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Just in: 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV - Fresh off the truck

Consumer Reports News: February 10, 2012 11:38 AM

We just took delivery of our latest test car, the Mitsubishi’s “i” electric car. Also known as the i-MiEV (pronounced “Eye-Meev”), it’s the smallest of the new generation of electric cars hitting the U.S. market. And at $29,125, it is the cheapest, too. Although not yet on sale in the Northeast, we managed to buy one in California and have it shipped to our Connecticut auto-test facility.

Our uplevel SE model—with a navigation system and a quick-charging port—cost $33,630. That’s about $4,000 less than the price of its closest competitor, the Nissan Leaf. And after taking the $7,500 federal tax credit, the final purchase price would be $26,000 and change.

Unlike the Nissan Leaf, the i-MiEV wasn’t purpose-built as an electric car. Instead, it started out as a gasoline-powered minicar, sort of a Japanese equivalent of the Smart ForTwo. Now, a compact, 63-hp electric motor resides beneath the trunk floor and powers the rear wheels. A 16-kWh lithium-ion drive battery supplies the current.

Mitsubishi has claimed that it has an 80-mile driving range, but the EPA pegs the range at 62 miles, as acknowledged in the i-MiEV owner’s manual. As we’ve learned from our Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, cold weather sucks down the battery rather quickly. We haven’t yet driven our i-MiEV enough to determine the range, but it will be interesting to see how far this wee machine will go this winter.

First impressions
The i-MiEV is much smaller than the Leaf, or any other car sold in the United States except the Smart. Yet, this tiny car is a four-door, four-seater with a more spacious cabin than you might expect. Although quite narrow, there is plenty of head room and adequate leg room. Two adults sitting abreast nearly touch each other.

On the road, the i loafs along quietly on its electric power, with a few electric whirs and groans evident here and there. The car starts off smartly enough from a standstill, but it accelerates to highway speeds leisurely. An Eco mode optimizes the driving range but noticeably blunts any sense of urgency.

Handling is not exactly nimble and the steering feels a bit vague, but the tiny size and small turning circle make it highly maneuverable in tight spaces.

Ride comfort is clearly a weak link. The i feels jumpy and some pavement flaws tend to strike hard through the rear suspension.

Even in the relatively loaded SE trim, controls are a bit Spartan. Only the driver gets a seat heater, and the instruments don’t track the progress of a charge-up. A shared onboard-computer display shows the range remaining and there is a full-to-empty gauge, as in a traditional gasoline car. Charging is said to take between five and seven hours using a 240 volt-charger, but we haven’t verified that yet. Using 110 volts, Mitsubishi says a full charge would take 22 hours. A remote control can be used to cool or heat the cabin while the car is hooked to the grid, getting it ready to drive before unplugging. This technique reduces the impact the climate control system would have on range.

The i-MiEV could work well within closed communities with smooth pavement, but we can’t see it substituting for a commuter car used for more than short hops, such as to the train station. On longer trips, the jumpy ride and tight quarters could get old quickly. We’ll see how the i compares with the more expensive Leaf once we finish testing it thoroughly in the weeks ahead.

Gabe Shenhar

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