I just spent the weekend driving Mitsubishi’s promising new all-electric minicar, the i-MIEV (pronounced EYE-meev). Well, that’s not quite true. I spent the weekend charging the i-MIEV. Occasionally I drove it.
Within limits, the i-MIEV is brilliant. The packaging is amazing in that for such a tiny footprint it can fit four adults with ease, even if they happen to be 6-foot professional basketball players. And it accelerates well, emits very little noise at low speeds and has acres of glass to let in plenty of light.
The version we have, on loan from Mitsubishi for a few days, is what the company is already selling in Japan for about $50,000 a copy: a Smart size, rear-wheel drive four-door hatchback powered by a 16-kwh lithium-ion battery and a 47-kw motor, the equivalent of 64 horsepower.
When I pried the i-MIEV away from my colleagues on Friday afternoon, the residual-charge indicator showed just a hair less than half a “tank” remaining--7 bars on the meter’s 16-bar scale. My trip home, 12 miles away, should pose no problem, I figured.
Under ideal conditions the i-MIEV has a rated range of 160 kilometers, or 100 miles. Conditions were not ideal. It was dark, so headlights were on. And at 27 degrees F, it was cold, so I had the heater on. Mitsubishi advises that using the heater cuts the maximum range exactly in half. That should still leave me about 40 km, or 25 miles. Or not.
The first 10 miles were fun. The i-MIEV has plenty of zip, easily keeping up with other traffic, and it’s got the nimbleness (and so-so ride) typical of a really small car. The motor makes a not-bothersome whine while accelerating, but once at cruising speed, all you hear is wind noise. And lots of it.
Because this particular car was made for Japan, the steering was on the right and center-console controls are manipulated with the left hand. I spent a good deal of time trying to make the heater blow hot. The “Auto” setting didn’t seem to be doing much, so I cranked the manual temp and fan controls all the way up. Even so, the air coming from the vents was just slightly warmer than tepid.
The charge-gauge sat still for the first couple of miles then seemed to decline rapidly, from 7 bars to three, then two. At that point a handy little icon on the meter, a gas pump and extension-cord symbol, began blinking hopefully. Anxiety set in. I’m only two miles from home, but what, exactly, will I do if I have to pull over by the roadside? Call a tow truck? Go get my Honda generator? A can of gas or a pair of jumper cables won’t help out here.
But I did make it.
Safe at home with the cute little i-MIEV snuggled up to our front porch, I found it very easy to plug in the heavy-duty 19-foot extension cord provided with the car. A full charge using regular 110-volt house current is reckoned to take 12 to 13 hours—half that if you have 220-volt service available.
On Saturday night my wife and I took the i-MIEV for a 25-mile round trip to town and back. On the highway stretch, we easily reached 65 mph but the car didn’t seem happy going much above that. Top speed, according to Mitsubishi, is 81 mph. During a sprint up a long hill I watched the state-of-charge gauge visibly retreat, apparently consuming the equivalent of an eighth of our range in a couple of minutes.
The several strangers who ambled up to the car at the reception we were attending all had the same three questions: What’s it like to drive, what’s it going to cost, and when will it be available? My answers: Lots nicer than the Smart car, about $30,000 assuming generous government tax breaks, and late 2010 or maybe 2011, depending on a host of factors.
The i-Miev was designed for and is most suited to condensed downtowns. But for families like mine, suburbanites living on the fringe of the boonies, range-anxiety is the elephant in the room in any electric-car conversation. No matter how well it performs, a car with an effective range of 60 miles is equivalent to a gasoline-fueled car running with its low-fuel warning light always on.—Gordon Hard