Less expensive and more efficient than the Nissan Leaf, the i is Mitsubishi's take on a practical, affordable four-passenger electric vehicle.
Competitor: Nissan Leaf
Powertrain: 49 kw (66 hp) AC synchronous electric motor; 16 kwh lithium-ion battery pack; RWD
EPA Fuel Economy/Range: 112 mpge; 62 miles
What's New: The Japanese domestic market (JDM) version of the i has been on sale in Japan as the i-MiEV since July 2009. Mitsubishi put the popular i on a sumo's diet to beef it up for the U.S. market and to meet North American crash regulations. Adding 4.3 inches through the longitudinal center of the i pushes the width to 62.4 inches. It's still about two inches narrower than a Fiat 500, but the gains in width translate into much more elbow room than the Japanese version has. Additional front and rear crash structure adds about nine inches of overall length but no additional interior room. The North American i weighs in at a feathery 2500 pounds despite carrying 88 steel-encased lithium-ion batteries under the floor.
Tech Tidbit: If you've ever driven an electric golf car, you probably remember the jumpy throttle tip-in, a characteristic of electric motors producing maximum torque at zero rpm. The i's Smooth Start Control electronically regulates torque from a stop to eliminate jolting starts, making the car feel more polished than some EVs.
Driving Character: While the i's electric propulsion may seem advanced, driving it requires no Gnostic knowledge. Turning the conventional column-mounted key activates the circuitry. Putting the car in drive engages the motor. Flooring the amp pedal moves the car out smoothly with linear thrust. The lack of gear changes or a traditional powertrain noise adds refinement. The electrically assisted power steering feels light, as do the vacuum-assisted front disc and rear drum brakes. (Since there is no intake manifold vacuum to power the brakes as on the JDM gasoline-powered i, Mitsubishi uses an electric vacuum pump for boosting duties on the EVs.) The seamless transition between regenerative and mechanical braking also deserves kudos. Unfortunately, the lack of excitement is palpable, with 0-60 mph clocking in at about 15 seconds. We saw 81 mph as the governed top speed.
Favorite Detail: The North American i enjoys a larger beam that makes the already-tall interior genuinely comfortable for four. Stretching an interior is tough and expensive, but Mitsubishi engineers devised a clever cost-saving move that frames the dash from the skinnier left-hand drive version sold in Europe with another layer of dashboard that makes the extra width appear like it was planned from the car's outset, which it wasn't. Look for the telltale gap filler at the base of the A-pillars.
Driver's Grievance: Understeer and squealing front tires greet drivers who push the i hard into corners. The car's staggered tires (145/65R15 front, 175/65R15 rear) and softly sprung chassis exacerbate the plowing, a trait that sucks the driving fun from the i's otherwise cheery countenance.
The Bottom Line: With a price that undercuts the Nissan Leaf by more than $5000 and superior efficiency, Mitsubishi's North American version of the i electric vehicle may attract a broader audience than simply urban-dwelling environmentalists who view personal transportation as a necessary evil. The EPA estimates that drivers will spend just $495 dollars to drive the i 15,000 miles—though putting 15,000 miles on this car is a formidable task, as the i's practical range is just 62 miles. And that distance must vary quite a bit depending how you use the i: Just 15 minutes of hard driving at Mitsubishi's Nagoya proving grounds erased four of the 16 energy bars in the i's "fuel" gauge. Still, Mitsubishi's management is fixated on helping the world become a greener place, and the practical changes they've made to the i will make the $27,990 car more palatable for American drivers and driving environs.