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Driven: Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Evan McCauslandphotographerDon Shermanwriter

In about a year, Mitsubishi will join the electric-car club by offering its i-MiEV city car to US consumers. The first 'i' in the name is a play on the Japanese word for 'love' and has been used on a conventional-powered mini (kei) car that debuted in 2003 and has been sold in Japan since 2006. The remainder of the name is an acronym for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle.

To pave a way to the hearts and minds of green enthusiasts, the i-MiEV has toured the auto show circuit for two years. It went on sale in Japan a year ago and about 2000 have so far been sold. To support city use, 167 quick-charging stations have been erected in the home market. Including subsidies provided by the government, the Japanese price is $30,700. Mitsubishi is hoping to sell the i-MiEV here for substantially less but no firm price has been announced. Sales are also planned for Europe next year.

The Egg and i
Ultracompact family sedans make perfect sense in highly congested environments, such as downtown Tokyo, and there's a class of them called kei cars (short for keijidosha, which means 'light automobile' in Japanese.) Half a dozen makers build them for the Japanese market with engine size restricted to 660cc with a strict 63 horsepower limit.

While this Mitsubishi's egg shape is the ideal container for four adult occupants and a bit of luggage, the sight of one on US roads -- especially in right-hand-drive trim and with the exterior decorated in full electric car regalia -- is cause for smiles, waves, and pointed fingers. This is one car that easily exceeds the US adult's daily entertainment needs.

Practical Interior
All the basic equipment for a comfortable city car is present and accounted for. Four doors provide ready access. The seats are chair-high, trimmed in serviceable if not luxurious cloth, and comfortable. The rear perches split, fold, and provide backrest-angle adjustment. The climate control and audio entertainment systems are perhaps less than you'd expect in a $30,000 automobile but perfectly acceptable for the quick trips this electric specializes in.

Two dials that resemble the ears of the instrument cluster's Mickey Mouse shape report what you need to know about driving range. The left one is an arc-shaped bar graph corresponding to the battery pack's state of charge. At its center is what looks like a gas pump with the hose and nozzle replaced by an electric cord and plug. To the right is a digital remaining-range gauge that combines recent driving history with the battery's state of charge to predict how many kilometers of driving you can expect before stopping to recharge the lithium-ion batteries.

The main Mickey face has a digital speedometer (in kilometers per hour) at its center surrounded by a wildly swinging power needle that ranges from Charge (during regenerative braking) on the left to Power (full acceleration) at the right. This dial is color-keyed with the usual red, yellow, and green markings to encourage prudent use of available energy. A small turtle symbol illuminates when battery state of charge falls below 5-percent. Driving instructions applicable to this eventuality state, 'Please get off the road and charge immediately.'

A standard floor shifter provides Park, Neutral, Reverse, and three forward driving options. The D position enables maximum acceleration. The Eco position restricts power use somewhat and increases the amount of regenerative braking. The B position combines maximum power availability with maximum regeneration.

Life in the Quiet Lane
Other than the usual seat-belt chimes and door-ajar reminders, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is virtually mute. The audible whir from the tires and driveline is quieter than the HVAC fan set at medium power. For sneaking out of the garage after hours or creeping up on unsuspecting pedestrians, this car cannot be beat. In fact, it would be prudent of Mitsubishi to add warning tones before US deliveries commence to avoid crushed pets and cross-walk collisions.

What's Under the Covers
Like the gasoline-powered Mitsubishi i-car upon which this pure electric is based, the propulsion hardware is located just ahead of the rear axle -- as in the standard 'mid-engine' format. There is a 63-hp permanent-magnet AC motor driving the 15-inch rear wheels through a single-speed final-drive unit. The battery pack consists of 88 lithium-ion cells wired in series (22 modules with 4 cells per module) to provide 330 volts of power and 16kWh of stored energy. The prismatic cells are made by Lithium Energy Japan, a 3-year-old joint venture between Mitsubishi and GS Yuasa.

A single power cord plugs into a connector located on the right-rear flank to recharge the batteries with your choice of 110 or 220-volt power. While Mitsubishi claims that a discharged battery can be topped off in 7 hours with 220-volt power, we found that optimistic by several hours. The claim with 110 volts is 14 hours. The wise owner will plug into 220 volts immediately after completing the daily commute. A flap on the left flank of the vehicle provides another electrical port to be used with quick-charge stations capable of reviving a battery pack to 80-percent charge in only 20 minutes.

Whot'll She Do?
Following a careful, complete charge of the batteries, we conducted a mix of suburban and highway driving to obtain an accurate idea of the i-MiEV's range. A log of speed, time, and distance was recorded during a 72-mile trip. A total of 38 miles were driven at an average of 63 mph (not including accelerating to speed or coasting to exit the freeway). The remaining 34 miles averaged 26 mph. While the turtle warning light never flashed, we rolled into our home-base garage with zero bars illuminated in the state-of-charge gauge and an ominous flashing gas-pump symbol. The bottom line: plan on about 70 miles of mixed city-highway driving or several miles more if operation is restricted to low-speed urban situations.

To accurately measure acceleration, top speed, and braking performance, we topped off the battery and drove a few miles to a nearby test course. The best run from rest to sixty mph required 13.3 seconds, distinguishing this car as one of the slowest accelerating vehicles on the road. Nonetheless, there's enough low speed response to avoid becoming a slow moving chicane.

Reaching the governed top speed of 81 mph required a bit over 30 seconds. Stopping this 2460-pound automobile consumed 182 feet of pavement; the standard ABS and 175/55VR-15 Dunlop SP Sport tires performed admirably.

Not an Astute Choice For Single-Vehicle Households
In the event you've got one empty bay in your three or four car garage and you could use a runabout for errands and around-town trips, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV could fill that void quite nicely. Its petite size and 100.4-inch wheelbase are just the ticket for slipping into and out of tight squeaks. The turn circle is tight enough that you can easily leave a normal driveway and head into traffic the right way. This will be a handy way for commuters to save expenses and, depending on the final price, a reasonable alternative to the Nissan Leaf.

Highway driving is another matter. While the i-MiEV can be used in a pinch for such purposes, it's constantly buffeted by traffic turbulence and threatened by huge trucks. In addition, it struggles staying on a straight path at cruising velocity. Maintaining momentum on grades requires frequent accelerator pedal adjustments and no cruise control is provided.

Get used to this story: some sacrifice in operating range and versatility in exchange for the low cost and lack of emissions associated with plugging in. As more production electrics reach market, they'll all be susceptible to varying degrees to these tradeoffs.


Price: $25,000 (estimated after government tax rebates)
Powertrain: Permanent magnet AC motor, single-speed final drive
Power: 63 horsepower from 3000 to 6000 rpm
Torque: 133 lb-ft from 0 to 2000 rpm
Drive: Rear-wheel

L x W x H: 133.7 x 58.1 x 63.4 in.
Interior dimensions NA
Curb Weight: 2460 lbs.
Effective operating range: 70-80 miles