Quick Spin: Mitsubishi i is a good car with a bad name

Mitsubishi i – Click above for high-res image gallery

We're looking at a long, nearly straight, almost totally traffic-free downhill. We'd climbed up to the base of the Palm Springs to Idyllwild Ariel Tramway. Our goal was to see how fast Mitsubishi's tiny i could go. We're on the gas, and the teensy, turbocharged 660cc three-banger is giving us all its got. The speedometer ticks upwards, now cresting 100. In front of us is nothing but inviting tarmac. Deeper and harder we push and the numbers keep ticking up. 119, 120, 121 and then finally hitting 122. We felt we left a little on the table and could have probably achieved a terminal velocity of around 130. Maybe. 125 for sure.

Before you crime and punishment types climb upon your soapboxes, we should mention that the right-hand drive, JDM-only i reads out in kilometers per hour. Meaning that our top speed was almost 76 mph. And we stand by our assertion that we totally could have hit 80 mph.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

The badly named i (sorry, it's true) is an award winning kei car that's been wildly popular in Japan ever since it was released in 2006. Mitsubishi had a couple on hand – one gas, one electric – during a recent press event and they were kind enough to let us take the gas-powered model 3,000 feet up a mountain. Even better, the i made it all the way up no problem. Obviously, Mitsu didn't bring these cars all the way out to California simply to amuse some journalists. The i is coming to America says Mitsubishi. When we asked when that would be, they could only say "soon."

But do we want it here? Quite simply, yes. There's a lot to be said for a car that's essentially all wheelbase. Plus it looks like it popped out of a Robotech cartoon. While the car is narrow, there's a surprising amount of room inside. If you're six feet tall, you'll have more than a fist's worth of headroom and the rear seat can fit two humans, and three if they're incredibly skinny and/or good friends. There's even space for a bag or two.

More interesting (to us) is the i's "rear-midship" powertrain layout, which is a long winded way of saying it's rear-engined. Shoved in behind the rear seats is the aforementioned turbo/interecooled DOHC MIVEC 0.66-liter three-cylinder motor. All that tightly packaged tech is good for about 65 horsepower and around 70 pound-feet of torque. Not much, until you consider that the i weighs under a ton – 1,980 pounds with the automatic like in our test car.

That's actually plenty of gumption to motivate the i around town. In fact, the diminutive little four-door is quick off the line. It was only when pushing the car up into the 70 mph range that we wished for more power. All in all, we were happy with the engine – it suits the car well. But of course, odds are if/when Mitsubishi brings the i over, a more U.S.-market-friendly (read: bigger) engine will somehow find its way into the engine bay. Smaller than 1.5-liters is all we know, aside from the fact that the 660cc turbo won't pass U.S. emissions standards. But that's not the only change we'll see.

The car's insect-like front fascia will fail the fed's five-mph bumper tests faster than Superman running from kryptonite. The i also has the skinniest front tires we've seen fitted to a car since an MG T. As you can imagine, corner-carving is not this vehicle's forte. In fact, with those anorexic wheels, high speed hoonage proved a bit scary. However, the i is kitted out with MacPherson struts up front, so we think that fatter meat would make a difference. though the De Dion tube out back (i.e. a fussed and fettled over solid beam swing axle) might argue otherwise.

But again, the i is first and last a city car, not a back road barnstormer. Since lots of Americans live in cities, we're thinking this sharp-looking, alien-esque little guy just might find lots of takers. Especially if Mitsubishi makes it about six inches wider, which they're considering.

The catch? The gas mileage would need to be real good. Mitsubishi is mum on exact mileage estimates, but in Japan it's rated at 90 mpg – take that for what it's worth. As such, we're not even going to guess. Maybe more importantly, we'll also get the i MiEV, an all electric version of the i. We drove i MiEV, too and – as suspected with its electric drive train – it felt even punchier than the gas-powered i. However, as the i MiEV was low on juice and there was no way to quickly charge it, we literally drove it around a parking lot.

Regardless of the MPG numbers, the quirky i has proved to be a pretty big cult hit in Japan, selling over 35,000 units – a sizable amount by Japanese standards. We'd love to see the i given the same chance here. But the name really has to go. Maybe Devo? Hey, it rhymes with Evo...

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

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