Test drive: Mitsubishi i-MiEV

By Guy Bird for Daily Express, Jan 2009

Mitsubishi fulfills electric dreams

Zero-emission motoring in a fully crash-tested vehicle produced by a proper carmaker will become a reality in the UK for the first time this autumn. That’s when Mitsubishi launches its all-electric four-seater city car called the i-MiEV. Yes, Smart and Mini have some two-seaters on trial – but production is years away – and yes you can still buy the Reva G-Wiz, but its poor design, no frills interior, weak range, performance and tarnished safety reputation is nowhere near the quality of conventional-engined vehicles from mainstream carmakers. 

By contrast the i-MiEV (for ‘Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle’) offers zero-exhaust emission motoring in the same award-winning design as its tiny 0.6-litre petrol-engined sibling called more simply the i, or i-Car. Even factoring the emissions of its manufacture and disposal Mitsubishi says the i-MiEV offers a CO2 figure about 75% less than an equivalent size petrol-powered vehicle.

Yes you can buy the Reva G-Wiz, but its poor design, no frills interior, weak range, performance and tarnished safety reputation is nowhere near the quality of conventional-engined vehicles from mainstream carmakers 

The car keeps the same great package as the i, being shorter than a Fiat Panda and narrower than the Smart fortwo, but remarkably able to accommodate four six-foot adults plus 246 litres of luggage space (that’s almost 100 litres more than a Mini). Externally, the only difference is a socket under the fuel flap instead of a conventional pipe. Inside, there is a different driver display dominated by a single central dial to show whether the car is charging up or using power, plus digital indicators of speed, selected gear and battery levels to replace conventional analogue dials showing revs, miles per hour and the fuel gauge.

A large pack of lithium-ion batteries (the same type as used in modern laptops and mobile phones) fits under the floor instead of a fuel tank and stretches most of the way from behind the front wheels to the rear wheels. An electric motor occupies the space near the rear wheels where the conventional version’s petrol engine would otherwise sit. This electric motor produces 47kW (which equates to about 63bhp) making it 6bhp more powerful than the 57bhp 0.6-litre petrol unit, although it is still capable of 0-62mph in a reasonable 13 seconds and an 87mph top speed. Getting started is easy. Push and turn a knob on the steering column – akin to the one on a Nissan Micra – wait a moment for the ‘Ready’ sign to come up in the dash display, then put the auto transmission gear selector into ‘D’ for drive and glide off in near silence.

The i-MiEV accelerates briskly, can keep up on dual carriageways and is also fine going up hills – the bane of many other EVs. It’s also a doddle to park due to its small size, high-visibility large windows, light steering and tiny turning circle. It even coasts well, unlike other trial electric vehicles that can experience a jolting ‘power cut’ feeling when you take the foot off the accelerator. The extra weight of the batteries (at about 200kg) placed so low down in the car noticeably improves its stability through corners compared to the petrol i too. Most driving is fine with the automatic transmission lever set to ‘D’ for drive, but you can also select ‘B’ for higher regenerative recharging, useful on a long downhill stretches, or ‘Eco’ that cuts the power available for less energy-intensive ‘stop and start’ city driving.

The sticking point for most potential customers will be the i-MiEV’s price but those that do early adopt will be creating an important test bed for a market that is predicted to expand to one in five of all cars sold in Europe by 2020

Despite testing these gear options and driving relatively normally over a short route on UK roads of no more than 25 miles, the car’s charge gauge showed only a third left by the time of arrival. It was a cold winter’s day requiring aircon but such a quick depletion would suggest Mitsubishi’s 80-100 claimed range will be hard to achieve. To get back to a full charge a special cord that comes with the car needs to be plugged into the car’s exterior socket at one end and into a conventional three-pin plug socket at the other. This takes seven hours but quicker recharges of 80% in 20 minutes are possible using a special three-phase system from a unit the size of a coffee vending machine that Mitsubishi intends to lease alongside the car. The battery should come with a ten-year, circa 100,000-mile warranty and the motor should enjoy longer service intervals – due to generally experiencing lower wear and tear than combustion engines – and nationwide dealer coverage for the simple service routine. 

The sticking point for most potential customers will be the i-MiEV’s price. The petrol engine i-Car only costs £9000 but the i-MiEV’s expensive batteries push its price up to a notional £35,000 – notional because Mitsubishi expects to lease all of the initial 200-unit UK allocation for this year at about £750 per month. Target customers will be high-profile organisations like The Metropolitan Police and the British Airports Authority – who have already made positive noises about taking them onto their fleets – plus wealthy early-adopting individuals whose desire to be green outstrips cost issues. Indeed Mitsubishi says two of its London dealers have already taken orders, regardless of price.

On the plus side, running costs will be tiny, with the Japanese firm estimating that 100 miles will cost just 45 pence worth of electricity. Zero annual road fund licence, free residents’ parking in certain areas and numerous other CO2-related tax breaks will further soften the blow. The list price will come down quickly as Mitsubishi ramps up production too. In a few years’ time it hopes to offer the same car for £15,000-£20,000. That’s still not cheap for a city car and makes it unfeasible for most households for some years, but those that do early adopt will be creating an important test bed for a market that is predicted to expand to one in five of all cars sold in Europe by 2020. By then most mainstream carmakers will offer a full-electric vehicle in the UK market, but Mitsubishi may be remembered as the first.

 

Logbook lowdown

 

  • Model: Mitsubishi i-MiEV
  • On sale: Autumn 2009
  • Price range: £35,000* (*estimate)
  • Engine range: 47kW electric motor, 63bhp
  • Power: 0 to 60mph in 13.0 seconds, 87mph top speed
  • Average fuel economy: Up to 100 miles on one charge
  • CO2 emissions: 0g/km
  • Insurance groups: TBC
  • Rivals: Reva G-Wiz, Th!ink City (due summer 2009)

 


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