I drive a Ford Mustang GT; I'm Autoblog's resident HUMMER aficionado; and I think my favorite car in New York this year is a Japanese-market all-electric kei car. What is going on?
My dirty little secret (if you could even call it that) is that I'm also very much into kei cars. Often endearingly wacky-looking, the little city cars are packaging marvels, boasting roomy interiors despite their compact footprints -- and I love them. This year, the New York Auto Show is home to keis (the Mitsubishi i and Subaru R1e) as well as another JDM favorite, the Nissan Cube. What's interesting is that each one is on display as an all-electric vehicle. What was especially interesting to me is that Mitsubishi's electric i MiEV (it's pronounced "eye-meev", incidentally) was actually available for journalists to drive. So I drove it. Read on and watch video after the jump.
All "live" photos Copyright © 2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.
The Mitsubishi i is not a big car, but size can be deceiving. Looking somewhat like a jellybean on wheels, it's a smidge over 133 inches from end to end. The overhangs are nil, however, as the car's 15-inch wheels are pushed all the way out to the corners. As a result, it has a 100-inch wheelbase. For the sake of comparison, the 5-door VW Rabbit's wheelbase is 101.5 inches. This translates into a surprising amount of interior passenger room -- much more than you'd expect from such a small car.
The i MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) takes full advantage of the i's rear-midship powertrain setup. The 330-volt Li-Ion battery pack is situated under the floor, and the charger, inverter, and 47 kW electric motor all reside in the space under the rear cargo area and ahead of the rear wheels. In the standard i, that's where you'd find a 660cc 3-cylinder gasoline engine. What's good about this is that Mitsubishi doesn't need to change much about the i to accommodate the electric drivetrain. Strip the prototypes of their fancy liveries and they're basically indistinguishable from the gasoline-powered cars.
The one real visual giveaway on the i MiEV is the plug-in port for household power on its right side. Connect it to a standard electrical outlet and the car's battery will recharge in either 7 hours (200v) or 14 hours (100v). If you're wondering why Mitsubishi doesn't just hide the plug behind the now-obviated fuel-filler door, it's because that's where the jack for the quick-charger lives. Plug the i MiEV into the quick-charger that's being developed with the help of the Japanese power companies and an 80-percent charge can be achieved in just 30 minutes. Quick-charge stations like this will need to be part of the future EV-ready infrastructure, as they'll allow people to recharge rapidly when on the road away from home.
After climbing into the driver's seat on the right side of the car -- remember, this is a JDM vehicle -- you're greeted by a simple, straightforward cabin. Material quality is good, and the layout is logical. The instrument cluster features a digital speedometer (the values shown are in km/h), a digital fuel gauge that shows the state of the battery, and a digital odometer. The needle that sweeps around the center analog gauge indicates your power usage. During acceleration, it arcs up and to the right. Lift off the throttle and it retreats. Coast a bit and the needle will dip down to the area indicating that the battery is charging via to the car's regenerative braking system.
Operation is completely straightforward. Twist the starter and it powers right up, illuminating the instrument cluster and navigation screen (which displayed a map of Tokyo). It was a fairly miserable, rainy day in Manhattan on Wednesday, and I quickly learned that the stalks assigned to the wiper controls and the turn signals are reversed on RHD vehicles. (I would later proceed to either speed up or shut off the windshield wipers instead of activating the turn signals several times during the drive.) After easing into the traffic on 11th Avenue in front of the Javits Center, I gave the i MiEV some juice, and away we went.
Autoblog's Chris Shunk and I were joined by a pair of Mitsubishi reps during the test drive, so the i MiEV was operating with a full passenger complement. The car accelerates leisurely, silently and doesn't struggle. Thank the car's 132 lb-ft (180 Nm) of torque for that -- it's more than double the rating of the 3-cylinder turbocharged i. Make no mistake: the i MiEV is not fast in any sense, but the power on tap is perfectly suited to city driving. If called upon, it can top out at a respectable 80 mph. During my brief jaunt through the city, I don't think I ever went much faster than around 35 mph or so; that's all the level of traffic at the time allowed. My impression is that the i MiEV is more than powerful enough to excel in an urban environment, and that with an 80 mile range on a full charge, it would make one hell of a replacement suburban commuter for a good number of people, too.
Ride comfort is surprisingly good, thanks no doubt to the i MiEV's compact-car-sized wheelbase. It handles well, too, with responsive steering and a tight little turning circle. Deep potholes cause a commotion, however. We hit one particularly epic example and it sounded cataclysmic from the inside. The plucky i MiEV soldiered on though, and we joked that at least we didn't need to worry about losing the oil pan.
The i MiEV joins its conventionally-powered brother on the market in Japan next year, and during its Thursday press conference, Mitsubishi announced that it will send the i MiEV to North America for testing this Fall. Still, there are no plans to sell either the i or i MiEV here at this time. Mitsubishi will gauge consumer reaction to the cars this week in New York and evaluate what kind of demand, if any, there is for it.
Before our test drive came to an end, the driver of a first-gen Jeep Grand Cherokee motioned for me to roll down my window (we were next to each other, since I was on the right side of the car). I obliged. "What's its range?" he asked. I told him it was eighty miles, and he put on an approving face and nodded. "That's not bad," he said.
Nope. It's not bad at all. The Mitsubishi i MiEV is one jellybean I'd be happy to find in my Easter basket someday.
All "live" photos Copyright © 2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.