A Bubbly EV For The Road Ahead

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV (JDM)
2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV (JDM) – Click above for high-res image gallery

There's an interesting realization that occurs when you drive an electric car. After all, EVs act just like normal vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine, they're just a bit quieter and you can't drive for great distances at a time. But as you travel along in an EV, you pass by gas station after gas station and it finally sets in – your car has rendered the fuel pump obsolete. Gas stations to EV owners are nothing more than places to buy cheap coffee and cigarettes.

As we work to further saturate our automotive landscape with efficient, eco-friendly misers, a few automakers think they've found the answer for how to best disguise the EV setup in a car that won't stick out like a sore thumb. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf take on the shapes of a sedan and a hatchback with very minor touches to let other drivers know that something special lies under the hood. Mitsubishi and its forthcoming i-MiEV, however, blows that all out of the water. Driving this car on the road is like parking a Bugatti Veyron on a used car lot – it gets a lot of attention.

The i-MiEV, which is based on the Mitsubishi i kei car (we still aren't very fond of the name), has been sold in Japan since mid-2009 and Europe is slated to get the bubbly EV later this year. As for North America, it's expected that we'll get the i-MiEV in the Fall of 2011, though it will be slightly updated from the Japanese-spec model you see here. We recently had the opportunity to spend a week with a JDM-spec i-MiEV to see what daily life with the EV is like. Is Mitsubishi's pint-sized electric car ready for the United States?

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Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

The i-MiEV is a tall, narrow and swoopy five-door, and while the dimensions prove to have their hits and misses in terms of driving dynamics, it makes for a funky, unique package that won't look like anything else in the shopping mall parking lot. At 134 inches long, 58 inches wide and 63 inches tall, the i-MiEV is over 25 inches longer than a Smart Fortwo, though it's three inches narrower and just over two inches taller. These are indeed strange proportions, but they're really only noticeable when parked next to other vehicles. It's cartoonish and bulgy – simply put, we love it. Can you even imagine seeing the local Whole Foods parking lot packed with brightly colored i-MiEVs? What a laugh.

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, profile2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, head-on2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, rear-on

Design-wise, we can't help but smile at the sight of an i-MiEV, with its LED front and rear lamps, curved rear doors and 15-inch alloy wheels pushed out to all four corners. It's cute, if a bit kitschy, but that sort of thing works with B-segment (and kei) cars. In terms of style and shape, this could do for EVs what the Toyota Prius did for hybrids. We were pointed at, shouted at, and in many cases laughed at, but at the end of the day, the i-MiEV garnered more attention than the vast majority of cars we've tested.

These small dimensions don't mean there's a lack of interior space, however. The tall roofline and long wheelbase equates to more than adequate space for four adults, and there's even a nicely sized cargo compartment out back. We had no problem hauling a full load of people and things, the only real complaints coming from heftier rear seat occupants wanting a bit more in the way of hip room. Still, folks with slimmer stature won't be uncomfortable or cramped.

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, interior2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, gauges2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, climate control2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, gear selector

Unlike the Volt and Leaf, however, the i-MiEV does not employ any sort of futuristic, tech-focused interior design. It's pretty bare-bones in here, with minimal controls on the center stack and not a whole lot in the way of instrument cluster gauges. That's fine for week-long testing purposes, but if Mitsubishi is going to try and get away with selling this thing for nearly $30,000 (before government rebates) when it arrives Stateside, you'd be right to demand higher levels of standard kit. Thankfully, Mitsubishi understands this and we're told that the U.S.-spec i-MiEV will have a more upscale interior than the one you see here, with a raft of additional features.

Still, we don't have too many complaints to wager about the JDM-spec i-MiEV interior. The seats are comfortable, if a bit flat, and the tall greenhouse and spacey design makes for excellent visibility from all angles. The good thing about a strictly business interior is that there's no learning curve associated with operating the audio and climate control functions, and we had no trouble feeling right at home inside the i-MiEV (once we got used to the right-hand-drive configuration, of course).

