DRIVING NORTHWEST: The Mitsubishi i-MiEV

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car expert

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KING5.com

Posted on August 19, 2010 at 12:25 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 25 at 7:50 AM

Good news for those who love clean air and Popular Science magazine, high quality electric cars are finally coming to market. Chevy has Volt, Nissan the Leaf and Tesla the Roadster (which is too expensive and impractical for normal folk). In the fall of 2011, Americans will have another choice- the i-MiEV. Pronounced EYE-meev, it isn’t an Apple product, Steve Jobs would insist on a much slicker name. This 4-door hatchback comes from Mitsubishi and should slot in at around $23,000 after federal tax incentives. It doesn't suffer from reception problems if you hold the steering wheel the wrong way either.

Mitsubishi has brought over a Japanese version to the US and has given it to me for a week so I can live the electric vehicle lifestyle. It’s right hand drive so for 7 days my family and get in the wrong door nearly every time. Force of habit is a persistent thing. While it’s not too difficult to drive, it makes one realize our country is truly built for cars. Grabbing a burger in a drive-thru has introduced me to a new yoga move. Think I’ll call it the Big Mac Lunge. Of course the US version will have the steering wheel on the normal side.

Cute as a cuddly plush toy

This car starts life in Japan as the “i” which is a K car. No, not the old Chrysler, it’s spelled k-e-i. Kei cars are a class of very small vehicles that are quite popular in Japan. How small? The “i” is over a half foot shorter than a MINI Cooper.

The MiEV version (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) replaces the usual tiny turbocharged fossil fuel powerplant with a 47kW 63 horsepower electric motor mounted near the rear wheels. Nose around and you’ll find a 330V 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack under the back seat. It sports two charging spigots, one for 110/220 household current and a second for commercial 3-phase quick charge stations when they become popular. There’s isn’t a transmission in the usual sense. It’s a single-speed reduction gear unit with 3 drive modes. i-MiEV renders your corner gas station useless unless you have a hankering for Coke and beef jerky.

For the record, this car draws stares like Snooky attracts police officers. Whether it’s right hand drive, the pouncing egg shape or the oh-so-subtle promotional decals, it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without a blizzard of questions. Where can I buy one? What’s the range? Is it fast? Is it slow? Do you feel safe? Have you run out of juice? Boxers or briefs? Read on for the answers.

Is it fast?

Yeah, kinda. The sweet spot is 0-30 MPH because of the torquey electric motor. With top speed of 81 miles an hour it flows with most freeway traffic. Merging is not a problem, it sounds like the whine of a jet engine on take-off but not as loud. I t’s best as an urban runabout though, squirting through city traffic with ease. It drives like a regular small economy car, similar to the Toyota Yaris though obviously without an engine i-MiEV is much quieter. With small narrow wheels that jar when hitting sharp bumps, this Mitsubishi is not intended for sporty maneuvers but the maxed out wheelbase helps ride comfort.

During acceleration a faint electric whine is heard under the moderate road noise. The tall body is affected by crosswinds at higher speeds and there’s some wind noise over 45 MPH. The silent operation is great for sneaking up on people in the driveway and honking the horn for a startling surprise. I’ll take this moment to apologize to my wife. Again. Be aware that pedestrians and bicyclist don’t hear it over the din of the city.

What’s the range?

Depends. Mitsubishi claims an 80 to100 mile range. I’m seeing closer to 55 driving in a normal manner with some highway use. A full charge using standard 110 current takes 12-14 hours. 220 lowers it to 7. A second connecter offers an 80 percent fill in 20 minutes at rare commercial locations.

Range is affected by topography, extreme temperatures, jackrabbit starts, high speed, added weight and any electric accessory being used. Radio, lights, AC, defroster, and power windows all drain power, the heater is especially bad. Ever forget to charge your cell phone? Do it with a car and it means taking the bus to work.

Day one- Learning the hard way

One the first day I jump into the i-MiEV armed with basic knowledge and a list of errands to run in Ballard. From there it’s off to Redmond to talk to some folks at Microsoft. I flow with traffic on 520 which is exceeding the speed limit. The directions are iffy and I wander around before finding the building.

