Launched in Japan in 2009, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV was the first of the new all-electric vehicles on the market. The subcompact city car was introduced in Europe, Asia and Australia in 2010, the U.S. and Canada in December 2011 and was made available in all 50 American states by June 2012.
Counting i-MiEVs in South America and rebadged versions by Citroen and Peugeot, over 27,000 units have been sold worldwide. The i-MiEV is a pioneer toward more plug-in vehicles to follow by the Japanese automaker. It is a rather bold initiative contrasting with tentative efforts by some other manufacturers that have been slower to roll out products or are selling them with yet-limited availability.
If you’re wondering why we’re posting a 2012 model drive review for 2013 it’s because Mitsubishi has chosen not to change the 2012 i-MiEV or even update its model year designation. That’s right, the 2012 will carry forward as a 2012 into 2013.
The i-MiEV is EPA-rated for 62 miles range and has a limited – but slowly growing – U.S. audience. Among all-electric cars sold nationwide, the zero-emissions i-MiEV is the most energy efficient delivering 99 MPGe highway, 126 city, 112 combined.
If you want another perspective on the i-MiEV, you can read our previous review but to recap, it began life in Japan as the gas-powered Mitsubishi i – a “kei” class commuter. Launched in 2006, the gas-powered versions were themselves unorthodox with rear-wheel-drive and midship-mounted engine options. When converted to EV duties, Mitsubishi retained the layout placing the electric motor above the rear axle, and 16-kwh lithium-ion Mitsubishi-Yuasa battery pack and motor controller under the floor.
The i-MiEV uses almost all of its 16-kwh supply too. This could be considered another bold move and very unlike, for example, GM’s engineering. GM more conservatively limited its first- and second-year Chevy Volt to using just 65 percent of its 16-kwh capacity. The idea behind a “buffer” of unused energy is to prevent over-working the battery and theoretically prolong its life. Mitsubishi would not specify details, but says it is not nearly as much.
To date we’ve not heard of any pattern of failures due to this high-strung arrangement, and it was deemed best given the i-MiEV has limited energy storage – so it uses more of it to accomplish reasonable range.
While a small car in any case, the U.S. and Canadian i-MiEV was stretched 11 inches longer than the Japanese/Euro version, 4 inches wider, a half inch taller. At 2,579 pounds, our version weigh about 180 pounds more, but these cars are still featherweight compared to larger EVs like the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric.
Mitsubishi utilizes battery air cooling similar to the Leaf. The i-MiEV’s battery cooling system can also draw cold air from its air conditioning unit to help with cooling but this setup is less sophisticated than the liquid cooled (and heated) battery in the Ford Focus Electric, for example.
The powertrain is simple also, with a single-speed fixed reduction transmission routing energy from the 49-kw synchronous permanent magnetic motor that develops the electric equivalent of 66 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. It has three drive modes – standard D, energy saving Eco, and regenerative-brake enhancing B.
It will charge on house current via a 3.3-kw onboard charger but replenishing almost 16 kilowatt hours can take 22.5 hours. More realistically, it charges via a 240-volt level II charger that does the job in seven hours – and optionally – a 480-volt level III through a separate CHAdeMO DC charger port puts an 80-percent full charge back in 30 minutes.
Outwardly funky, inwardly plain
As for the exterior appearance – you can pick your own terms – but we’d say it looks diminutive, kind of neat, sort of like a jelly bean. Some observers may be less charitable in their descriptions and that is their prerogative.
It is a tiny little car, and in this society where all-too-often you are judged by what you drive, if you encase yourself in this bright-eyed virtual exoskeleton, some may see you as having made a sensible, ecologically oriented choice; others may see you as a runt.
Inside, the i-MiEV’s interior styling does not echo the exterior’s micro avante-garde theme and is standard-issue automotive.
Our upper level SE model did have a decent infotainment system. It and the base ES rise above bare bones with remote keyless entry, power windows, locks and side mirrors. They also come with air-conditioning, a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and an auxiliary jack for connectivity.
That’s a healthy list, but the overall design lacks the gee-whiz factor other higher priced electrified vehicles like to show off. If you want an indicator that Mitsubishi did not break the piggybank on interior (re)engineering, under the dash panel’s right-side is the hood-release – a holdover from the right-side-drive home market version.
Surprisingly for the 100-inch wheelbase car, there is adequate room for four adults. At 6-feet-tall, I would have liked another detent or two on the manually adjustable driver’s seat for more legroom for my longish legs, but the fit was alright.
Cargo capacity is 13.2 cubic behind the rear seats, 50.4 cubic feet with the seats folded.
In sum, what you have is a functional box to get you where you need to go. It does have six airbags, a RISE body design, and ABS brakes all to increase safety, and does OK in crash tests – not as well as heavier EVs have scored, but much better than low-speed Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.
Living with the i-MiEV
It might be a stretch to say we lived with it, because we only had the i-MiEV for a week to do our daily driving and see how it all went.
But we got a good feel to add to our last time with the car and the car has some noteworthy qualities but real-world range is quite finite so long road trips were out of the question.
Startup is anachronistically accomplished with the repurposed ignition key from the i-MiEV’s prior life as a gas car to activate the electrons and render it ready for duty.
The shifter design is also a carryover from the ICE (internal combustion engine) world. After releasing the parking brake and slipping into Drive, the i-MiEV is ready to roll. Time from 0-60 mph takes around 13 seconds.
Alternately one could put it in Eco mode which adds a few seconds to 60 mph or B mode which can be used to add more regenerative energy into the battery on deceleration – this latter mode feels like you’ve downshifted two gears in the process.
The i-MiEV’s natural habitat is urban environs and suburbia. With full torque on tap from the start, it gets to 35-45 mph acceptably quick. If you want to head for the highway, you can, but is that a great idea? Not for too long, it isn’t, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Beginning from a standstill, one can hear the whirring pedestrian warning sound emitted until 25 mph. Visibility is terrific with the hood cut low and you can see all around, which is a good thing as this is one of the smaller four-wheelers on the roads.
So, what’s it like? Kind of cool because it’s all electric, but in other ways plenty familiar. Have you driven a basic economy hatchback before? You know – one in which nothing is exceptional, but everything functions? That’s what you get with the i-MiEV. It’s a pleasant enough experience; a transportation tool.
Take a corner, and it works predictably. The 15-inch diameter low-rolling resistance tires are diminutive by modern standards but up to the task. Braking is acceptable too, and ABS works as intended.
Part of the novelty is how quiet the car is. This is normal for EVs but to those who’ve not experienced it, the i-MiEV just rolls along. Some motor whine may be heard as can some wind and wheel noise, but there is no engine noise from any overworked little gas burner as you might otherwise get with a car like this.
It is not quite surreal, but definitely a different experience, and it can be fun in this conspicuous little pod. We did not try and tally how often the i-MiEV attracted attention, but did catch glances here and there. Our little maroon jelly bean made a green car visual statement loud enough to make a Prius look mundane.
And this brings us to that all-too-critical question of efficiency. That is, after all, why you’d cough up twice the normal money for a car like this – before subsidies of course.
The i-MiEV is dirt cheap to operate – the EPA estimates it at 3.6 cents per mile based on 45-percent highway, 55-percent city driving. There are few-to-no other choices sold nationally that cost less to run with four wheels, ABS, airbags, and that are highway legal.
Range, however, is another issue. The government rates it at 62 miles. Drive it like it’s supposed to be – around town mainly – and you can achieve this. If you take a deft touch, you can even nurse 70-plus miles out of the i-MiEV.
If you are a lead foot, or want to take the highway for, say 10-20 miles or more, expect range below the comparatively sedate EPA test cycle number.
We saw ranges of as low as 40 miles on days where we briefly confirmed the 81 mph top speed and did longish highway stints at 55-65 mph in the slow lane.
So, as we said, the i-MiEV is perfectly capable of highway driving, but it’s is ideally suited to slow, careful, around-town driving.
A wise decision?
There is nothing wrong with the i-MiEV being a limited-use vehicle. What’s more, its simplicity ought to contribute to less maintenance and combined with low operational costs, once purchased – or leased – it should be inexpensive to keep going.
The MSRP for the i-MiEV is $29,125 for the base ES model, and $31,125 for the SE. Add to both these an $850 destination charge. Our test SE stickered at $34,765 with a $2,790 options package and destination charge included.
However, as is true for other electric cars, its range and recharging times are stumbling blocks many an American has yet to wholeheartedly embrace in the name of reducing emissions and saving fuel.
More than most, this is really is a highly personalized personal decision, however, and depends on factors that regular car buyers never have to think about.
These include your actual cost of electricity and accessibility to off-site chargers. Also relevant is whether you are eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit and whether the state you live in has subsidies as well.
This of course is true of other electric cars too, and nearly all cost more, or return incrementally less MPGe numbers – albeit with greater range – except Honda’s Fit EV which for now has the top MPGe rating, but is available only on a lease basis in California.
We would have said the i-MiEV was the lowest priced, but during January when we still finalizing this review, that honor was taken over by Nissan’s new base-level Leaf S model following a price slashing move http://www.hybridcars.com/nissan-announces-pricing-for-2013-leaf/ in January.
The Nissan Leaf is 50-state available, and the S starts at $28,800. There are also two more nicely equipped versions, these being the SV for $31,820, and SL for $34,840.
The Ford Focus Electric is also nationally available, and starts at $39,995. Both it and the Leafs offer greater range, are larger, domestically built, and have nicer amenities than the Mitsu.
Another one to consider – and closer in physical dimensions too – will be the pending 2013 Chevy Spark EV.
This will be GM’s first all-electric car since the EV-1 of “Who Killed the Electric Car” fame and it will be priced in the i-MiEV’s neighborhood with a liquid heated/cooled battery exceeding 20-kwh. Odds are its battery will have a larger buffer compared to the i-MiEV to limit usable capacity. But the electric Spark looks good on paper, with promised competitive range, efficiency, and – as an extra added bonus – 400 pound-feet torque promising 0-60 mph in under 8 seconds. Of course if run hard, expect its range to suffer accordingly.
We shall see on the Chevy, but for now, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV is a niche vehicle with a four-year head start, and presents a qualified value proposition. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it could be perfect for some. Do you think you might be one of them?
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.