When it comes to electric cars, most people think Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Wealthy folks might shop Tesla and Fisker. Now there s a plug-in car for budget buyers- the Mitsubishi i. Not a lot of people are plugged into the i just yet. It s been available in Japan and Europe but the US version is only now arriving in Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington. The Northeast will see them in April. It goes nationwide next year.

The i is the most inexpensive electric car you can buy in America, starting at 29,125*. My friend the asterisk (which you ll see a lot more of in the video) signals that the price is actually $21,625 because of a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Small Price is a Big Deal

I m driving a top-of-the-line SE model with an MSRP of $31,125 (or 23,625 after Uncle Sam s contribution). Then add $2,790 for the Premium Package that includes satellite navigation, backup cam, USB port, Bluetooth and an additional quick-charge port.

The i is not a dedicated electric vehicle. It began in Japan as a keijidōsha, or kei car, powered (so to speak) by a tiny 659cc 3-cylinder engine that lives behind the back seat. Mitsubishi engineers yanked out the engine and installed an electric motor instead. The lithium-ion battery is in structural case that s mounted in the trunk, providing added chassis rigidity as well as power.

The i we get in the states is four and a half inches wider and eight inches longer because we have bigger... uh, roads here. The egg on its tippy toes look remains. Outside dimensions are about the same as a MINI Cooper but with its more compact drivetrain, i s interior has 16 cubic feet more interior room.

The Details

A 66 horsepower (49Kw) AC synchronous permanent magnetic motor drives the rear wheels. The all-important torque is rated at 145 lb-ft @ 0-300, meaning it s available the moment your Nikes touch the throttle. There s no real transmission to speak of, reverse just means the motor turns the opposite direction. The 330-volt lithium-ion battery takes 22 hours to charge on standard 120 household current, dropping to 7 hours with 240, the kind dryers use.

Opt for the CHAdeMO protocol quick-charge port and an 80 percent fill takes around 25 minutes. For those who worry about long-term battery life, Mitsubishi says the pack should retain 80 percent of the original charge ability after ten years, even if it is frequently quick-charged. An 8-year/100,000 mile battery warranty is a mind easer too.

The Sound of Efficiency

The only thing really heard when turning the key is a beep signaling that the i is on. Listen very closely and you might hear the hydraulic brake system pressurizing. Stomp on the throttle and there s some electric whine and road noise, but that s pretty much it. Because the motor is so quiet you ll hear the suspension working a bit more clearly.

0 to 30 MPH sprints feel zippy and considering that s how i will be driven most often, the dynamic is satisfactory. 0-60 on the other hand is a leisurely 13 seconds, at best. The battery gets topped off a bit when coasting or braking, much like hybrid systems. Brakes are disks up front, drums in back.

The i s ride quality and driving dynamics don t feel as refined as Leaf or Volt. It feels like a less expensive car because, duh, it is a less expensive car. It s something buyers need to take into consideration when choosing between electric vehicles.

Because of range, I see i strictly as a city car. It has a very tight turning radius and the drivetrain is positioned downward and toward the center of the chassis, giving i a lower center of gravity for improved handling and stability.

The suspension is McPherson strut up front, 3-link deDion in back. Overall, i is pretty agile, though the softer suspension means there s some body lean in harder cornering. The wider stance of the US model goes a long way on making the car more stable at higher speeds. BTW, the rear tires are slightly larger than the fronts.

The Numbers of Efficiency

The EPA rates city MPGe at 126, highway is 99. This is more efficient than both Leaf (106/92) and Volt (95/93). Range is a different story. Volt is much less limited because of its onboard gas generator, Leaf is EPA rated at 73 miles. The EPA rates i s range at 62 miles on a full charge. That s under ideal conditions.

In moderate real world driving, I m seeing about 50 miles before getting nervous about recharging. I haven t seen the turtle icon that signals an extremely low battery, but in my week with the i, I ve come very close. Twice.

Like all electric cars, jackrabbit starts, high speeds, cold climate, hilly terrain and any accessory that uses electricity (headlights, heater, and stereo) will shorten the territory i can navigate. In other words, blasting Radiohead on a February night in Duluth, Minnesota means you aren t going to get very far.

Keep it Simple

I m driving the top-line SE model so there s a two-tone brown and black instrument panel plus extra trim pieces in the cabin. This is not an Audi, the plastics, seats and gauges are basic so Mitsubishi can keep cost and weight down. Cup holders that fold from the instrument panel are clever, there s automatic climate control and the steering wheel gets a leather wrap. Too bad it doesn t adjust for rake or reach.

The transmission lever is much like you d find in any gasoline-powered car. It provides modes for more aggressive power regeneration, the extra drag means drivers can use the brakes less (which is kind of fun). The Premium Package s nav system might be a good idea since getting lost is always bad for battery efficiency.

In back there are belts for two passengers. Evil Twin says knee room is a little clipped, foot room is OK and headroom is generous. There s one spot for backseat dwellers to stash a drink down near the floor. No armrest or power port is hardly a surprise. Seems like a plastic trim plate in the middle of the seat could have been molded into a useful cupholder or tray or something.

Hatchbacks Are Good

Everyone needs to do chores, even people trying to save the Earth. Hatchbacks are great for that. i s cargo hold is not very spacious; it only holds three bundles of Kirkland brand biodegradable bath tissue. Really though, most of the time you ll have at least one of the 50/50 split seatbacks folded down which creates loads of room.

How green is i? Well, it has taken the top spot on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy Greenest Vehicles list. The i achieves a Green Score of 58, the highest ever recorded. So if you re buying to save planet Earth, this, or a bicycle are your best bets.

For most though, the best thing the i has going for it is the low price, six grand less than Nissan s Leaf. Another thing to remember is that electric cars should be much less expensive to maintain and service. The i is a basic car for urban errand running, a good compliment to the gas-drinking machine you already own. If you re looking for cute, eco-clean and cost-cutting, the all-electric Mitsubishi i should give you a charge.

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