family car, to learning how to drive in a Sirion, I love the seeming unburstability of a three-cylinder motor in a tiny car.
The catalyst for revisiting the most affordable group of cars you can buy is the launch of the Suzuki Celerio.
When we reviewed this car we got the cut of the CarAdvice audience’s jib – reader Darryl mused that “the mighty Charade has a bit of character – my sister’s had one (1992 I think) for donkeys years, it keeps on keeping on, and it always makes me smile whenever I drive it” in response to Jessica asking whether she should replace her ageing Charade with the new Celerio or the Mitsubishi Mirage.
It just so happens that for this twin test we have arranged a Mirage that is the most popular car in the micro class, in base ES automatic format that costs $13,490 plus on-road costs, to join the single specification Celerio that asks $13,990 driveaway.
It should be noted that at the time of writing Mitsubishi is doing $14,990 driveaway deals on Mirage ES, with a $500 gift card included, so in reality you’re looking at a model that is about $500-$1000 more expensive than its Suzuki rival.
Sadly for some, Daihatsu left these shores in 2005, while colleague Tim Beissmann and I have robbed many tissues over the Volkswagen Up! that was recently dropped from the local range due to its manual-only unpopularity.
So the challenge here is simple: which five-door hatchback can provide the best basic transportation, with the smartest city-focused capabilities; and as a bonus, can either contender capture the charms for which the best micro cars are renowned?
Standard equipment in both Celerio and Mirage ES follow a similar but slightly different path, so let’s dissect what you do and don’t get first.
On the outside there are 14-inch steel wheels with hubcaps and tyres that are the same width (165mm wide) and profile (65 aspect).
Common to both are air conditioning, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a driver’s vanity mirror (none for the passenger), remote keyless entry, four-door power windows and a trip computer with average fuel consumption and speed functions.
On the safety front, electronic stability control (ESC), and dual-front, side and full-length curtain airbags are included.
Unfortunately, each omit rear parking sensors and reverse-view camera, though you can option the former on the Celerio. Neither have cruise control at this level, standard only on higher-grade Mirage LS.
Exclusives in the Mitsubishi include lights that automatically switch off after you’ve walked away from the car (rather than hearing an annoying warning buzzer), auto-up for the driver’s glass in addition to the auto-down on its foe, intermittent wipers that allow you to vary the pause between sweeps, steering wheel mounted audio controls and a boot light.
The Suzuki counters with its own exclusives, such as a map pocket on the back of the front passenger seat, rear roof grab handles, bottle holders in the rear doors and generally more storage spots.
Indeed the Celerio gets an early lead on its rival for both cabin space and comfort. Its front seats are noticeably softer and more supportive on the sides, while there’s cloth trim flanking the front door trims rather than a sea of grey in its rival.
Above: Suzuki Celerio.
The ventilation and audio controls either press or twist with a greater feeling of expense, while the plastics appear lighter and better screwed together than in the Mitsubishi that is admittedly an older car.
The Mirage may have audio controls to complement the phone controls standard in both contenders, but it also has the most unintuitive connection for Bluetooth we’ve experienced in a modern car. It has to be accessed via voice command, and then forces you to create a security code, and ‘voice in’ your name before connecting for the first time; by contrast the Celerio quickly connects and plays by using the buttons on the stereo and steering wheel.
The smaller audio screen in the Mitsubishi makes accessing songs from your iPod via its interface difficult, while accessing the USB port hidden in the glovebox is similarly frustrating.
Above: Mitsubishi Mirage.
Suzuki not only provides a USB port just below the ventilation controls, but there is a large storage tray beneath it to handily place your phone device.
While both hatches have twin cupholders in their centre console, and the Mirage uniquely gets a tray above the glovebox and a tray beneath the steering wheel, these are less usable than the Celerio’s unique storage options – namely a deeper tray beneath the handbrake and cubby nook high up to the right of the steering wheel, in addition to a larger storage bin between the front seats.
Styling is subjective, but we like the Suzuki’s stubby looks that appears as though a short body is wearing a tall glasshouse top-hat. The reason it’s worth mentioning is because it provides substantially greater forward visibility than in the Mitsubishi that is more your classically proportioned hatchback.
Above: Suzuki Celerio.
