Black Bean
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Test Driving the Mitsubishi i (MiEV)

December 27, 2011

Mark D Larsen

I have been following news about the Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car for over five years now, long before Nissan announced that they were going to produce the Leaf. I was genuinely interested in the iMiEV, and sent no less than five letters to Mitsubishi’s headquarters in Cypress, CA, to encourage them to bring the vehicle to this country. The vehicle was launched in July 2009 in Japan, with the first models going to fleet customers, and then to private owners starting in April 2010. Ordering was next opened in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, then other European countries —although many of the latter units are relabeled and sold as the Peugot iOn and the Citroën c-Zero. As of October 2011, estimates tallied at least 17,000 iMiEVs sold worldwide, the largest number of modern EVs produced by an OEM. It is likely, however, that the Nissan Leaf has now overtaken that total.

Window Dressing
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The USA is at the tail end of the rollout, primarily because Mitsubishi had to reconfigure a left-hand drive version, slightly enlarge the vehicle's dimensions, and inflate its front and rear bumpers to adhere to the particular safety standards in this country. Last April, Mitsubishi started taking deposits for the newly christened “i” (MiEV), projecting a base price of $27,990, but in September announced that the definitive price would be $29,125. That is $6,000 less that the current 2012 price of the Leaf, making the “i” the least expensive EV currently available. It is also the most energy efficiency vehicle on the market according to the EPA, which estimates its combined fuel economy at 112 MPGe, as shown in the window sticker to the right.

Mitsubishi has apparently chosen to market the i by combining the strategies used to date by GM (with its Chevy Volt) and Nissan (with its Leaf). Like the latter, customers can reserve an i via the internet at the link provided at the top of this page. Like the former, however, Mitsubishi is also distributing demo models to its dealers for customers to test drive and order directly. The demos will not arrive in Utah dealerships until mid-2012, but since we planned on spending the holidays in California, where deliveries began in December, I contacted the dealer in Fairfield, not far from my in-laws’ home in Lincoln, to arrange a test drive. Although I am still waiting to order a Leaf, I figured that I should keep my options open. After all, unlike many EV aficionados, I really like the funky look of the i. No harm in checking out the other alternatives before taking the plunge.

Tamara, her father, and I arrived at Millenium Mitsubishi in the early afternoon at the time of our appointment. I found it disconcerting that most of the dealership personnel knew very little about the i. In fact, nobody was even sure where their two demos were located. We finally found one of them, a black model, around the side of the building where they had mounted its Eaton EVSE on the outside wall. We never did find the second demo, which was unfortunate, because it was supposedly the white color I would prefer for an EV since we live in a hot desert climate.

It was also disconcerting that the black demo was still in the same shape as when unloaded from the transport carrier, with white protective coverings on a couple of the wheels, the others missing their hubcaps, the floormats and charging cable tossed haphazardly around inside the vehicle, plastic still covering the upholstery, and the rear seats folded down. Still, the dealer was willing to let us take the vehicle for a test drive, but only around the connected parking lots in the auto mall, because they didn't even have a demo plate for the vehicle to take it onto the surrounding streets.

We relocated the sundry accessories to the trunk area, set the reat seats back up, and got in the vehicle to check out the interior. As one might expect for an entry-level vehicle, the i has few bells-and-whistles. You can see in the photo below on the left that the climate control consists of three fairly standard round knobs for temperature, fan/AC, and air recirculation. The stereo/CD player is on the top, but I never managed to find where or how one could connect an MP3 player like at iPod, nor did it appear possible to synch a bluetooth cell with the vehicle for hands free calling. Of course, this was a base ES model, not the more elaborate SE model, so perhaps the latter boasts such luxuries.

Minimal Console Consolation
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Shifty Character
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The photo on the right above shows the i’s shifter, located between the front seats in the usual position for most minivans. The shift pattern should also seem familiar to most drivers, except that it shows “Eco” (instead of 2nd gear) and “B” (instead of 1st). This placement makes sense, since those drive modes function somewhat like the lower gears in an automatic transmission. Eco reduces the amount of power pulled from the battery pack when accelerating and increases the amount of regenerative braking when descelerating. The B setting increases the latter even more, for use when coasting downhill without riding the brakes.

I tried shifting into those different positions while test driving the i, as you might notice in the following video. Since we were only cruising around some empty parking lots, I didn't have a chance to truly floor the vehicle, and thus couldn't tell much difference between the D and Eco modes. I could tell that the vehicle slowed down more quickly in the B position without having to use the brakes. I must say that this is one feature of the i that I wish Nissan had incorporated into the Leaf. If I had my druthers, an EV should have a shift option for maximum power yet also maximum regenerative braking at the same time.

My parking lot tour

Tamara actually got a longer test drive than I did, by discovering a larger parking lot in the back of the auto mall, as you can watch in the video on the right above. She tried accelerating more aggresively than I had in that empty lot, and also tried the B position of the shifter to feel the regenerative braking. We had noticed when entering the auto mall that there was a Nissan dealer farther down the street from Mitsubishi, so Tamara then suggested that we stop by there to again test drive a Leaf and refresh her memory of the differences between the two vehicles.

Tamara’s parking lot tour

Such a comparison is the proverbial apples alongside oranges. After examining and driving the i, it was apparent to me that it is a fully functional EV, but just not in the same league as the Nissan Leaf. If it were the only EV on the market, I could be more than happy with it. However, I must admit that I now covet the greater conveniences and amenities of the Leaf and would not be content with less. For example, I want its navigation system, its backup camera, iPod and iPhone compatibility, an onboard computer interface, quicker acceleration, higher top speed, greater range, more sure footed stance, and seating room for five occupants. Only the driver's seat in the i is heated, while the Leaf boasts heating for all seats, front and rear, as well as a heated steering wheel.

Still, I am glad that Mitsubishi has finally brought the i to this country, because the more choices consumers have when choosing an EV, the better. After all, it does have a few redeeming features that some drivers would prefer. It has those desirable three settings for regenerative braking. Its small size renders it more nimble and maneuverable in urban settings. Despite such smaller outside dimensions, it has a surprising amount of room inside, with actually more cargo capacity when the rear seats are down. It has better visibility all around, and comparable safety features with front, side, and curtain airbags. Although its battery pack holds only 16 rather than 24 kWh, that also means that it will charge faster. It uses the same CHAdeMO port as the Leaf to quick charge to 80% in under 30 minutes with a 480V DC L3 charger. And like I said earlier, I think its jelly bean shape is endearing.

Finally, I should mention that Tamara’s father had never even seen an EV before, but declined to also test drive the i. Like most consumers unfamiliar with them, he suffers “range anxiety,” i.e., the unsubstantiated fear that an electric vehicle will run out of charge and leave him stranded somewhere in the middle of the road. He is consequently more interested in plug-in hybrids, since they also have a “backup” gasoline generator, so two days later he and I stopped by a Chevy dealer to test drive a Volt.