I grew up reading about Japan's microscopic Kei-class cars, but never did I think an automaker would actually bring one to our shores. Lo and behold, Mitsubishi has: its gasoline-powered, jellybean-shaped i may not be sold here, but the electric-powered version -- the i MiEV, or i Powered by MiEV as it's formally known here -- has officially joined Mitsubishi's shrinking North American portfolio.
North American-spec i models ride on the same 100.4" wheelbase as their Japanese counterparts, but are about a foot longer overall and four inches wider. That's not big, but the space within is well sorted. Despite being only an inch wider than the Smart ForTwo, there's a surprising amount of shoulder- and headroom.
To me, the biggest disappointment is in terms of suspension tuning. I drove a Japanese-spec i MiEV last year, and was amused with its agility and balance. The new i doesn't feel as fun: there's more body roll than I recall in the Japanese-market car, and it feels as if the rear continues to push even after you've dialed in steering. The SE's two-tone dash looks nice, but emitted a few squeaks and rattles over hard bumps, and the plastic surrounding the radio head unit looks tacky. I'm also not impressed with the door armrests; the circular design is spiffy, but they fall about three inches shy of actually being where my arms and elbows naturally fall.
Another oddity: our tester came with an ungainly keyfob that looked like the offspring of an 80's Walkman and a Tamagotchi. This control is the only means of scheduling charging start times or initiating cabin pre-heating and cooling functions. Unlike other EVs that provide this sort of control via a smartphone-based app, Mitsubishi's controller requires you to be within range of the car.
Mitsubishi cites the i's MSRP- presently the lowest-cost EV available in the U.S. -- as a selling point. That's fine, but I think even at the pre-tax price of $29,000 ($31,125 for an i SE like our tester), you're asking buyers to make a big adjustment to adopt an i. The 2012 Nissan Leaf may be about $4000 more than this test car, but it boasts more room, more range, and a longer list of standard equipment (navigation, heated front and rear seats, and cruise control). Ford's forthcoming Focus Electric promises the same. The size and sophistication of both models may prove problematic for the Mitsubishi, despite its EV's low price.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The Mitsubishi i is one odd-looking vehicle -- tall and egg-shaped, it seemed to tower over the more pedestrian sedans it was parked next to in the garage. However, although it looks odd, operating it is pretty much like driving a gas-powered car, in that all you have to do is power it on, put it in gear, and press the accelerator. There are three drive modes available: "D" is the normal mode; "Eco" reduces power output and increases regenerative braking, thereby conserving energy; and "B" provides the same amount of power as "D" under acceleration but increases the regenerative braking. For the most part, I left it in D, although I did play around with all three settings. The regenerative braking is especially noticeable in B, as it instantly kicks in the moment you lift your foot off the accelerator pedal. I wouldn't use it in heavy traffic, as it seems like an invitation to a rear-end collision. Interestingly, the "fuel" gauge looks just like one on a gas-powered car. When fully charged, the fuel bar is fully lit, and as you consume energy the lighted bar gets smaller. There's no indication of how many miles of range you have remaining, which seems like it could be problematic.
The battery was fully charged when I got into the car for my evening commute, which is only about 12 miles, so even though it was quite cold and I had to turn on the climate control (which consumes a fair amount of power), I wasn't worried about range. As with all electric cars, the Mitsubishi i accelerates smoothly and swiftly from a stop, with lots of torque instantly available at very low speeds. The interior is quite spacious - lots of headroom thanks to the car's very high profile, and rear seats that fold flat to create a good-sized cargo area that can be accessed through the rear hatch. Unfortunately, there's also a good-sized blind spot, which I blame for the fact that I twice almost changed lanes right into another vehicle. A blind-spot warning system would definitely come in handy with this car.
When I pulled into the parking garage the next day, I immediately headed for the spot that's reserved for electric vehicles and pulled in nose first. Too bad I didn't realize that the cord wasn't long enough to reach the charging port located in the rear of the vehicle.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I live closest to the office of all the editors at Automobile, so in theory I'm the best candidate for an electric car like this one. And indeed, I was able to drive home and run my usual weekday errands with almost no concern for battery range. I didn't even plug it in to my house at night. With a five-mile commute why bother? A car like this would satisfy 95 percent of my transportation needs. But then, so does a bicycle. And that's the catch. For more than $30,000, the i (and the Nissan Leaf) can't perform the trips for which I actually need a car, like driving to the east coast to visit family or even heading out to a mall in the Detroit suburbs. It doesn't help that the i is not at all a car I'd want to drive. Mind you, it's not terrible -- acceleration, braking, and handling are on par with a decent subcompact -- but not anything that would get me behind the wheel just for the pleasure of the experience. The positively depressing interior hardly helps matters.
All this explains why plug-in hybrids like the new $30,760 Prius plug-in and the $39,995 Chevrolet Volt make so much more sense at this juncture. Beyond the fact that both are much more pleasurable, richer-feeling vehicles, they achieve the same fuel savings around town as an electric-only vehicle while offering the long-distance utility Americans have come to expect from car ownership. I hate to bash a forward-thinking concept -- the battery-powered car is a great idea that may someday wean us completely off oil -- but right now it's just a concept and not a smart transportation choice.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor