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Mitsubishi i-MiEV: Highway ready and all-electric

Wheels' John LeBlanc drives the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the first production-ready, highway-capable electric vehicle made by a major automaker.

Published July 3, 2009
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<p>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.</p><p><a target="_blank" href="http://www.wheels.ca/photoPlayer/741380">PHOTOS: Mitsubishi i-MiEV </a><br /></p><p>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. </p><p>One automaker that's counting on that prognosis coming true is Japan's Mitsubishi.</p><p>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.</p><p><strong>Mitsubishi plans </strong>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." </p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>First, Mitsubishi needs to develop a left-hand drive version. </p><p>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.</p><p>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 …)</p><p>The best part of the i-MiEV equation is the gas car it's based upon: the Japanese market Mitsubishi i-Turbo city car. </p><p>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. </p><p><strong>Similar to the </strong>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>The four-speed automatic has been replaced with a gear selector that lets you pick Drive, Eco or (regenerative) Braking modes.</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>Its regenerative braking feel is much less intrusive than the aggressive system on the Mini E.</p><p>In normal use, the i-MiEV's range is almost twice what Chevrolet is promising with its plug-in hybrid in pure electric mode. </p><p>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. </p><p>To compensate, you can charge the i-MiEV three ways:</p><p> A full charge takes 14 hours on a 100-volt domestic outlet;</p><p> Or 7 hours on a 200-volt industrial outlet;</p><p> Or replenish 80 per cent of the charge in just 30 minutes with a Mitsubishi-built quick-charge system (additional unknown cost).</p><p>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.</p><p>To meet the future environmental laws, EVs will definitely be in new-car showrooms in the future.</p><p>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?</p><p><em>Freelance auto writer John Leblanc can be reached at <strong>editors@straight-six.com </strong></em></p><p><strong>Related link:</strong></p><p> <a target="_blank" href="http://www.wheels.ca/photoPlayer/741380">Photos: Mitsubishi i-MiEV</a><br /></p>

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