The hard rain turned streets into shallow rivers. I chose the wrong car--a subcompact 1999 Mitsubishi Mirage DE sedan.

Small cars and heavy rains don't mix in this below-sea-level city. The water covers calamitous imperfections in roads, such as potholes that can swallow tiny wheels.

The wheels on the Mirage are tiny, 13 inches in diameter. Ka-thump! The front left wheel hit a pothole, and then the right. Whump!

I drove along Chef Menteur Highway on the city's east side in search of shelter. I wanted to check for damage, though there was nothing in the immediate post-thump-whump ride of the car to indicate an alignment problem.

I parked underneath a service-station awning. Scratched wheel covers. No tire blisters. No biggie.

The rain slackened, and that was too bad. New Orleans motorists see slowing rain as a signal to speed, no matter that the roads are bumpy, lumpy, sunken, potholed, slippery and oily. I tried to crank up the car to match the quickening pace. But speed in the base Mirage DE is an illusion, and so is handling under less-than-ideal driving conditions.

It didn't help that mine was a rental car. Rental companies seldom buy vehicles with manual transmissions, because most of their customers can't drive them. So my Mirage DE came with the optional four-speed automatic transmission linked to an anemic 92-horsepower four-cylinder engine.

Mitsubishi's engineers say their automatic actually adapts itself to specific driving styles "to maximize smoothness and fuel economy." If so, my driving style must have been affected by jet lag, because the Mirage DE's automatic lagged and dragged pitifully, especially on steep climbs, such as traversing the apex of the Mississippi River Bridge.

I'm assuming that the standard five-speed manual transmission would have been a better match to the car's little engine, but that's just an assumption.

The rain disappeared by the next day's afternoon. The sun came out, and so did the steam.

If you've ever spent a summer day in New Orleans, Malaysia or Vietnam, you'll understand. Heat here is mean, searing, sweaty, sticky heat. It attacks everything. You can see its effects on homes and buildings, which require constant upkeep--repainting, replacement of warped boards, masonry repair. And you can see the steam-heat trauma suffered by cars--severely cracked dashboard vinyl, faded paint, rust.

The Mirage DE had been parked in direct sunlight most of the morning and early afternoon. I opened the driver's door. Wet heat billowed forth. I gasped. But here is where the little car worked perfectly. The air conditioner was super-efficient; it cooled down and dehumidified the car's interior within two minutes. That sucked more power from the engine, but it didn't matter.

Reality demands acceptance of some things, and the reality of the Mirage DE is that it's just transportation. Nothing fancy. Nothing fast. Just a tiny car body on four little wheels that will get you almost everywhere you want to go, if you are patient and willing to drive gently around life's pitfalls.

Nuts & Bolts

1999 Mitsubishi Mirage DE Sedan

Complaints: Braking was a skitter-skatter exercise on wet and dry roads--not impressive for a car with barely 4,000 miles on the odometer. Can we expect more from a car equipped with small power front discs and rear drums, sans anti-locks? I think so.

Praise: Basic automotive transportation sold at a reasonable price. If you purchase it with economy-car expectations, you should be happy.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Mediocre ride and acceleration. Dicey handling, especially on wet roads. Serious concentration is needed to control that front end.

Head-turning quotient: If the Mirage DE gets stolen, you've either (1) parked in a very bad neighborhood or (2) parked in a place where the thieves know nothing about cars. Total vanilla.

Engines: The base Mirage DE comes with a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produces 92 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 93 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. The better-equipped Mirage LS comes with a 1.8-liter, inline four-cylinder engine that produces 113 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 116 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Capacities: Seats four adults comfortably. Cargo capacity is 11.5 cubic feet. Fuel tank holds 12.4 gallons; regular unleaded recommended.

Mileage: Good news! Even with the automatic, the test car got 34 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Estimated 410-mile range.

Price: Base price on the Mirage DE sedan with automatic is $13,140. Dealer's invoice on the base model is $11,956. Price as tested was $13,565, including a $425 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: The Mirage DE is to driving what inexpensive tennis shoes are to feet. Compare with base models of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla/Chevrolet Prizm, Ford Escort/Mazda Protege, Chrysler Neon, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Sephia.