By Larry E. Hall
Consumers who have an interest in pure electric cars are faced with two big bumps on the road to buying one. First, a limited selection—seven models, depending on region—and second, EVs are expensive. Unless you are a member of the “HENRY” club—High Earner Not Rich Yet—you can forget about purchasing a Tesla Model S ($57,400 to $105,400) or leasing the BMW ActiveE (24 month lease only: $2,259 down, $499 a month, $14,226 and you can’t keep the car). More reasonably priced, relatively speaking, is the Ford Focus Electric ($39,200) and Nissan’s Leaf ($35,200).
Yes, the above prices can be reduced by up to $7,500 with a federal tax credit plus various state tax credits, if available. But even with maximum credits, e-rides are still pricey, especially when their limited driving range is factored in. If the cost has kept you from jumping on the electric car bandwagon, there’s a new offering that might persuade you.
Say hi to the i, the i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle). Starting at $29,125 before incentives, Mitsubishi has positioned the i-MiEV as the value-priced choice for an all-electric car. With a look straight out of a comic book, the little egg-shaped four-door hatchback can seat four adults—really—and has an EPA estimated driving range of 62 miles with a top speed of 81 mph. While its design will surely turn heads and elicit smiles, the i-MiEV has earned some notable accolades. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Fuel Economy Guide lists the i-MiEV as the most fuel-efficient vehicle sold in the United States with a rating of 125 city and 99 highway for a combined 112 miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent (MPGe). Additionally, the 2012 Greenest Vehicle List published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranked the i-MiEV the greenest car on the road, placing it ahead of the Civic Natural Gas, which had won the category the previous eight years in a row.
Beneath The Cartoonist Body
The i-MiEV began as a gasoline-powered Mitsubishi i model in 2006 and is classified as a kei (“light vehicle”) car in Japan, a category of small vehicles that receives tax and other incentives. The i layout is rear-wheel drive with a “rear-midship” engine placed just in front of the rear axle, an unusual design in a small car where front-engine, front-wheel drive has prevailed since the 1970s. Like other mid- or rear-engined vehicles, its fifteen-inch wheels have uneven-sized tires—P145/60R (5.7-inches wide) on the front and wider 175/60s (6.9-inches wide) at the rear—to minimize oversteer caused by the rear-biased weight distribution.
Based on the i, Mitsubishi launched the electric i-MiEV to fleet customers in Japan in 2009 and to the wider public in 2010. European deliveries also began in 2010 and in December 2011, the first 2012 models arrived in the U.S.
To make the i-MiEV more appealing to American preferences and meet U.S. crash standards, Mitsubishi lengthened the Japanese and Euro version by 11 inches, increased the width by four inches and nudged the height by a half an inch. In comparison, it is three feet longer than a Smart FourTwo Electric and more than two feet shorter than the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric.
To convert the gas powered i to an EV, an electric motor replaces the gasoline engine above the rear axle and a battery pack is placed beneath the floor along with a motor control unit. Directing the power to rear wheels is a simple, single-speed fixed reduction transmission that replaces the four-speed automatic.
The water-cooled alternating current, 49-kilowatt synchronous permanent magnetic motor generates a modest 66 horsepower and a more generous 145 pound-feet of torque. Power output may seem a bit light compared to other EVs, but so is the car, tipping the scales at a petite 2,579 pounds. This helps give the car its 62-mile driving range—if you’re easy on the go pedal.
Feeding the motor is a 330-volt, 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Recharging the battery when empty takes about 22 hours using a 120-volt household outlet. The time can be reduced to just seven hours with an upgraded 240-volt Level 2 home recharging unit. And, if there is Level 3 480-volt quick-charging station in the area, an optional quick charge package gets the battery from discharged to 80 percent full in 30 minutes.
The drive system has three driving modes, “D,” “Eco” and “B.” Provided by the gear selector, each is intended to produce the best performance for different driving circumstances. D Mode is the default position and is best utilized on highways and interstates. The Eco mode limits the motor’s output to increase the range of a single charge and the decline in performance in quite noticeable. B mode adds more regenerative braking when the car is coasting to a stop or braking on downhill stretches to more aggressively recharge the battery.
The Cartoon Appearance
My reference to the i-MiEV’s cartoon styling is a term of endearment, not a criticism. Some may look at it as a glorified golf car or an egg-on-wheels. For me, I love the way it makes me smile when I look at it. How many cars can do that?
It starts with elongated headlights—nearly the size of its 15-inch wheels—that flank both sides of a quick falling, stubby hood. Below is a bulbous front bumper with a smile-like intake opening.
The silhouette of this perky little four-door begins in a sweeping arc from the front bumper, continues up the sharply raked windshield and flows to the rear hatch, where it abruptly ends in tall vertical taillights. The arc returns to the front along the underside of the rear doors to the front wheel arches, completing the i-MiEV’s egg shape profile.
Inside, Not So Whimsical
While the i’s exterior is a barrel full of giggles, inside the smiles begin to fade. The interior is rather pedestrian with few creature comforts. There’s no soft-touch materials, center armrest or rear cupholders. As for the gee-whiz stuff, via the unwieldy key fob, the owner can remotely warm or cool the interior while the car is still on grid power, But unlike other EVs and plug-ins, the little Mitsubishi doesn’t have built-in cellular connectivity that can accomplish that function from anywhere by means of smart phone applications and websites.
The i-MiEV does, however, have the bare necessities. Standard equipment, regardless of trim level, includes remote keyless entry; power windows, locks and side mirrors; air-conditioning; a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and an auxiliary jack for iPod connectivity: and a 50/50-split rear seats that fold and recline. Also included is a height-adjustable heated driver’s seat—the front passenger has to make do with a cold derrière on chilly days.
A simple gauge cluster has a centered digital speedometer surrounded half way by an Eco Meter that gives real time feedback—how hard are you accelerating or braking. To the right is a small round gauge with odometer and trip readouts, on the left a battery distance-to-empty readout is similar to a fuel gauge on a gasoline powered car. Controls on the center console are logically placed and knobs for the climate control are the large, easy to operate kind.
The car’s size suggests otherwise, but the i-MiEV easily seats four adults, including tall people, though its narrow width means there’s some touching. Cargo capacity is 13.2 cubic behind the rear seats, 50.4 cubic feet with the seats folded.
A step up from the base ES model to the SE ($31,125 before incentives) adds upgraded seat fabric, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an eight-speaker audio system, fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Both models offer a $700 Quick Charge Package that adds a DC quick charge port, battery warming system and heated outside mirrors. Available on the SE only is a $2,790 Premium Package that includes the Quick Charge features plus a hard-drive-based navigation system, Mitsubishi’s Fuse hands-free link system, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a rearview camera. Of note for the information obsessed, the navigation system does not have a graphic display of the electric powertrain’s operating system.
The i-MiEV has all of the required safety features—six airbags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability and traction control systems. While the i offers the lowest price among electric cars and best fuel economy in the U.S., recent National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests shows the little Mitsu falls short in safety ratings compared to its main competitor, the Nissan Leaf.
Behind The Steering Wheel
Mitsubishi wants the i-MiEV juiced and ready to go for reviewers, so the little EV arrived by truck at our office. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of vehicles in the press fleet and our driving time was limited to just three days.
Planning ahead, we had mapped out the first day of driving that included errands in downtown Olympia, Wash., a stop at a shopping mall several miles away and returning via the freeway for a total of 48 miles.
Starting out in D mode, the instant torque response from the electric motor scoots the i-MiEV off the line quickly enough for the car’s intended earth-saving mission of commuting duties, but the single-gear transmission means that acceleration tapers off rapidly at around 25 mph. Audible motor whine is quite noticeable under load, but at constant speed it just whizzes along in an almost unaudible way.
After 10 miles, we moved the shift lever to Eco mode. Mitsubishi says the time from 0 to 60 mph takes 13 seconds. In Eco, you can add about four seconds, and when the speed reaches that 25 mph mark, forward motion seems almost glacial. But hey, we were saving electrons and blended well with city traffic.
Thanks to a relatively tall driving position and large windows, the driver’s view of the surroundings is excellent. The i’s body is screwed on tight and there were no squeaks or rattles. The ride comfort is reminiscent of an early 1990’s economy car—a fairly smooth feel on good pavement that turns jumpy when the road gets uneven. The rear suspension will certainly let you know when you connect with an unseen pothole, especially for back seat passengers.
We found the narrow body made it easy to thread through small gaps in traffic while the short length permitted squeezing into small parallel parking spots.
With some unused electrons from day one, an 18-hour overnight charge from a standard 110-volt outlet brought the battery charge gauge to full. For day two, the plan was to operate the car in the B mode as much as possible to see if we could extend the driving range. Hypermilers take note: We drove 69 miles and still had 12 miles of driving range when we pulled into the driveway.
Selecting (downshifting?) B from either the D or Eco position brings an abrupt slowing, but the charge needle goes bonkers. It takes a while to learn, but with the right foot on the accelerator and the left foot modulating the brake, it’s possible to keep up with slow, in-town traffic for several miles. The hardest part to master was acceleration; it is noticeably quicker in B than the other selections.
For day three, we arranged to meet the truck 18 miles from our office to get some freeway miles on the clock. We quickly learned on the first day that merging into fast moving traffic in Eco is not a wise choice. But even in D, when the 18-wheeler in the left side mirror obviously has a light load, getting up to speed seems an eternity.
Mitsubishi’s published top speed of 81 mph shouldn’t be taken as a target, but more an assurance that you can reach and maintain 65-70 mph if your regular route includes a few miles of freeway or interstate. Do note that higher speeds quickly draws juice from the battery, especially if the route has hills, as mine did. When I pulled into the parking lot that driving range had diminished to 33 miles.
The EV For You?
If you want a battery-electric car and a 62-mile driving range works for you, the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV ES is the cheapest game in town at $31,125 before incentives. However to insure that you have the maximum driving range everyday, i-MiEV, or any other plug-in vehicle require a 240-volt home recharging unit. So, add perhaps another $2,000 to $4,000, or more if major electrical work is required.
Bear in mind that this is an economy subcompact car and will ride and handle like one. If road surfaces are generally rough where you live, the satisfaction of driving emissions free could quickly get old. Also, if you absolutely must be connected while driving, forget about the i-MiEV.
If you think the features on the uplevel SE model are more of what you want, you should compare it to the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf’s base price of $35,200 is just $435 more and it has a longer driving range, can seat five and has wireless connectivity for smart phone apps.
Our take is, if we still lived in Seattle we wouldn’t hesitate to open the checkbook for an i-MiEV ES. It delivers more than enough driving range for my wife’s former magazine editing job and for the daily errands that an average couple makes throughout the week.
The statement this car makes is, electric vehicles are ready for the world, but is the world ready for electric vehicles?
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.