By Rex Roy
Friday, Jul 29th, 2011 @ 11:45 am
 
Being green sounds like such fun, doesn't it?

You read stories about forward thinkers who run their diesel pickups on used French fry oil. Cue the jokes about the exhaust smell of making pedestrians hungry.

Maybe there's somebody in your neighborhood who brews his own bio diesel. Local news stations love hyping these stories. Expect a claim that he hasn't paid to fuel his 1970s vintage Mercedes diesel for years.

Electric vehicle proponents are equally hopeful. Somebody at a cook out happily spouts off about how they want their next car to be charged by solar panels on their garage. Campfire smiles spread all around.

Unfortunately, being green is more work and involves more compromises than most people are willing to deal with.

The guys running on used cooking oil or home-brewed diesel; ask them if their vehicle runs at 0° F or even at freezing. Ask for pictures of what the grease filter looks like after a feed-stock run (yuck!). And while that Benz might have been state of the art in the '70s, not may people want a daily driver that time has left behind. Also, the problem with the campfire solar-charging scenario is that it would take a warehouse roof full of cells to give a modern EV a single errand's worth of energy during several hours of parking.

If being green were fun, practical, cost effective and easy, everybody would already be green, including drivers.

Green compromise
Boasting an average range of 62 miles between charges, the 2012 Mitsubishi i is yet another example of what this author calls the green compromise.

However, it is much less of a compromise than past green experiments. And frankly, the unique-to-North-America $27,990 i requires so few compromises that it may hasten the shift-to-EV tipping point for many drivers. Especially drivers who aren't particularly enamored with driving in the first place.

If you're not familiar with the i-MiEV, it's based on Mitsubishi's popular keijidosha segment i five-door hatchback. The tiny sedan began its production run with back in 2006 with internal combustion power, and continues to be sold with normally aspirated and turbocharged powertrains. Since July 2009, the fully electric i-MiEV version has also been available in Japan.

The North American 2012 i looks similar to the JDM and new European versions, but not identical. Ours is more substantial.

Too make room for the girth of super-sized Americans, our i grew more than four inches of track. The extra room was put to practical use inside, where the added volume makes the interior feel downright commodious. All versions of the i share the same seat-to-dash relationship, so our extra room is spread out between the doors and the outside edges of the seats.

Without a wheelbase stretch, the North American i measures nine inches longer than the JDM version. Tacked on to the nose and tail, the extra space accommodates the crash structure necessary to meet our regulations.

Surprisingly, even with expanded dimensions, the i still weighs only 2,500 lbs. Furthermore, our i's visual proportions are less top heavy and seem to have better feng shui than the skinnier JDM car.

The i's interior is straightforward and strictly a four-seater. Even though the North American interior is wider, many components are shared between vehicles sold on different continents. For example, the instrument panel is common for all left-hand-drive markets, but the assembly is too narrow for our car. The extra width of the North American car is filled by a tiered bottom layer that looks completely intentional (look at the base of the A-pillars). Very clever.

Driver controls are all straight forward. There's no flashy wizardry. Everything works as intended, however the LCD instrumentation sometimes washes out in direct sunlight. Our time behind the wheel was too short to evaluate the long-range comfort of the seats, but given the i's limited range between charges, driver fatigue shouldn't be an issue.

While the rear seat is a bench, what could be a small fifth middle seat is festooned with a hard plastic logo that discourages occupation but will be welcomed by big hipped passengers.

Split folding rear seat backs expand the car's cargo volume on demand. Opening the hatch reveals a shallow trunk. It's not a deeper space because the i's powertrain is rear-mounted like the Smart ForTwo. The compact motor and single-speed reduction gearbox occupy a space under the trunk's flat load floor.

Green performance
A total of 88 lithium-ion batteries provide juice to the motor. The steel-encased batteries are integrated into the i's floor structure below the passenger compartment and hold 16 kW hours of electrons at full charge. In contrast to the Chevrolet Volt's complex liquid cooling system, the i's batteries are air cooled via dedicated ducts from the EV's climate control system. Curiously, the i and the Volt have similar storage capacities (the Leaf's is 24 kWh), but the lighter and more basic Mitsu can drive twice as far on battery power alone. (Of course the Volt has the range extender, so this point is purely academic.)

