You've got to wonder what's going on at Mitsubishi. An automaker that once had a lineup of thoroughly competent – and even class-leading – new cars and trucks barely registers a blip on most shoppers' radar these days.
But the company is hopeful that this quirky, grinning vehicle you see here – the first volume production-intent electric car it has offered in our market – will help improve its fortunes.
On the face of things, the i-MiEV is a mixed bag. Its low-spec versions are undeniably cheap, while its EPA efficiency estimate of 112 mpg-e puts it at the top of its class among EVs available in all 50 states. On the other hand, a loaded-up model like our tester runs about $1,300 less than the vastly more substantial Nissan Leaf, a vehicle that hasn't exactly been a success in the marketplace. Is there really room for the i-MiEV?
We plugged ourselves into an i-MiEV to see just what it offers for Mitsubishi – and the industry.What is it?
Based on the Japanese market Mitsubishi i that went on sale all the way back in 2006, the i-MiEV is essentially a “Kei” car with an electric powertrain. In Japan, Kei cars – which aren't related to Chrysler's, uh, reliant efforts – are narrow vehicles with small engines that merit their own low tax class. As such, they feel rather out of place on any street wider than your arm-span, so the i-MiEV was stretched in every direction to be more appealing here. Still, the i-MiEV is absolutely as small as it looks, which might make it a boon for urbanites looking for zero emissions manueverability.
Tucked under the rear-wheel-drive i-MiEV's rear cargo floor area is a 66 horsepower, 145 lb-ft. of torque electric motor, while a 16 kWh lithium ion battery sits below the passenger compartment.
i-MiEV can be charged three ways: A standard 120V household outlet takes 22 hours, an optional 240V home charger trims that to 7 hours, while a CHAdeMO level three system like you'll find at some public chargers will top off 80 percent of the battery in half an hour. The CHAdeMO port is optional.
Two i-MiEVs are on offer, the base ES and our SE tester, which adds a more powerful audio system, alloy wheels and a few interior goodies. A $2,790 Premium Package further spiced up our tester with navigation, Bluetooth and the CHAdeMO port.
Like other plug-in vehicles, the i-MiEV currently qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Some states and municipalities will tack on further credits and rebates.What's it up against?
If you live in Middle America, the i-MiEV's only real rival is the Nissan Leaf, which costs a few grand more than a base i-MiEV but, as we said before, is nearly a wash compared to our loaded up i-MiEV.
Mama always said that if you don't have anything nice to say... keep your lips sealed.
Well, there are a few positives we can say about the i-MiEV's styling since this egg-shaped Kei car on American 'roids isn't really much of a looker. Decidedly different, its geeky proportions seem better suited to golf cart communities in Florida than the highways and byways of the rest of the country.And on the inside?
We haven't spent any time in the Japanese-market i-MiEV, but Mitsubishi assures us that its cabin was thoroughly upgraded for our market. Let's put it this way – the Kei car sold overseas is clearly not notable for its design or materials inside or out.
An odd mix of brown and black surfaces does give the i-MiEV more interior flair than we expected, while excellent packaging provides more head and leg room than the exterior proportions might suggest. Still, this is a narrow vehicle, and the lack of a substantial center console means that drivers and passengers will find themselves periodically rubbing elbows and shoulders. Second row space is even more limited, though one look at the featureless bench back there would be enough to make most passengers hail a taxicab. At least space behind the second row is plentiful given the i-MiEV's tiny footprint.
The dashboard itself is simple and generally logically arrayed. Befitting its heritage as a vehicle not designed for us, the i-MiEV's flip-out cupholders that are so conveniently located near the air vents are good for cans and small drinks only.
Commanding attention at the top of the dashboard is the same touch-screen navigation system used in other Mitsubishis. It's not hard to sort through its menus, but the graphics feel like they're a decade old and the lack of a volume knob is a continual frustration. Adding to the circa 2002 tech quotient is a key fob remote that can be used to pick charging times and pre-air condition the i-MiEV. while it came in handy, its rudimentary dispaly and extendable antenna made us first giggle and then emit a sad sigh.
Aside from nice leather wrapping the excellent three-spoke steering wheel and gear lever, materials are budget grade throughout.But does it go?
In terms of performance, EVs deliver one serious advantage: Instantaneous torque. The 145 lb-ft. available as soon as the skinny pedal is depressed won't squeal the rear tires, but it does provide satisfying immediate acceleration.
Sending power to those rear wheels is a single, fixed-reduction gear transmission, which would almost act like an on/off switch if not for excellent tuning of the throttle. Unlike early EVs, the i-MiEV is devoid of any jerkiness.
i-MiEV's low, 2,600 lbs. curb weight helps it make the most of the available power. Even with the air conditioning system cranked up to combat an especially hot spell during our testing period, the little runabout didn't struggle to keep up with traffic. On the highway, however, its tall and still relatively narrow shape gave it an unnerving feel that had us sticking at – or below – the posted speed limit.
But what the i-MiEV is really about is zero emissions urban driving. At slower speeds and in heavy traffic, it comes into its own, where fast if feedback-free steering gives it an uncannily nimble feel absent in the more ponderous Leaf. Its simple MacPherson strut/three-link suspension setup provided a stiff but ultimately compliant ride over rutted terrain.
Tossed into a corner, the i-MiEV quickly became unsettled with its narrow 15-inch Dunlop Ensave low rolling resistance tires wailing more than Motown. At least braking was a low-drama affair thanks to the well-integrated regenerative system that adds a little charge to the battery with each tap.
The EPA's 112 mpg-e rating might imply that the i-MiEV can travel 112 miles on as much charge as is equivalent to a gallon of gas, but the little car's battery only holds a 62 mile range. That means that i-MiEV isn't very costly to recharge, but its range restricts it to very short trips. Highway speeds are enough to very quickly eat into i-MiEV's range. We found ourselves very delicately driving home after a 15 mile highway jaunt ate over half our i-MiEV's estimated remaining range. But around town at lower speeds where the motor was working less, the 62 mile figure seemed more achievable.
Leftlane's bottom line
Frankly, we would be hard-pressed to recommend the i-MiEV to anyone. Its design, execution and specifications are a generation behind the latest crop of EVs, which offer a greater driving range and a far more grown-up feel for not much more money.
The i-MiEV might make some sense as a low-spec fleet vehicle for certain urban commercial users, but that's a limited market that won't keep Mitsubishi afloat in the U.S.
The i-MiEV shines for its powertrain refinement, but that technology could be better served in a different platform than the cheeky, yet generally undesirable i-MiEV.2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV SE base price, $31,125. As tested, $34,920
Premium Package, $2,790; Cargo Package, $100; Wheel locks, $55; Destination, $850.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.