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Long-term test: Winter road-tripping the Mitsubishi Mirage to the Sudbury Superstack

We make a pilgrimage to Sudbury, Ontario's dead god of pollution in a holdout from a nearly-dead new-car segment

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In 1883, a blacksmith held a rough rock of chalcopyrite in his hand. Its sharp tetragonal crystals shone with a dull gold-like lustre, but even a fool could tell this wasn’t gold. Chalcopyrite is a kind of copper ore generally found near nickel deposits, and because of this rock and the immense reserves of others like it below the surface on which the blacksmith stood, the city of Sudbury would be born.

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The area that we now know as Greater Sudbury was settled by the Ojibwe people some 9,000 years ago, its rich forests and many lakes feeding and clothing the indigenes for many generations. When French Jesuit missionaries became the first white settlers to the area in 1874, they named the place Sainte-Anne-de-Pins for its pine-covered landscape. But the area remained sparsely settled until 1883, when ore was discovered during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the area.

Along the 385-km drive from Toronto to Sudbury up Ontario Highway 400 and the Trans Canada Highway, you can still see some snippets of what the land used to look like. In the spaces in between the towns and gas stations, and where you can’t see power lines or railroad tracks, the rugged Canadian Shield still looks as beautifully impenetrable as ever. Somewhat less massive than the huge blocks of pink granite that framed the road cuts was our Mitsubishi Mirage long-term test car.

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We wanted to put our spunky half-pint long-termer to the test of a Canadian winter road trip. Our test Mirage is the base ES Manual trim. It retails for $14,098, and as name implies, has a 5-speed manual transmission. It’s the most affordable car in the Mitsubishi lineup, and with the departure of the $10,398 Chevy Spark, it will soon be the most affordable new car in Canada. We’ve published a long-term test intro, and we recently pit it up against the used-car market.

The spindly Mirage is the lightest car you can buy new in Canada at some 2,095 pounds, and it feels like it as it wisps down the highway. Though its aerodynamic teardrop-shaped roofline is actually patented, it only seems to slip through wind that comes at it from the forward direction, and it gets blown about quite easily by side winds. Nor do you just feel the wind — you hear it, too. That low weight figure which pays dividends for handling and fuel economy was partially accomplished by a relative lack of sound deadening.

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Since the discovery in 1883, mining dominated Sudbury’s economy and its landscape. By 1929 Sudbury had become one of the world’s leading producers of nickel, and the area had two 500-ft smokestacks that belched the black, sooty byproducts of nickel mining into the atmosphere to shower back down on the city and surrounding area.

Sudbury was one of the fastest-growing cities in the 1930s, and it recovered quickly from the Great Depression. This growth came at a cost, however: mountainous tailings piles, black and barren of trees, grew near the Inco mining facility. Across the area, soot and acid rain stained the local granite black as coal, sometimes penetrating up to three inches deep in the rock. A strategy of higher-altitude dispersion was adopted, and in 1972 the Inco Superstack was completed.

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As we breezed into Sudbury, the looming Superstack came into view. Standing 381 meters tall, the Superstack stands more than four times the height of the Statue of Liberty and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it was completed in 1972, the Superstack was the tallest smokestack in the world, and even today it is only topped by the GRES-2 smokestack in Kazakhstan. The intention was not so much to reduce pollution, but to disperse it over a wider area so as to less affect the city.

The stack looms tall over the Mitsubishi. Parked in the neighborhood of Copper Cliff — where people literally live in the shadow of the Superstack — some houses stand fewer than 300 meters from the base of the mighty tower. The single 1.75-inch diameter tailpipe of the Mirage trembles at idle, seemingly in fear of its infinitely larger counterpart.

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Far from a gross polluter, the Mirage is one of the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicles in Canada. A manual-transmission model like ours is rated to return 5.8 L/100 km on the highway, and the CVT model is even more thrifty at 5.6 L/100 km. On paper this beats out almost all other small cars, but there is a catch: the Mirage is a small car powered by a small 1.2L engine. It only makes 78 hp, and in our testing we found it to be most efficient around 90 to 105 km/h. The Mirage has enough power to cruise as fast as you please on public highway, but pushing the needle past 115 km/h will cause economy to suffer simply because that little three-cylinder is working! With an average speed of around 120 km/h, our test economy was 6.3 L/100km. Still impressive, but not that much better than a 2021 Honda Civic, which would return 6.5 L/100 km on paper and could likely do so at higher speeds than the Mitsu. The Mirage is best suited for city life, but it can be pushed into road-trip duty in a pinch.

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Mitsubishi Mirage ES beneath the Sudbury Superstack
Mitsubishi Mirage ES beneath the Sudbury Superstack Photo by Elliot Alder

The Superstack is a controversial icon for the city. It is a towering testimony to the hard work that built the city, but it is also a looming reminder of the darker side of exploiting the Earth’s resources. Some wish to see it preserved as a monument to the city’s history; others see it as a blight that should be removed from the horizon. Officially decommissioned in July 2020, it today stands dormant. Vale (which owns the facility) has announced that the Superstack will be demolished in the coming years, but has not given an exact timeframe.

The Superstack will eventually vanish from the landscape, and as we zip home in the little Mitsu I likewise wonder how much longer this type of car will be around. We’ve lost the Fiesta, Micra, Fit, Yaris, and soon the Spark. Once a Canadian staple, basic and affordable hatchbacks are being usurped by hybrids and CUV lookalikes such as the Kicks and Ecosport. Despite this, Mirage sales are strong and the company has no plans of axing the model.

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As we park the Mirage underneath the famous Sudbury Big Nickel, we can see out over the tailings piles at the Vale facility. Newly planted trees have taken root, and a stubble of pine has been forming. As the snow melts, patches of scrubby grass can be seen poking out of the slush. Beneath a sky once permanently clouded by the sulfur dioxide of the 1970s and ’80s, the macabre Superstack seems increasingly out of place among the greenery.

The world progresses constantly, and things we think will stay with us forever have a way of quietly disappearing. Look twice at the little Mirage when you see one in your travels — the honest hatchback may not be long for this world.