The Celerio keeps its roofline tall all the way to its hatched back, to great headroom benefit for rear passengers. Its rear seat is also perched high for both good visibility over the front seats and to allow longer legs to drop further down to the floor.
By contrast, despite being only 178cm tall my head brushes the rooflining in the curvier-bodied Mirage. The rear bench is also completely flat with zero side support for outboard passengers, where its rival has decent support and – as with the front seats – a softer, more comfortable cushion, though legroom is similar.
At least the Mitsubishi seats three across to the Suzuki’s two, though – a big drawcard for our family when we owned the Daihatsu, and undoubtedly important for younger drivers who won’t want to leave a friend behind.
Above: Mitsubishi Mirage.
Each contender gets a simple 60:40 split-fold backrest mechanism that enhances load lugging space, but the most noticeable difference is how you’ll get larger items into the rear of each – the Suzuki has a wide aperture; the Mitsubishi’s is narrower.
That difference is more prominent than that actual gap in claimed boot volume, the Celerio just eclipsing the Mirage, 254 litres to 235L. Both are sizeable considering their tiny dimensions, and indeed the Mazda CX-3 small crossover has only 264L; barely bigger.
Our test loop zig-zags through the thick of suburbia where these tiny tots will spend most of their days, before utilising a bumpy backroad on the outskirts of Sydney and heading back to the city via the freeway ringroads.
From the first set of traffic lights the Mitsubishi quickly dominates as the stronger performer, not surprising when its 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine at this end of town translates to 20 per cent greater capacity than its rival. The Mirage is sprightly off the line, with immediate throttle response.
The 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine in the Celerio is slower to shift a kerb weight that is lighter than its rival, but not by much – a dainty 860kg versus 890kg.
That said, though, there isn’t much in it for outputs either, with the larger of the two engines producing 57kW of power and 100Nm of torque, and the smaller unit 50kW and 90Nm.
Each contender uses an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that rather than having fixed gears, works as a slider to alter engine revs based on how much throttle you need.
While derided in some more expensive cars as being a cheap option for an automatic gearbox, it is ideal in these tiny cars because the CVT in both avoids the hunting and lurching effects you get from an automatic continually swapping gears to keep a not-so-muscular engine on the ball.
The Mirage’s CVT proves the lesser of the two. Occasionally when you come off the throttle it surges forward like letting go of a stretched elastic band, and there is occasional shudder. It is too quick to drop revs when even the slightest hill demands it quickly go back the other way. There is a B mode – for engine braking – that helps, but it increases the lurchiness.
Swap to the Celerio and it’s immediately more fluent, but also smarter, and its exclusive Sport mode only holds revs moderately higher to keep the engine in its sweet spot.
Beyond its less perky off the line acceleration, the Suzuki feels keener to perform than its rival, and under maximum acceleration the CVT holds revs exactly where peak power is made at 6000rpm – where its rival CVT refused to go beyond 5500rpm despite the Mitsubishi motor making power 500rpm higher too.
Depending on your perspective, it’s either an upside or downside that the Celerio is the noisier of the two. Its engine is an absolute screamer, fruitier than your summer salad but also bursting with character.
On the upside, the CVT of both means that at 110km/h on relatively flat freeway each are ticking over at a silken 2000rpm – and you couldn’t say that about micro cars of yesteryear (such as the Sirion) that in automatic form exclusively used three- or four-speed automatics.
Beyond the freeway, the noise of the Celerio wears thin after a while, so despite the Mirage’s engine having less personality – there’s sewing machine thrum there, but it’s wheezy – it is the quieter of the pair. That is no doubt due to its maker increasing sound insulation behind the dashboard at its most recent update.
When it comes to battling the urban cut and thrust, the Suzuki feels at least a generation ahead of its rival.
Despite wearing the same-sized tyres and being of similar frame, the Celerio’s suspension is for the class verging on sophisticated in the way it cushions pot holes and cats-eye divots in the road, yet it maintains neat control over speed humps.
The Mirage simply feels wooden, by comparison. Its suspension feels more like its walking over bumps on stilts than absorbing the imperfections, so the bodies of passengers are jolted around far more noticeably.
When it comes to parking, the Mitsubishi’s steering has a reluctance to self centering. When you then turn it quickly it feels mushy, as though the electric motor can’t keep up with feeding in assistance.
