Another Test Drive in the “i” (MiEV)

May 6, 2012

Mark D Larsen

Raspberry Flavored
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Open Wide
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The photo on the left shows the Ride-N-Drive parking lot at EVS26, where auto manufacturers were hosting test drives of their EVs. If you enlarge that photo, you will see that Mitsubishi was occupying one of the first spots to show off its “i” (MiEV). I had already taken a short test drive in an “i” a few months previously, around an auto mall complex in Fairfield, CA. Nonetheless, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get behind the wheel a second time, if for nothing else to refresh my memory for a more accurate comparison after first test driving the Coda and Ford Focus EV. There were two “i”s available, one white and one raspberry, as shown up above. I got to test drive the fruity jelly bean.

I am sure glad that I did! It was a much more positive experience than the first time I drove one. This raspberry “i” was a top-of-the-line SE model, with a few more amenities than the base ES version I had driven previously. I cannot imagine that those extra features (navigation screen, fog lights, upgraded stereo) would make this “i” so much better, but for some reason it seemed like an entirely different vehicle. I chatted about that difference with the attendant who accompanied me during the drive and the only thing we could come up with was that, because the earlier ES hadn’t been prepped yet, it simply didn’t give a good first impression.

I was certainly impressed this time. For such a small vehicle, the “i” has a surprising amount of room inside. True, it only seats four, rather than five like in the other available EVs, but those occupants have plenty of space to stretch out. Indeed, the representative who accompanied me was 6'2" tall, yet she still had several inches of headroom above her. With the rear seats folded forward and flat, the cargo area seems cavernous, able to accommodate much larger and bulkier items than either the Leaf or the Focus EV hatchbacks.

Display Play
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This SE model had a video screen with GPS, as shown on the right, although it doesn’t boast all the multiple readouts and whiz-bang displays for energy efficiency like in the Leaf. I wish that I could have explored more of its functions, and even played around a bit with the upgraded stereo system, but there were other people waiting in line for their turn behind the wheel. I suppose I will just have to visit my local Mitsu dealer in the near future to satisfy my curiosity about those features.

Like the Leaf and Coda, the “i” has its battery pack underneath the vehicle, positioned between the front and rear axles for added safety. Because that heavy weight is underneath the chassis, giving it a low center of gravity, the “i” cornered better than I would have assumed with its narrow, tall stance. Unlike the other EVs, however, the motor is in the back, driving the rear wheels. I could detect a slight EV whine back there while traversing the downtown streets, but I like that jet-like, space-age sound, certainly much more than the noise of an internal combustion engine. My guess is that, on busier streets than we were driving that Sunday morning, or even if you turned on the stereo, you wouldn’t be able to hear it, regardless.

The suspension seemed a bit bouncy, not as forgiving as in other EVs, but I would attribute this to the fact that the “i” is, after all, a much smaller, lighter vehicle. The “i” might not be able to win a drag race with its competitors, but I nonetheless would describe its acceleration as “perky.” It responded seamlessly to pressure on the pedal and the steering was solid yet easily maneuverable. The front seats are more practical than sporty, but sufficiently comfortable and easier to get in and out of than the wrap-around contours in the Focus EV and the Leaf. Visibility all around was excellent.

The most salient feature, in my opinion, are the three shift modes in the “i.” In “D” the regenerative braking feels the same as when letting off the accelerator with an automatic transmission. The “Eco” mode increases the amount of power that the motor puts back into the battery when slowing down, but also decreases the amount of power moving in the opposite direction when accelerating. The “B” mode increases the regenerative braking even more, similar to downshifting with a manual transmission to descend a hill. I have often wished that my Leaf likewise had a third shift option instead of only two, preferably one that combined the power of “D” and the regenerative braking of its “ECO’ mode. The other EV manufacturers could learn a lesson from Mitsubishi in this regard.

They would also do well to emulate the “i”s “fuel” economy. Its range is the shortest, because its battery pack is the smallest, but the efficiency with which Mitsubishi squeezes power out of its EV is amazing. As the following graphic illustrates, the “i” (in green) has the highest miles-per-gallon (equivalent) rating of any vehicle on the EPA’s list: a remarkable 112 combined:

EPA Miles Per... Geez!

My turn in this raspberry “i” greatly improved my opinion of the vehicle. In fact, I would venture to say it was the most pleasant test drive I had that day. I still prefer my Leaf because it boasts more amenities and creature comforts, but I now know that the Mitsu “i” would definitely be my second choice. Yes, I wish it had the range of a Coda or a Focus EV, but since my daily driving rarely, if ever, exceeds its 62 mile EPA estimate, it would still serve my needs just fine. And it has some advantages over those other two alternatives, such as a QuickCharge port and the lowest price of any EV on the market. It is also a tried-and-true platform that Mitsubishi has been selling all over the world for a couple of years now. And... I have always liked its eye-catching, funky, jelly-bean styling.

Finally, I will end with a barely related side note. I had paid for an extra night in my motel room on this trip, just in case an opportunity to hobnob for a few minutes with any EV friends in the area happened to materialize at the last minute. As I fully expected, however, they were far too busy attending the conference sessions, so after these test drives I had a free day available to spend at my leisure. Anticipating that such would be the case, I had purposely decided to drive my BMW Z3 to Los Angeles, with the idea that perhaps I could cruise the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down, relishing the sensation of freedom that only a two-seat convertible can give.

The morning dawned misty and a bit chilly, but by the time I reached Carpinteria up the coast the fog had dissipated and the temperature was perfect to drop the top. With the salty breezes wafting through the cabin, I wound my way back down the coast, stopping at various viewpoints to contemplate the ocean vistas, surfers, and beachcombers. It was a delightful drive, but I will admit that the solitude was somewhat melancholy. Funny thing, I found myself wishing that the Z3 were an electric vehicle. It is a great car, made for wandering journeys like that, but after driving my Leaf for more than a month, it seemed... more of a “rattletrap” than I ever realized. Of course, the wind in my hair helped muffle those rattles and pistons....

Topless Beach
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Wave at the Waves
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