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May 16, 2012

Mitsubishi's i-MiEV: Living Life Electric

My teenage daughter was not impressed when I pulled up to her school in the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

"It's kind of funny looking," she sniffed.

I agreed - but in a good way. The i's rounded snout, high domed top and tiny wheels give it a cartoon-y appearance -- but also translate into a comfortable, practical interior with plenty of headroom and cargo space.


But my daughter wasn't convinced. "The door is really light," she added. Of course, the all-electric vehicle weighs about 1,000 pounds less than our family Volvo -- it's been designed to squeeze more range out of a single charge. 

All About Range

Just hours before, Mitsubishi delivered the test vehicle to my home in a truck, which allowed me to begin driving with a full charge. The fleet driver showed me where to find the charging kit and how it works. He also demonstrated how to monitor my range, which was indicated on the dashboard display as 52 miles.

However, that figure was just an estimate. The car's actual range can be affected by driving habits: like which of its three modes you are using, whether or not you're running the air conditioning, radio, USB devices -- or even the outside temperature. Also, Mitsubishi equipped the i-MiEV with a regenerative braking system, which converts motion energy from deceleration into power -- thereby extending the range of the vehicle.

"Planning is key with this vehicle," he said. "Know your route and where you can go if you need a charge."

Obviously, those who switch to electric power are going to have to put a lot more planning into their driving routine. All-electric vehicles like the i-MiEV are not meant for everyone.

Like that of my husband, who was incredulous that the i's range on a single charge is only about 50-60 miles. "That's absolutely useless for me," he scoffed.

This is true. The i is not designed for someone like my husband, who must drive to job sites throughout Southern California. 

But it's not an unreasonable choice for someone like me, who typically drives just 30-40 miles per day (to and from school, running local errands, etc.) I still end up using about a tank of gas per week, which at current California prices runs me about $200 per month. The EPA estimates that the annual energy cost of the Mitsubishi i is just $550 - which in my case, would translate to $1850 per year in fuel savings. Not too shabby.

The initial cost of the car might be a larger hurdle to ownership. The base MSRP is $29,125 -- which is roughly twice the price of a comparable fuel-efficient economy car like Hyundai's Accent or the Nissan Versa. However, there's an available $7,500 Federal tax credit that applies to the purchase of the i-MiEV (which phases out after 200,000 are sold), and several states offer additional credits and rebates which can bring the cost down considerably. 

And of course, electric vehicle owners get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to reduce carbon emissions.

Driving the Mitsubishi i

119_3045The first thing I noticed when I got the key to the i was that it was an actual key. There's No Prius-type button to push: You start the car the traditional way, by putting the key into the ignition and turning it.

However, you'll have to look at the dashboard display to confirm that the electric engine is on, because it is so unnervingly quiet. That silent engine is something I would have to get used to.

On the other hand, the vehicle's key fob is a technological wonder, which allows you to monitor the battery charging and even to pre-heat or cool the vehicle 30 minutes before you use it.

I found the Mitsubishi-i exceedingly fun to drive. It's responsive and handles well. It may be small, but the electric motor provides powerful torque that translates into quick acceleration for passing larger, slower vehicles or just getting onto the freeway. Its top speed is only 81 mph -- but that's more than I need for the kind of driving I do.

119_3046The model I tested came fully loaded with a rear-view camera, navigation system, bluetooth, and USB port.

But the car was not at all luxurious on the inside. When designing the i, Mitsubishi had to balance between functionality and power usage -- so it's low on features that might affect battery range or add to vehicle weight. There's no option for leather seats, although the higher priced SE trim will get you a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a driver's side seat heater.

The "i" also features just one cupholder in the entire vehicle, which could be an issue if you're driving around with kids.

Charging Issues

Mitsubishi lent me the i-MiEV for three days, and I neglected to carve out a spot for it in my garage prior to its delivery. So I never got a chance to try charging it at home. 

There are different levels of electric charging for the i-MiEV. Had I allowed the battery to drain, a full (level 1) charge using a standard 120 volt electrical outlet would have taken approximately 22 hours. However, if you drive just 20 or 30 miles in a day, you won't need as much time to top off the battery power. And Mitsubishi assures customers that frequent charging doesn't affect the performance of the i-MiEV's advanced lithium ion battery.

EV buyers may want to consider installing a 240-volt (level 2) home charging station that manufacturers recommend - this gets the re-charge time down to about 7 hours.

The vehicle I drove included a third ultra-efficient Level 3 option for delivering an 80% charge in just 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the infrastructure for this CHAdeMO protocol is still being built, and there are no such public charging stations in my area. 

In fact, the public station at my local mall turned out to have an old type of charger that is incompatible with new EV's (which thankfully, are now using a standard protocol).

I ended up taking the "i" on just two separate 20-mile drives (including a stretch on the freeway), with both the A/C and the radio on. The vehicle's display still showed an estimated 30-miles left on that initial charge. 

I think I could do very well with an EV lifestyle. As long as I remember to clean out the garage.

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles and her personal site,SoCal Mom.

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