Mitsubishi i-MiEV: Commuting with electric

Consumer Reports News: December 30, 2009 01:08 PM

I have to admit, I take a lot of what Bob Lutz says in press conferences with a grain of salt. But GM’s Chief Volt Advocate has a point when he talks about “range anxiety.” I had plenty of it when I drove a Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car home on my daily commute.

It’s 24 miles from the test track to my house on mostly two-lane roads. Terrain is rolling, with a long two-mile hill. Speeds usually average 50-55 mph, with a 65 mph brief blast on the highway.

Frankly, I usually don’t pay much attention to my commute’s details. My speed varies with traffic. I zoom past slower traffic if I want. A side trip is no big deal. It doesn’t matter if I turn on the radio or the heated seats. After all, if I run out of gas, I can just pump in more.

But there is no “just pump in” more gas with a fully electric car. Recharging the i-MiEV with enough 110- or even 220-volts to actually get me someplace requires hours-- about 11 hours on 110, half on 220. Not only does this take a while, but without a charging infrastructure, I hope that where ever I end up DOA would allow me to plug in. (After all, my colleague Gordon barely made it home with the car on his shorter commute.)

So every detail matters. Turn the (electric) heat on? The range meter drops seven or eight kilometers. Best keep my coat on inside the car on this 40-degree day. Need the headlights on for my dusk commute? That might cost me--but I don’t have a choice. The Japanese-spec radio only tunes up to 90.0 FM, so we’ll leave that off.

With a full-electric car, hypermiling turns from a fun challenge that maximizes efficiency (like many do with their hybrids) into possibly being the difference of making it home or not. I left the car in Eco mode most of the time, which blunted throttle input so that I remained in an English-labeled “Eco” band on the “tachometer.” When the car is in Drive, power is so readily and instantly abundant that it’s hard to keep the needle in the efficiency zone.

I also tried to make the most of regenerative braking--after all, I had already “bought” that potential energy by driving uphill. I started to hope that no one was following me - not because the car was slow (it isn’t), but so that I could pop the shift lever into B to maximize regen braking on the big downgrades. I gained a few clicks of range doing that. I even started to hope for slower traffic (keeps my speed down) or red lights (more regen braking)--things I really don’t look for in my normal commute with a standard-engine car.


I started out with 65 km of range showing on the car’s dashboard display and a full 16 bars of charge on the “fuel gauge.” The range would decrease when I dared turn the heat on, and would increase with each regen braking event. By the time I made it home, I had 44 km and 10 battery bars left. Turns out I didn’t need to worry that much.

If you subtract the anxiety, driving the i-MiEV is surprisingly normal. (That is, once I stopped turning on the wipers instead of signaling turns on this right-hand-drive car.) The instant torque delivery is addictive. You notice the lack of engine noise, but that’s made up for by electric motor whine and wind and road noise. Thanks to a 100-in long wheelbase, the Mitsubishi rides a lot better than the hobby-horse Smart, but the Smart’s interior has more space for the driver and wider, more comfortable seats.

Confident in proof of concept, I was more profligate driving into work the next morning. After all, I had plugged in the i-MiEV overnight, the car was fully charged, and it claimed 76 km of range. So I left the shifter in Drive, turned on the heat, and played a CD. I didn’t fret over my speed or maximizing regenerative braking. It was a much lower stress drive--and I made it to work with the battery at half charge and 35 km of range left.

No doubt the i-MiEV works as a moderate range commuter. If I was conservative with my driving, I could probably make the 48 mile round trip on one charge. But that doesn’t leave much room for error--or stopping at the grocery store or library on the way home. The ability to recharge at work would make a big difference--and it’s probably easier to wire a parking lot than to create a hydrogen infrastructure.

Given current gas prices, I’d be paying a bit of a premium for the commute. The recharge from my 24 mile drive consumed 7.06 kw of power. At Connecticut’s high local rates, that’s $1.41, or roughly a half a gallon of gasoline. I could have easily driven a $23,000 Toyota Prius for the same fuel cost--and that’s with all of the heat I could possibly want.

Tom Mutchler, photos by Jon Linkov.

Updated 1/3/10

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