A Week with the Mitsubishi I-MiEV: Cute Car Provokes Range Anxiety
Most of the time I borrow test cars from the carmakers, but the battery-powered and budget-minded Mitsubishi i-MiEV came to me by way of my local dealer, who thought I ought to drive it. So it’s been at my house for a week, giving me a fairly accurate picture of what it would be like to live with this particular electric car.
On Empty at 31 Miles
I liked a lot of things about the i-MiEV, but there’s a major range issue. After 31.3 miles of around-town driving, where electrics should be strongest, I was getting a blinking fuel gauge and three miles of range left. The car is supposed to have 62 miles of travel, says the EPA, and I’ve seen anecdotal evidence that some people have gotten that and more, but probably in California. Others, including some of PlugInCars.com's own testers, have seen similar results to mine.
A major factor for an east coaster like me, I think, is unseasonably cold weather. I’ve been blasting the cabin and seat heaters, listening to CDs, running the defroster—a bunch of power draws.
Some electrics from start-ups feel flimsy, but the I-MiEV is a major manufacturer car and it feels like it, with solid build quality. Everything works. The car is also somewhat bare-bones in contrast to competitors like the Nissan LEAF, without the latter’s fancy graphic displays and smooth interfaces. You get the vital information, but with the sophistication of a $10 Casio watch. That said, there is a useful key fob type gizmo to monitor your state of charge.
The Bargain EV?
Details like that explain how the dealer can offer the i-MiEV for an eye-popping $19,995 (inclusive of the $7,500 federal income tax credit and a $3,160 discount). That makes it the cheapest electric car on the market, at least until the Smart Electric Drive is available next spring. The second edition of the Smart, which is much improved, gets a big price drop to $17,500 after the credit. But that’s a two-seater car.
That said, the cabin is open and airy and feels big for the size of the car. The driver’s seat could have more backwards travel, and the rear seat is a too-flat bench with not-great legroom. The rear seats fold, which is good because storage is somewhat limited. Access and visibility are both good. Here's a close-up view on video:
The car handles well—think Toyota Corolla or something like that. Its most distinctive quality on the road is leisurely acceleration—15 or 20 seconds to 60. There are three drive modes: drive, eco (with stronger regenerative braking) and B (for even more regen—they told me to use it on downhills). I used Eco as the default mode, and didn’t find the regen effect excessive.
No Highway Car
My main challenge was range. I had to pass up using the i-MiEV for several highway trips because I didn’t think I could make it back (except on the end of tow hook). The most range I ever saw on the in-car display with a full change was 46 miles. The car’s 16-kilowatt-hour pack is modestly sized for a battery car. I’m going to try not using climate control or the (confusing) radio and see how much that helps.
The included 110-volt charger was easy enough to use, though pulled up to my garage, with the port at the rear of the car, a longer cord would have been helpful. A full charge takes 12 hours on 110, but I was always able to fully charge overnight.
It’s uncertain what will become of the i-MiEV, which has found hundreds—not thousands—of U.S. buyers. Sales have never topped 85 nationally in a single month—in November, just 42 found homes (compared to 1,539 LEAFs). Mitsubishi head Osamu Masuko recently told the Australian media, in translated remarks, “The i-MiEV is now on life-support, and we are just warning the family that the end is near.” Does he mean just in Australia, or everywhere? Mitsubishi is evidently turning its attention to the forthcoming Outlander plug-in hybrid, which I would indeed expect to sell much better than the i-MiEV (which was never advertised much).
Masuko said that the strong Japanese yen was one reason for its slow sales, but it’s probably not the price point that’s the biggest issue. The pool of would-be buyers for battery cars isn’t huge, and for many the pricier LEAF presents a more attractive package.
My Connecticut dealer has sold some i-MiEVs to happy customers, most of whom are using it for around-town driving. It’s quite possible to have a good experience that way. “The i-MiEV is a commuter car; you can’t expect to use it for everything,” the sales manager told me. That’s true, but if your wintertime round-trip commute is more than 40 miles, and you don’t have charging on both ends, watch out for range anxiety.
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