The i's batteries are protected from impact by the car's unibody and have been sealed against water and dust infiltration. The latter quality is critical to battery longevity, a genuine concern given the i's 8-year/100,000-mile battery warranty and the stupid things drivers are known to try.

Close inspection of the exterior reveals a removable panel up front; one could hesitate to call it the "hood" because there are no hinges or prop. Don't expect a dip stick under the polymer panel. The space is crowded with access to the fuse blocks and relays, the air conditioning and the cooling systems plus the brake and washer fluid reservoirs. As for why an EV requires coolant, the i's three-phase AC motor uses liquid cooling to prevent overheating as the motor transforms electrons juice into rotational torque (145 lb-ft. From 0-3,000 rpm) and horsepower (66 ponies from 3,000-6,000 rpm).

After driving the turbocharged version of the i, we fully expected the EV versions to be slower. Chalk it up to traditional powertrain noises and the excitement of gearshifts, but we were dead wrong. Even though the i EV took about 15 seconds to hit 60 mph, it was car lengths ahead of the internal combustion model - and it was still pulling away.

The only consolation prize for the turbo car was its higher top speed. The North American i tops out at around 80 mph. We saw 81 in our pre-production tester.

So the i is slow. Painfully so. However, in crowded city environs where traffic flows in the 35-50 mph range, nobody will complain. The electric motor's torque is always on the ready.

As expected, the i stops just fine even with drum brakes in the rear. Given that the motor is assisting in slowing the rear wheels due to regenerative braking, cost-effective (cheaper) drums aren't really a compromise in this application.

The i EV uses some braking system components from the internal combustion i. This is surprising since an electric drive motor doesn't create vacuum to boost the brakes. Cleverly solving the problem, Mitsubishi uses an auxiliary electric motor to power a pump for brake boosting duties.

One of the trickiest tuning duties for engineers of EVs and hybrids is to manage the transition between regenerative braking and physical braking. Mitsubishi engineers nailed this specific driving dynamic. Braking effort is progressive and seamless.

Lack of speed or braking power isn't what kills the i's fun-to-drive quotient. It's the handling.

The i understeers like 20 year old Toyota Camry with bald tires, shot bushings and worn out front struts. Blame the car's staggered tire fitment; 145/65R15 all-season tires in front and 175/65R15s in back. Tossing the i into a corner elicits a resentful change in direction punctuated by protesting tire squeal.
If one reflects on the i's target market and expected use, Mitsubishi probably tuned the suspension just fine. Nobody but automotive journalists and readers of automotive journalists will care about the i's lackadaisical handling.

Drivers inclined to love the i will enjoy the little car's comfortable ride. They'll even remark at how nicely it handles broken pavement and smaller potholes. They'll also comment on how refined it feels because they're unconsciously noting the lack of traditional powertrain noise and the absence of jerky gearshifts. If you wanted to like the Smart but hated how it drove, you're in for a treat with the I.

The EPA tells us to expect 62 miles between charges. This point, in particular, highlights this article's premise; that today, being green requires living with compromises.

Technical progress, however, has reduced the severity of the i's compromise (inconvenience compared to a traditional car with an internal combustion engine) to a level that's palatable for many. Given the i's expected annual fuel costs are $10,000 lower for 15,000 miles than an average sedan, perhaps the range issue isn't a real compromise at all.

If you're smitten with the idea of being a greener driver, you'll want to know that the i comes equipped to accept 120- and 240-volt charging. An optional fast charge 400-volt connection can pump dead batteries to 80 percent in just 30 minutes. Given the planned proliferation of these high-voltage units, this option makes sense to us.

Retail sales are expected to begin in January at a price that undercuts the Nissan Leaf by more than $5,000. And greenies everywhere rejoiced.


Leftlane's bottom line
Gearheads who will miss the Evo when it's gone are already thinking about how to fit another powertrain in the i's nose, giving it a square tire fitment, and bumping up the size of the motor in the rear. Some things will never change, even when the world's gone green.

2012 Mitsubishi i base price, $27,990.

Words and photos by Rex Roy.

Rex Roy is a Leftlane contributor and author based in Detroit. He can be reached at RexRoy.net