.What Works (pros): Highly maneuverable; more utility than a Smart Fortwo.
What Needs Work (cons): Needs more power for U.S. roads; less utility than a Honda Fit.
Bottom Line: City cars sell because of cuteness as much as utility. Is this one cute enough for America?
Currently regulations limit Kei cars to engines of no more than 660cc and 63 horsepower. Accordingly, Mitsubishi's 659cc 3B20 inline-3 yields 63 hp at 6,000 rpm and 69 pound-feet of torque. To get there, the engine features variable valve timing, a turbocharger and inter-cooling. Our test car delivers that puny punch to the ground via a four-speed automatic transmission and optional all-wheel drive.
Though this Mitsubishi feels like it sails along pretty effortlessly once you get it up to speed, we still recorded only an average of 37.7 mpg over the 200 miles we spent in this car. Apparently the tiny turbocharged mill must operate at wide-open throttle and full boost as it tries to keep up with traffic, so it sucks down fuel as a result.
The Futuristic Transportation Pod
Mitsubishi has already said it will bring the i MiEV, the battery-powered electric version of the i, to the U.S. in 2011, so clearly the i is capable of meeting U.S. safety regulations. We're betting the gasoline version will show up here with a bigger engine and more airbags sometime in 2012.
The 2010 Mitsubishi i is bigger and more versatile than a Smart Fortwo and should cost less than the Honda Fit. And when it appears here, it will have almost no competition. That's a combination that rarely does any car wrong.
Not an Astute Choice For Single-Vehicle Households
In the event you've got one empty bay in your three or four car garage and you could use a runabout for errands and around-town trips, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV could fill that void quite nicely. Its petite size and 100.4-inch wheelbase are just the ticket for slipping into and out of tight squeaks. The turn circle is tight enough that you can easily leave a normal driveway and head into traffic the right way. This will be a handy way for commuters to save expenses and, depending on the final price, a reasonable alternative to the Nissan Leaf.
Highway driving is another matter. While the i-MiEV can be used in a pinch for such purposes, it's constantly buffeted by traffic turbulence and threatened by huge trucks. In addition, it struggles staying on a straight path at cruising velocity. Maintaining momentum on grades requires frequent accelerator pedal adjustments and no cruise control is provided.
Get used to this story: some sacrifice in operating range and versatility in exchange for the low cost and lack of emissions associated with plugging in. As more production electrics reach market, they'll all be susceptible to varying degrees to these tradeoffs.
Price: $25,000 (estimated after government tax rebates)
Powertrain: Permanent magnet AC motor, single-speed final drive
Power: 63 horsepower from 3000 to 6000 rpm
Torque: 133 lb-ft from 0 to 2000 rpm
As it stands, Mitsubishi's electric i-MiEV isn't exactly street legal in the United States. That, however, will change next fall, when the automaker is set to introduce a widened, federalized version of the car for North American consumption. We've yet to see the finished product, but the automaker has apparently released renderings of a wide-body, U.S.-spec i-MiEV.
These renderings were found buried within a financial summary presentation, which was recently published on the company's global media site. Although the car appears to retain the egg-like profile of the current car, the sketches do suggest the i-MiEV will grow in width in order to appease North American tastes. Flared fenders, paired with an aggressive front bumper fascia, also allows for a wider front and rear track. The North American car also appears to gain a chiseled front hood, fog lamps, dark headlamp surrounds, and large front and rear side marker lamps.
Despite the structural modifications, we expect the North American i-MiEV's powertrain to be similar, if not identical, to that used in its foreign siblings. We recently sampled a Japanese-spec i-MiEV, and found its 63-horsepower electric motor provided enough low-end torque to make acceleration more than acceptable. Although Mitsubishi promises a range of 100 miles, we found the car averaged about 70 miles on a single charge when used in a mixture of city and highway driving. That should be more than sufficient for urban commuters, especially those living in cities with an EV charging infrastructure.
Mitsubishi grows the i-MiEV to fit American tastes, waistlines, and regulations.
The U.S. i-MiEV’s body has been enlarged, and both the front and rear bumpers have been redesigned for compliance with our crash-test regulations. As a result, the car is 11.2 inches longer and 4.3 inches wider than the Japanese-spec model, offering more interior space—although at just 144.9 inches by 62.4, it still casts a smaller shadow than the Toyota Yaris hatchback. U.S.-spec cars also will receive different interior fabrics and option packages than European or Asian models, but no specifics on those things has been released.
The car’s mechanicals are unchanged from the Japanese model’s. Thus, the powertrain still combines a 63-hp electric motor with a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery. Mitsubishi claims a top speed of 81 mph and a driving range of 45 to 75 miles on one charge, which is in line with our real-world experience after driving a prototype in L.A.. A full charge on a 110-volt household circuit takes about 12 hours.
The i-MiEV is set to go on sale here in late 2011, by which time competitors such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf will already be in consumers’ driveways. Before factoring in various state and federal tax incentives for electric-vehicle purchases, Mitsubishi is aiming for a price tag of around $30,000, just below that of the Leaf. At that price, the i-MiEV may be a tough sell, as the Nissan is a good deal larger and feels more substantial and more like a real car.