OTTAWA—More stringent European emissions and North American fuel economy regulations will change what we drive in the future, whether we like it or not.
The future is likely to offer a smorgasbord of drivetrain options: gas, diesel, hybrids, extended-range hybrids, bio-fuels — maybe even compressed air. Some predict that by 2020 one in five new cars could be powered by electricity alone.
One automaker that's counting on that prognosis coming true is Japan's Mitsubishi.
While other carmakers work on electric vehicle (EV) prototypes or pie-in-the-sky concepts (see accompanying story), Mitsubishi recently made history by becoming the first major automaker to build a production-ready, highway-capable EV — the 2010 i-MiEV.
Mitsubishi plans to build about 2,000 i-MiEVs this year and up to 5,000 next year. The first i-MiEVs are going to corporate fleet customers in Japan this month. Closer to home, B.C. Hydro and the City of Vancouver have both agreed to add an i-MiEV to their fleets this November for "demonstration and evaluation purposes."
As part of its push to get the EV certified for Canada, Mitsubishi brought an i-MiEV here to allow Transport Canada suits and the media an opportunity to drive it.
The carmaker expects retail sales to start in Japan next April and in Europe (along with a rebadged Peugeot version) a year after that. Officially, Mitsubishi Canada says there's a "strong hope" that the i-MiEV will come here eventually. The company has already confirmed its intent to sell the EV in the U.S. sometime before 2012.
MiEV stands for "Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle." Long-term plans call for 20 per cent of the automaker's fleet by 2020 to be EVs: an Outlander MiEV, or a Lancer MiEV are real possibilities.
But before Canadians get a crack at owning and driving the world's first production EV, the i-MiEV has a couple of hurdles it needs to clear.
First, Mitsubishi needs to develop a left-hand drive version.
Next, Canadian governments will probably need to step up and make some sort of EV purchase incentives available. In Japan, the i-MiEV sells for about 3 million yen, or about $36,000, but only because of a government subsidy for "green" automobiles.
Without any rebates or incentives, Mitsubishi Canada says the i-MiEV would be in the $50,000 range here. (Hey, no one said zero-emissions driving was going to be cheap …)
The best part of the i-MiEV equation is the gas car it's based upon: the Japanese market Mitsubishi i-Turbo city car.
Unlike vehicles such as the Canadian-made Zenn EV, the 2010 i-MiEV is a real car, and would meet all current Canadian safety and crash standards if sold here.
Similar to the Smart Fortwo, the i-MiEV has its engine in the back where it drives the rear wheels. Unlike the Smart though, the Mitsu hatchback has four doors and seats with a longer wheelbase.
In some gas-electric hybrid conversions, the large battery packs required either compromised passenger and/or luggage space. But compared to the gas model, no such penalties appear in the i-MiEV.
Its "permanent-magnet synchronous" electric motor, inverter and charger are located under the floor of the luggage area behind the rear seats — right where the i-Turbo's 660 cc three-cylinder gas engine would normally be found.
And the i-MiEV's 22-cell lithium-ion battery pack is placed under the seat floor, where the i-Turbo's fuel tank would normally reside.
From the right-hand driver's seat of the i-MiEV that I drove, there's little to hint that you're not driving the gas model.
The four-speed automatic has been replaced with a gear selector that lets you pick Drive, Eco or (regenerative) Braking modes.
A semi-circular gauge where the tachometer used to be now shows the batteries' discharge rate. And with no fuel required, the gas gauge indicates how much battery juice is left, percentage-wise.
Before you can drive away, a "ready" light on the instrument panel tells you when you can access all of the i-MiEV's 63 hp and 133 lb.-ft. of torque — almost double the grunt of the gas version.
Put your right foot down and the EV moves away briskly. In fact, from 0-to-80 km/h, it's 1.5 seconds quicker than the gas model, at around 10.0 seconds — all in glorious, quadraphonic EV silence.
Where other EVs made for use in gated communities, such as the Zenn, are limited to about 40 km/h, you can keep up with normal highway traffic in the Mitsu EV.
We easily got to about 110 km/h driving to the Ottawa airport to take some photographs. Officially, the i-MiEV will do a demerit-point inducing 130 km/h.
Unlike the Smart, Mitsubishi's EV actually likes to turn sharply — hard. Its low centre of gravity delivers a decent amount of cornering grip, while its long wheelbase offers a ride as good as Honda's Fit.
Its regenerative braking feel is much less intrusive than the aggressive system on the Mini E.
In normal use, the i-MiEV's range is almost twice what Chevrolet is promising with its plug-in hybrid in pure electric mode.
But driving the i-MiEV like a sports compact will probably halve the estimated 120 km it can go before you need to find somewhere to plug it in and recharge the batteries.
To compensate, you can charge the i-MiEV three ways:
A full charge takes 14 hours on a 100-volt domestic outlet;
Or 7 hours on a 200-volt industrial outlet;
Or replenish 80 per cent of the charge in just 30 minutes with a Mitsubishi-built quick-charge system (additional unknown cost).
As retail-ready and uncompromising as the conversion of the i-Turbo to pure electric power is, Canada's recharging infrastructure is virtually non-existent currently, which means any EV is impractical for anything more than utility companies or couriers, due to their limited range.
To meet the future environmental laws, EVs will definitely be in new-car showrooms in the future.
But for Mitsubishi — and other automakers who think EVs are the way forward — the $50,000 question is: How many will pay twice as much for an electric that can only go one-quarter the distance of a gas-powered version, just for the benefit of not having to buy gas?
Freelance auto writer John Leblanc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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