Is the Mitsubishi i Running on Empty?
For a car that looks like it came from outer space, the jellybean-shaped Mitsubishi “i” has gone almost unnoticed in the EV market. Sales have been low to the point of almost non-existence. Only 33 units found buyers for all of July. Sales in June were still tepid (at 366 units), even for a vehicle that’s targeting a niche segment of the automotive market. A safety recall for faulty airbag sensors and early lackluster performance at the annual Pike’s Peak hillclimb haven’t added luster to the i. Does the Mitsubishi stand a chance, or is the i only spinning its wheels in a rapidly evolving EV market?
Is Pricing the Problem?
Based on its starting price of $27,990 (excluding destination charge), the Mitsubishi i appears to have a financial edge on pricier EVs, like the Nissan LEAF, and plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt. A recent $249 per month 36-month lease offer is available until early September. With a down payment of $3,498, Mitsubishi throws in the optional ($700) Quick Charge Package and, in total, the cost of the lease averages out to roughly $12,000. So if the numbers seem reasonable, what’s the problem? As we’ve previously noted, adding options quickly bumps the price of the i. Yet limited range and low top speed could be the biggest flies in this EV’s ointment.
Total driving range for the i varies from 60-75 miles—the Nissan Leaf offers around 80 to 100-miles—and top speed is 85 mph. I can personally attest that the i’s range depends heavily upon whether you’re driving at city speeds, or on the highway. With 55 miles of range showing on the dashboard battery monitor, a recent 40-mile drive home to New York City seemed within my Mitsubishi test car’s limits. But only a few minutes of highway cruising depleted the i’s battery charge by a third. The ride and handling also felt skittish at speeds above 60 mph. The drive turned into a hair raising adventure in range anxiety, with a low battery warning light flashing and three miles of range remaining by the time I nursed the i home.
To its credit, after an overnight recharge, the i proved adept at running city errands. Its limited range was less of an issue, and its small size allowed it to squeeze through traffic and into tight parking spots. The bulbous styling is polarizing, people love it or hate it. At least it makes an impression—there’s no mistaking the i for anything else on the road.
Climbing a Mountain
Mitsubishi has taken some unconventional routes when it comes to promoting the i. A special racing version, called the i-MiEV Evolution, is contesting this year’s Pikes Peak International Hillclimb. However, the carbon fiber bodied and tube-framed EV crashed heavily during an early practice session of the treacherous 12.4-mile race. Not helping matters is the fact that a stock Nissan LEAF recently set fastest time in the race’s new Electric Production Class. Mitsubishi has also teamed with the Discovery Channel to run a special program called “The Birth of a Mitsubishi i-MiEV Electric Car” on Canadian television LINK. The goal, according to Mitsubishi, is to cure “Electriphobia” –-consumers fear and misunderstanding of electric cars. Even Mitsubishi’s North American production hub of Normal, Ill., hasn’t been immune to the EV bug. Scheduled to become a self-proclaimed “EVtown,” 1,000 i EVs will be deployed in the Bloomington-Normal area by 2014.
More Mitsu EVs On the Way
Yet for all the marketing maneuvers, U.S. sales of the i have been negligible. That’s especially troubling news for struggling Mitsubishi, considering the automaker’s aggressive plans to to make electric vehicles the focal point of a global sales boost. The EV sales drive, announced last year, was supposed to lead the introduction of six new all-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2015. One of these is a plug-in hybrid variant of the new Outlander sport-utility. Set to be unveiled in production form during the Paris Auto Show in September, the Outlander PHEV offers a choice of four-wheel-drive modes: Pure (twin-motor electric-only drive), Series (twin-motor electric drive supported by range-extending generator) and Parallel (ICE engine supported by twin-motor electric drive). Total driving range is estimated at 497 miles. U.S. sales are projected for late-2013, or the first quarter of 2014.
A larger and more conventional plug-in hybrid SUV could have wider appeal than the smaller and quirkier i, especially in the U.S. market. Yet Mitsubishi faces competition in the emerging electric SUV space (in mindshare if not actual sales). Toyota will soon begin selling the new RAV4 EV in California and Nissan plans to unveil an electric-powered SUV at the Paris Auto Show. For the time being, Mitsubishi’s fight for recognition in the EV and plug-in market remains an uphill battle.
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