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, front seats2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, rear seats2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, cargo area2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, cargo area with seats folded

Beyond the obvious quirks of living with right-hand drive in a left-hand-drive country, the i-MiEV is perfectly pleasant for cruising around town. Power comes from a 330-volt, 16-kWh battery pack mounted under the rear cargo bay that develops 63 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque. The i-MiEv is not quick, but when you consider it only weighs 2,376 pounds, the electric kei car is perfectly capable of keeping up with full-sized American autos. What's more, because there's only a single gear, torque is delivered instantly off the line, so there's a smooth rush of power as soon as you step on the go-pedal. The i-MiEV uses a rear-wheel-drive configuration, too, so there's never any unwanted liveliness from the front wheels. It's smooth and quiet while being plenty powerful, and the driving experience is wholly unique.

We tested the i-MiEV in all three of its drive modes (D, Eco and B), and if we're honest, even the most economical mode (Eco, go figure) provided plenty of punch to keep us moving steadily. Eco mode reduces the amount of overall horsepower and increases the car's regenerative braking, so you have to be extremely light on the brakes when coming to a stop. In many instances, we could just simply take our foot off the throttle and the regenerative force was all we needed to come to a stop (from a good distance away, of course). It takes some getting used to, that's for sure.

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, charging cable2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, battery pack

Mitsubishi says that keeping the gear selector in D will give you "performance similar to that of a gasoline vehicle." There's more power on tap when you need it and the brakes operate more like what you'd expect in a normal ICE-driven car. Naturally, this takes its toll on your overall range, as does the final drive setting, B, which offers the maximum amounts of both horsepower and regenerative braking.

Speaking of range, the i-MiEV will easily travel up to 100 miles on a single charge if you're careful about your acceleration and don't use any of the auxiliary functions like the radio or climate control. Officially the range is listed as 80-100 miles, so we're guessing something like 80 miles is more the norm. Being that our tester is a rare bird and had many other journalists on its dance card besides us, we were politely asked by Mitsubishi not to fully drain the batteries for our own range evaluation.

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, headlight2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, wheel2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, emblem2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, taillight

And when it comes time to charge the funky EV, Mitsubishi provides adapters for both 110- and 220-volt outlets. Using a standard household 110-volt outlet, it takes between 12 and 14 hours to completely recharge the i-MiEV from a drained battery, and using a 220-volt socket will cut that time in half. For folks in congested, urban areas who don't do much in the way of daily driving, this setup isn't too tough to live with – come home at night, plug in your cell phone, plug in your car. That is, of course, assuming you don't live in an apartment or have a really long extension cord. Range anxiety? It's bound to happen. We even found ourselves plugging the i-MiEV in at friends' houses just to make sure we had more than enough juice to get back home.

Dynamically, the i-MiEV has many faults, mostly due to its dimensions. Narrow and tall is never a great combination, and there are great heaping mounds of body roll through the corners. What's more, this little EV is highly prone to being blown about on breezy days, and we'll be the first to admit that driving it on the 70-mile-per-hour highways around metro Detroit is a white-knuckled experience, especially your first time out. Stick to the side roads and you'll be just fine. Besides, your battery will thank you.

2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, rear

Still, the fact that the wheelbase makes up the entire length of the car means things aren't too horrible from behind the wheel. You always have a perfect sense of where your four corners are at all times, and while we'd appreciate having to execute fewer turns of the steering wheel lock-to-lock, the helm is nicely weighted and feels engaging. Because the driver sits so close to the front axle, you feel like you're right on top of the front wheels, and it makes for supremely confident steering. It's a lot like a Smart in this regard (yes, the Smart does manage to get one or two things right), and it's surprisingly fun.

As a second (or third) vehicle, the i-MiEV makes perfect sense to us. Battery range is undoubtedly the largest hurdle that EVs face here in the States, simply because we've lived our lives until now with the idea of driving as far as we want, filling up, and continuing on. Added interior refinement is an absolute must, and if we're honest, we wouldn't mind another two or three inches of added body width. Still, there's a lot to be said about the i-MiEV's function in its current form, and it's a refreshing, minimalist take on what an EV should be. Unlike a Volt, you can't rely on the i-MiEV to handle all of your driving duties, but for eco-minded drivers, an i-MiEV would nicely compliment a 40-mpg Ford Fiesta in a two-car garage. Fun, frugal, and functional – that's all you need.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL