When it goes on sale in late 2011, the battery-powered Mitsubishi i-MiEV will be entering an increasingly crowded segment of electric cars. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus BEV, Fiat 500 Electric and several other models are all expected to be in showrooms by then, offering consumers a wide choice of options. But if it's attention you’re after, none of those come close.
The i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) is so alien in appearance to American eyes that it could pass for one of those new animal species that keep popping up in the remote regions of Papua, New Guinea. Imagine a katydid that Mother Nature decided to cross-breed with a kidney bean and you get the idea. Chrome plate it and, in profile, the little bugger could pass for a miniature, motorized version of the Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. More than any other vehicle from a major manufacturer, is the visual incarnation of the utopian, electric future that we’ve been promised -- and threatened with -- all of these years.
Strange, then, to learn that the i-MiEV started life as simply the i, a conventional car powered by an old-fashioned internal combustion engine, albeit a very small one. The 5-door was designed to the specifications of Japan’s Kei-car class, which places severe restrictions on size and power in exchange for breaks on taxes and parking regulations. As of this writing, the only vehicle that is smaller than the i-MiEV in the United States is the Smart Fortwo, which – surprise, surprise -- will also be available in an electric version in the coming months.
Strip the 3-cylinder 660cc engine out of a Kei car, however, and you are left with an extremely light vehicle platform that offers the perfect template for an electric conversion, and the heavy lithium-ion batteries that come with it. In the i-MiEV, these take the form of a 16 kilowatt-hour (kWh) pack tucked under the floor, which powers a 63 hp electric motor located between the rear wheels.
That’s right, just like the Fortwo, or a Formula 1 car for that matter, the i-MiEV is rear-wheel drive, adding to its cool factor.
The tall roof of the otherwise mini Mitsubishi allows for upright seating, and four 6-footers fit fine, as long as they don’t need to stretch their legs. Relatively huge windows lend an airy feel to the cabin, and it’s only when someone sits next to you that you realize how narrow it is. In the Japanese market vehicle that I tested, the passenger is seated on the left as the steering wheel is on the right. This will change when the car emigrates to America, and the i-MiEV will also grow slightly in length and width to help it meet safety standards in its new homeland.
Since the i is a very cheap car – in the neighborhood of $12,000 if it were sold here – the interior of the current iteration of the i-MiEV follows suit in order to defray the costs of the electric powertrain. The shapes are stylish and soft, but all of the plastic that they are made of is rock hard, and the control layout remains simple, belying the high level technology that it communicates with.
It takes a close look at the instruments to notice that the fuel gauge is now a battery charge meter and the digital speedometer is semi-circumscribed by an arc that tracks instantaneous power usage. Next generation stuff this is not, but a touch-screen infotainment system will be standard on U.S. models, which will be priced “under $30,000” before a $7,500 federal tax credit and various state-level incentives that are available for the purchase of an electric vehicle.
Charging the i-MiEV takes about 14 hours on a 120v outlet, or half that time when plugged into a 240v power supply. There’s also a separate input for a commercial-grade fast charger that can fill the battery to 80 percent of its capacity in less than 30 minutes, but there aren’t too many of those around yet.
Topped off, Mitsubishi pegs the range of the i-MiEV at 80-100 miles, or as low as 60 mi on a bad day. This is par for the course in today’s world of grown-up golf carts and similar to Nissan’s claim for the Leaf. The difference is that the larger and heavier Nissan requires a 24 kWh pack to do it, while i-MiEV’s is the same size as the one in the partially battery-powered Chevy Volt, which can go only 25-50 miles per charge before its internal combustion engine kicks in to generate electricity for longer trips.
With 113-pound-ft of torque on tap as soon as you touch the accelerator, the 2,400-pound hatchback moves away smoothly and silently from a standstill. The smaller the car, the more you appreciate the experience of electric drive, as it eliminates the frantic revving and shifting usually associated with an econobox struggling to generate enough power to get up to speed. In the city -- where the i-MiEV is in its element –- it’s more than quick enough to keep up with the flow while you take advantage of its diminutive dimensions and nimble handling to peck your way through traffic. And, while its tires are likely smaller than the space-saving spare in your trunk, rough urban roads are disposed of without fuss.
Top speed is governed at 84 mph, but legal limits below that mark are easily achieved and sustained. Even on the highway, where wind and road noise usually rear their ugly heads, the i-MiEV remains noticeably quiet, despite the apparent scarcity of sound-deadening material in its featherweight doors.
Similar to hybrids, however, electric cars stretch their range better around town where regenerative braking systems are able to recapture a good portion of the energy that would be otherwise lost during the stopping part of stop and go traffic. In the i-MiEV, you can enhance this effect by switching from Drive to ECO mode, which cranks up the regen effect and dials the throttle back to about 80 percent, helping you to avoid wasting much of that energy in the first place. Pull the transmission selector one slot farther into B and it engages Brake mode, which restores full throttle but increases the regen even further, to the point where the actual brake pedal becomes much less important when you need to slow down.
Unfortunately, after a short run around Manhattan at what I thought was a moderate pace, the odometer indicated that we’d gone just 35 km, or 21 miles, but the battery charge meter was already flying at half-mast.
Cue the range anxiety.
By the time all of the bars were gone, the final tally was 46 miles. I didn’t push it any further, even though I’d been told that a little juice is held in reserve for emergencies. Still, I have a hard time believing that there was another 14 miles worth left in there, let alone enough to hit that 80-100 mile range.
I wanted to give it another go or two, as I know others have fared better with the same car, but I ran into another one of the harsh realities of electric vehicle ownership before I could. In New York City, where I live and work, there is currently only one public charging station. Not surprisingly, it was available when I arrived – regular online checks indicate that it usually is – but neither the attendants nor I could get it to work. Sadly, my third floor apartment is too far from the street to run an extension cord to the curb…as if that would still be there in the morning, anyway.
It’s a shame, because for an urban dweller like me the i-MiEV seems to be a literal perfect fit. If nothing else, I wish everyone else in town drove one so I wouldn’t have to put up with the sound of traffic going by my window all night long. As it stands, it seems to be better suited for driving into the city from a nice, quiet home in the suburbs where you can pull into the garage at night and plug it in, which is equally a shame.
If I owned one, I’d rather leave it out front. I could use the attention.
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Price (est.): Under $30,000
Type: 4-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Motor: permanent magnet A/C synchronous electric
Power: 63 hp, 133 lb-ft torque
Range (est.): 80-100 miles
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.