By Chris Haak
The conventional wisdom is that green cars such as hybrids and EVs have to look like something a little different from the standard three-box sedan if they hope to enjoy sales success. Accordingly, it explains why the Prius outsells the Camry Hybrid.
Well, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV certainly fits the bill of looking different. Technically, I suppose that it’s a one-box car, though in reality, it is far more ovoid and organically shaped to call it a box. It’s smaller than nearly everything on the road today, and will certainly attract attention wherever it goes. Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to drive an i-MiEV (Japan spec, right hand drive) at a media event, and I found the car to be a curious blend of the normal and abnormal as I tallied a few miles in the little EV.
Mitsubishi sells a kei car called the i in Japan and some other right hand drive markets. The i has a tiny 659 cc three cylinder mounted rear-midships, and has been reasonably well-received, thanks in large part to its efficiency and above-average packaging. The electric version of the i is called the i-MiEV in the right hand drive markets where it’s sold (where MiEV stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle), but since there’s no left hand drive i, and there are no plans to offer a conventional i in the US, the i-MiEV will simply be called the i when it hits the US market.
The US-spec i is not the same car as the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) i-MiEV; Mitsubishi showed the US-spec version of the car at the 2010 Los Angeles International Auto Show, and it was – unsurprisingly – larger and heavier than the version already on sale elsewhere in the world. The US-spec i will have more features, will be wider (and therefore handle directional changes better), and will be optimized to meet US safety standards.
But I actually drove this Japanese-spec version of the car prior to the US-spec i’s debut in Los Angeles, and I’m happy to note that it drove pretty well. The car that I drove was seemingly right off the boat from Japan, and had some curiosities that I’m not used to seeing in cars I drive in the US. For one, the steering wheel was on the right side rather than the left. This meant a bigger adjustment than one might expect, because the car’s pivot point during turns is much different (a left turn has the driver on the outside of the turn in a RHD car, while it has the driver on the inside of the turn in a normal LHD car). I adjusted to this different perspective rather quickly, and mercifully, the accelerator is still on the right and the brake is still on the left, so those two required no adjustment. The mental block that I had a lot of trouble overcoming, however, was that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering column in the i-MiEV, with the wiper switch on the right side. If only I had a dollar for every time I approached a turn and hit the wipers instead.
Another quick of the car’s Japanese focus was that all of the warning labels (for instance, on the sun visor) were printed in Japanese only. However, the controls were labeled in English, and the gauges had, of course, standard Arabic numbers on them. I did have to do a bit of mental math to discern my speed in miles per hour, since the speedometer displayed only km/h with no MPH subtitles.
The car’s interior is fairly spartan, with a lot of hard plastic on the dash and door panels. The seats are reasonably comfortable, and the controls are logically laid out. The car’s spartan nature meant that there really was no learning curve necessary in deciphering climate and audio controls. It’s good that the US i will have a body that’s more than four inches wider, because the hip room definitely suffers in this car because of its narrow body, and the extra width will also help with the car’s handling behavior. Visibility, thanks to the tall, upright profile and large glass area, is excellent in all directions. Plus, people in traffic tend to notice a white egg-shaped car with blue doors and a 15 inch tall red Mitsubishi log on each front door.
With low rolling resistance skinny tires, and and upright, narrow body, you can probably guess what the car’s handling behavior was like with a good degree of accuracy. There was more body roll than one would like to see, but helping that a bit is the fact that the weight of the lithium-ion battery packs is very low on the floor, keeping the car’s center of gravity close to the ground. The battery pack produces 330 volts and 16 kWh, and can charge reasonably quickly if given a high-voltage influx (specifically, 10-12 hours at 110 volts and 5-6 hours at 220 volts). In some markets, Mitsubishi sells a fast charger that can take the batteries from 0 to 80 percent in 20 minutes, which – if the infrastructure were there – could really help alleviate the range anxiety that Chevy is capitalizing on with its promotional message for the Volt.
Mitsubishi claims that the i-MiEV will travel about 75 miles on a single charge, which seems to be reasonably plausible given my experience with the car for about a quarter of that distance. I was heavy on the accelerator for portions of my drive, and the car responded with a nice dose of EV torque (63 horsepower and 133 lb-ft, motivating 2,376 pounds) that could keep up with most traffic in the US, and certainly city traffic.
There are three drive modes in the i-MiEV – D, Eco, and B. D(rive) felt very much like a normal car, though without the normal car soundtrack and no sensation of gear changes (it has a single-speed gearbox, as do many EVs). Eco is designed to preserve range and battery power as much as possible, but intrudes somewhat on the driving experience. Regenerative braking in Eco mode, even without touching the brake pedal, made the car nearly as annoying to drive as an early-production Mini E that I spent some seat time in about a year and a half ago. Finally, the B setting provided the most horsepower and regenerative braking. I preferred D.
In all fairness to the i-MiEV that I drove, it was not designed for what I was asking it to do: drive in America, surrounded by large American cars, and satisfy discerning American tastes. It lacks the gee-whiz technology experience that the Volt and Leaf give to its driver, and feels less substantial and valuable compared to those other cars as a result. Pricing hasn’t been announced (part of the answer to the pricing question depends upon dollar-yen exchange rates when the car’s late 2011 sale date approaches), but we were told to expect around $30,000 before the $7,500 Federal tax subsidy (which, of course, takes the price to about $22,500.) With the Nissan Leaf offering similar specs, but a nicer interior and perhaps a better brand name, the i will have its work cut out for it. It certainly helps that the i’s price undercuts the Leaf’s by about $3,000, but in terms of perceived value, the Leaf may be worth that price premium. Once we can get our mitts on a US-spec Mitsubishi i, we’ll know with greater certainty how this car will stack up against a growing set of competitors (don’t forget the Ford Focus EV coming in 2012 as well), but for now, the i’s advantages (at least, they can be considered advantages depending upon your perspective) are its shape, its price, and the fact that its technology has already been proven for a few years in overseas markets.
Mitsubishi knows that there is a lot of pressure on the three-diamond automaker to turn around its US operations, and a green halo car like the i certainly can’t hurt. The company has expectations for the i’s US sales, with a target of 20,000 units annually by 2015. Reaching that number will depend upon the number of competitors and the number of people willing to accept the compromises that these early EVs require of their owners, as well as how well the i meets the needs of potential buyers. Honda sold just 19,325 Insights through the first 11 months of 2010, so 20,000 i sales is not a given.
Overall, the i-MiEV was a nice effort that requires some coming adaptations to this market, but is certainly a real, viable car for anyone in the market for a new EV. There aren’t many choices out there at the moment, so it’s easy enough for an EV intender to test every one available, and in fact they should once the i hits Mitsubishi dealers.