The energy gauge is now pretty low but I’ve brought the charge cable. The first two outlets in the parking garage are non-functioning. I’m now experiencing range anxiety. Last time I checked AAA doesn’t carry cans of electricity and extension cords are only so long.

3rd time’s a charm. I come back after two hours to find the gauge has barely moved. Can I make it home? I’m not sure it will go 16 miles. So I catch up on email, make a few phone calls and surf the web while mooching off Bill & Company. Glad I’m not a parent with a day care pick-up deadline. I make it home, the last 3 miles with a flashing energy gauge but I do not get the turtle graphic that is the last warning you get before the car stops.

The moral?

Learn from my mistakes. I drove with the selector in least efficient “D” mode which allows full throttle and minimum power regeneration when coasting. Should have driven in “Eco” mode that slows acceleration or “B”, allowing full throttle but adds aggressive power regeneration (it slows the car noticeably when lifting off the throttle). High speed, getting lost, and full AC didn’t help. At least I wasn’t delivering Acme anvils at night.

I treat the rest of the week as if I own a car with a 3 gallon gas tank, one that can only be filled at 9PM. And things were fine. Even in hilly Seattle I never have a range problem again. I use my phone as a nav system to make sure no extra miles are driven. Some hypermiling skills come in handy. So in the end, heed the Boy Scout motto “be prepared”. Thinking ahead goes a long way to reducing stress.

Other things learned

Know your home electrical system. Because i-MiEV is connected to my 90 year old home’s single outdoor outlet, the circuit has blown 3 times (it’s on the same breaker as the power sucking TV). Many owners will install a 220 charger and the cost depends on where the car is parked (I have a detached garage making it pricey).

Extension cords get dirty and tangled, keep them away from nice clothes and stash a canister of Wet Ones in the car. Since the car makes no real noise other than a few whirs and whooshes, it’s very easy to leave it on and walk away. This results in a dead battery. I was warned about doing this and yet still did it but only for 10 minutes.

Judging it as a car rather than an EV

I’m unsure what changes Mitsubishi will bring to America so I’m not getting too caught up in evaluating this like a car you would be buying. It’s much more refined than what off-brand manufacturers have been offering as EVs over the last few years. i-MiEV is positioned as a more basic car than Nissan’s larger Leaf but the price should be lower too.

It’s evident that Mitsubishi has done things to keep the weight down. The steering wheel does not adjust at all. Plastics feel lightweight, same with the seats, they have an obvious molded foam look and feel. Mitsubishi just stuck a stereo in for something to listen to, a nav system head would be essential to keep drivers from getting lost and burning off extra precious range. One that could gleen and integrate info from the energy gauge would be a huge help.

There are cupholders that hold a quart sized Big Gulp, even though it’s doubtful folks in Japan drink that much of anything at one time. This particular car is keyless.

There are belts for 2 in the back seat and they recline. At 5’9” I’m an average sized guy and have generous headroom. Leg and foot room is OK. There are two map pockets but carpool buddies will have to hold their Starbucks cups, there are no cupholders.

The cargo hold manages to stay useful, 3 packs of Costco TP with the seats up is quite good for a rig this size. Mitsubishi is positioning i-MiEV as a second or third car so it’s questionable how much action the back seat is going to see. Because of that I’ve maxed out cargo room to find it swallows 11 packs with the rear seats folded. That’s about the same as a mid-sized SUV trunk.

i-MiEV should start at around 23 grand with government tax credits. At that price may I suggest an upgrade to the interior for the US launch? Electric cars are appealing in that that they belch no emissions, require less maintenance and fuel costs are low (in the Northwest it costs about a buck to fully charge the pack). The biggest drawback is reduced range but as I’ve found, it can be dealt with. In fact now that it’s gone I kind of miss the adventure. When familiar with the limitations, life with a car like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is pretty appealing. A bonus? You’ll know where all the accessible outlets in the city are located.

 

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