On the freeway it is prone to steering wander, requiring small corrections to keep it straight – which you’ll need to do as the Mirage suffers from the effects of crosswinds quite badly for a new car.
By contrast, the Suzuki’s steering is light and fluid, and the stubby looks are matched by a real planted feeling on the open road.
And remember what we said about bonus points for a tiny hatch that can be fun to drive? Only the Celerio gets them, its Bridgestone Ecopia tyres proving gripper than the Yokohama BluEarth rubber of its rival, and its chassis always feels more secure.
Put another way, if you were to swerve for an obstacle on the wet country road we were testing on, it’s the Mirage that slips first, though both come with potentially life-saving stability control to have the back of inexperienced young people who may be driving one of these as their first car.
There are young kids beyond the cities, too, a point that became emphatically clear as we saw the Celerio’s predecessor, the Alto, on this particular outer-urban road.
Like the Alto, and most micro cars before it, the biggest area where both contenders here feel a cut below cars from the next class up, such as the Toyota Yaris and Honda Jazz, is road noise in addition to lesser performance. Both Celerio and Mirage are raucous either on concrete slabs that dominate a lot of Sydney suburban pavement, or coarse-chip surfaces on the open road.
It’s worth mentioning before we get to long term financials and the conclusion that a base Jazz or Yaris can be had in manual form for (when they are on sale) barely more than either of this duo.
Both get a reverse-view camera and are substantially more solid, refined options – highlighting the difficulty with pricing at the basement end of the new car market, which is no fault of the Celerio and Mirage. We acknowledge, though, that many won’t cross-shop these micro autos with the manuals of the class above, and auto for auto there is roughly a $5000 difference between the classes.
In terms of long term running costs, to its predecessor the new Celerio maintains an identical capped price servicing program. Check-up intervals are every six-months or 10,000km, at a cost of $199 for the first three services, $289 for the fourth; then there is a repeat of that structure to five years or 100,000km when the capped price servicing program ends.
You’ll need to visit your Mitsubishi service centre less frequently, or specifically every 12 months or 15,000km. The downside is the capped price servicing program lasts for only four years or 60,000km, the four services to that time costing $250 each. The upside is that you’re looking at a neat $1000 for four years of servicing, compared with $1772 for its rival.
Suzuki also demands that you choose its capped price servicing program in order to replace its standard three year or 100,000km warranty with more substantial five year or 140,000km cover.
So long as you service your car from any licenced operator, Mitsubishi hands you five year coverage but only until 100,000km. The diamond brand also gives you five year roadside assistance included where Suzuki offers none at all – you’ll have to book in yearly breakdown cover with a third-party motoring body at an annual cost of around $100.
There is little in it for fuel costs, and these models particularly came into their prime when we were filling up the tanks with regular unleaded for less than a dollar per litre.
Of the duo, the larger-engined Mirage actually claims to drink less fuel, but its combined cycle claim of 4.6 litres per 100 kilometres blew out to 6.5L/100km on test. Over the same mixed loop, the Celerio’s 4.8L/100km claim shifted less substantially, to an exceptional 5.8L/100km.
It’s clear that long term the Mitsubishi can absorb its $500-1000 pricing disadvantage in other areas, though, levelling out the value equation. Compared with its rival, the Mirage’s interior has a few extra niceties, and the distinct advantage of a fifth seatbelt, while the engine is slightly peppier. However it isn’t enough to fend off a newer rival.
Forget the tinny Alto, because Suzuki has done a largely impressive job with the new Celerio.
While the model has been subject to an overseas and local recall due to brake failure experienced by a British media outlet with a single test car, the brand is on the case and we experienced no issue. Likewise, while it has received an official four-star ANCAP crash rating to the Mirage’s five, that’s only because a new regime mandates more active safety technology as standard – there’s nothing between them for frontal (Mitsu slightly ahead) and side (identical performance) crash protection.
Compared with its rival the Suzuki Celerio simple feels more substantial and well finished, is roomier and more comfortable both in its (four) seats and suspension, and is easier to park and more fun to drive. All our testers found it filling and enjoyable … a bit like a meal of few, simple ingredients rather than an indulgent one topped with double cream.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.