Driving Mitsubishis Electric Kei Car in New York

This afternoon I walked through the doors of the Jacob Javits Center, where the 2008 New York Auto Show is underway, and stepped into one of the i MiEV electric city cars that Mitsubishi brought over from Japan for a brief drive in Manhattan’s gridlocked streets.

The i MiEV is a version of the tiny car that Mitsubishi sells with conventional gasoline powertrains in Japan’s kei-class. Kei-class cars have a maximum length of 3375 mm, or 132.9 inches, and 1475 mm, or 58.1 inches in width, with a maximum engine displacement of 660 cubic centimeters. These cars are popular in Japan because they are exempt from certain taxing and licensing regulations and, of course, because their small size makes them highly maneuverable in crowded urban settings like Tokyo. And the Big Apple.

Like the base i car, the four-door i MiEV has a rear-mounted powertrain. The lithium ion batteries are packaged beneath the rear seat, and the electric motor, inverter charger, and other components are installed beneath the luggage compartment. Packaging the batteries, which weigh about 450 pounds, in this way contributes to the vehicle’s lower center of gravity while maximizing room for passengers and luggage.

With Moe Durand of Mitsubishi PR in the rear seat and another automotive journalist in the shotgun seat, we merged into southbound 11th Avenue traffic. After I got used to the right-hand-drive layout and figured out how to operate the turn signals, I felt confident enough to change lanes and gun the engine. Ooops, engage the batteries. Mashing the pedal. Whatever you want to call it. The result was smooth, linear, seamless acceleration up to about 30 mph, which was the maximum speed I managed to achieve in the heavy traffic. The car’s automatic transmission delivers smooth shifts, and the by-wire brakes provide decent, predictable pedal feel and sure stopping, essential features when you’re dodging big yellow taxicabs. They also regenerate energy for the batteries, like most hybrid cars.

After a while, I remembered that there really was no front end in this blunt-nosed car, and I learned to nose right up to the rear ends of big trucks and busses and to better place the car on the street. Thus emboldened, I engaged in the full cut-and-thrust, taxi-driver-style driving that can make it actually fun to drive in Manhattan. And the Mitsubishi i MiEV was great, with decent body control, not-bad steering, and superb maneuverability.

Mitsubishi plans to sell this car in Japan by the end of this year for the equivalent of about $25,000. Would such a car play in Manhattan? A stylish young guy in a Mercedes-Benz E350 sedan rolled down his window and gave us the thumbs up. When told the price, he shrugged his shoulders. Another observer, a pedestrian, offered that “$25,000 isn’t that much; I spend that on partying sometimes.” Indeed.

At $25 grand, the i MiEV could never be positioned as a bargain economy car in the States. Instead, Mitsubishi would have to position it as an environmentally friendly alternative to the Smart and the Mini for people who want mobility in the city with minimum impact on the air. Mitsubishi claims that, even when the emissions created by electricity production are taken into account, electric vehicles emit only about 30 percent as much CO2 as gasoline-powered vehicles of comparable size. As for recharging the batteries, Mitsubishi PR flack Durand points out that the average 80-mile range is plentiful for most urban users, who spend lots of time in their cars but don’t actually drive that many miles in a given day.

What Mitsubishi ought to do is just bring us a gasoline-engine version of the i, which would offer all of the size advantages and urban maneuverability and still be quite economical and environmentally friendly. Then the company could consider offering the electric powertrain for those who want to spend the extra money for the statement it would make.


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