Mitsubishi’s i subcompact electric vehicle is set to reach dealer showrooms in the US this winter, and the $64,000 question is how it’ll be received by American buyers. It has already done well elsewhere, with over 11,000 sold YTD in Japan and Europe since its introduction in 2009. And it’s based on a gasoline version of the same vehicle, which had sold over 70,000 units worldwide as of 2010. But then Japan created the keijidōsha ("light automobile") segment, and in Europe they often embrace quirky styling with gusto. So I do find myself wondering if the jelly-bean shape and diminutive size of the little i might be a reach too far for the American consumer. But that would be a real shame, because it’s actually a very nice little EV, at a price point that makes it the most affordable, highway-capable one you can currently buy.
Mitsubishi i under Portland's new Sauvie Island bridge:
Now maybe it’s because I’m European myself, but I like it. I cut my teeth on diminutive little cars like the original British Mini (Cooper), and it’s actually the Mini I find myself reminiscing about as I drive the i, what with its similar wheels pushed to the corners stance and short front overhang.
And it handles in a Mini’esque way through the twisties too, as I found out coming down from the Crown Point lookout over Oregon’s Columbia River – lots of fun, with excellent balance, thanks to the mid- motor configuration, and a low center of gravity due to under floor battery pack placement. Steering feedback could have been a tad better, I suppose, but it was adequate and certainly didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. I also didn’t find much of the body roll I’d encountered with the earlier Japanese version of the car. I think the girth added for the American market (an additional four inches on both body and track) help make for added stability.
It was also coming down from the hills where I found use of the i’s Brake mode, one of the three driving modes available to you via the shifter. It offers maximum regeneration with no compromise in performance, and was perfect for slowing significantly on downhill curves without actually using the brakes, leaving your right foot available to immediately get back onto the power when exiting. The other two modes, Drive and Economy, are more or less self explanatory – Drive you get 100% performance and minimal regeneration; Economy you get reduced performance and moderate regeneration. Using these modes judiciously will give you a range of 62 miles before recharging, according to the EPA sticker for the car. But my EV experience tells me that your real world range is likely to be around 70 miles under normal circumstances.
Now my excitement over the hill driving experience should not be interpreted as me being completely happy on the performance front. I did find the car a bit sluggish from a standing start, what with its fairly small 47kW (63HP) electric motor. Certainly acceptable for what is essentially a city car, but a tad less agile than I’d hoped for. However, I did find something of an Easter egg in the standard performance profile – press the go pedal hard from a rolling stop instead and the i will bound forward like Pikachu chasing a Poké Ball! And this is something you can duplicate at pretty much any speed, including out on the highway where a blip of the accelerator scoots the i along quite nicely.
And speaking of being out on the highway, I’m pleased to report that the i did very well on Oregon’s smooth, well maintained major arteries, and at speeds up to 75mph it felt stable and compliant. I never tried to reach the top speed of 80mph, what with me already being 10mph over the limit; California plates on my car; and Oregon Highway Patrol officers eagerly giving tickets along my route, but I never felt the i would be unhappy about me pushing it to the limit. The true test of this car’s highway capabilities, however, will be on California’s rutted freeways, where small cars with narrow tires are very prone to tram lining, and that I have yet to try.
Which brings us to how the i does on poorly maintained roads, and I’m afraid the story here is not so rosy. In suburban Portland, where the roads appear to be not so well tended, the i had difficulties - it was bouncy and handled even small potholes with a terrible shudder. While I am going to blame the skinny, low-profile tires for the pothole issues, I do need to say that the suspension feels a bit soft, but at the same time I’m certain you won’t find the ride uncomfortable under normal circumstances.
From the inside, the i would appear to be a pretty basic little car for the money. There are two trim levels available - the ES, which will retail for under $22,000 after a $7,500 Federal tax credit, and the SE, which will be under $24,000 after the same tax credit - and both might seem a bit spartan compared to conventional cars you might have considered. But remember, what you are paying for here is technology you don’t see, and technology on the leading edge at that. It’ll be a while before you’ll see even a basic EV at normal car pricing, so if you want one right now you’ve got to suck it up. But at least with the base i you’re getting in for $6,000 or more less than you could with any other EV currently out there.
However, I would still personally go for a loaded SE model with the Premium Package (only available on the SE) – it’s a package that’ll cost you $2800 on top of the SE’s MSRP, but it’ll then come with the HDD navigation system with rear camera; the FUSE handsfree system; USB port in the glove box; steering wheel mounted audio controls; and the Level 3 (CHAdeMO) DC quick charging port, for faster public charging.
Other features you’ll get on the SE include an 8-speaker, 360-watt deluxe audio system; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; two-tone instrument panel; a seat material upgrade; silver interior accents; door trims with a cloth insert; 15-inch alloy wheels; auto on/off headlamps; fog lamps with DRL function; and a passenger visor mirror. All this will make you feel like you’re a bit closer to getting your money’s worth, and the interior of your car will seem far more impressive to your friends.
Mitsubishi i interior:
But even if you don’t have the scratch for the higher trim level, with or without the optional package, comfort yourself in knowing that the interior of the car is much improved anyway from the rather plain interior seen in the earlier Japanese version. So either way you win. You’ll also have more than adequate space for either passengers or cargo with either model – over 50 cubic feet of stowage behind the front seats with the rears folded down.
I found the interior to be pleasing enough in both models, though obviously my preference was for the SE. However, there were a couple of small things I did take issue with – the driver’s seat lumbar support was just in the wrong position for my back and the dash mounted cup holders both rattled like crazy when folded out, rather spoiling an otherwise quiet and comfortable ride. I also found the i’s odd shift gate layout bothersome at first, but I can see the point of making it almost impossible to get from Drive to Reverse accidentally in a car where you could be "shifting" often.
From an exterior standpoint, the car remains much the same as it has always been, though (as already noted) four inches wider for the US market, to accommodate side-impact airbags, and eight inches longer due to federalized bumpers. The body itself has the curved roof line; square-backed; slab-sided design common to a number of small European and Japanese style hatchbacks (the Honda Fit comes immediately to mind as the closest example), but is maybe a little more pronounced in the i. Charging ports are to the rear of the vehicle, with the standard J1772 port on the passenger side and the CHAdeMO DC quick charge port (if fitted) on the driver’s side.
CHAdeMO charging on Portland's Electric Avenue:
Charging the 16kWh battery pack takes around 7 hours from empty with a level 2, 240v charging dock, around 20 minutes with a CHAdeMO quick charger; and 22.5 hours with the standard portable 120v 8amp charge cable included with the car. For most buyers I would suggest the level 2 charging dock, which can be purchased via a partnership agreement between Mitsubishi and Best Buy. The dock by itself will retail for around $700, plus any installation costs established if you have the $99 home installation inspection suggested by Mitsubishi (fee waived for the first 2,000 buyers). However, if you know a qualified electrician, I’ve found that simply buying the unit at retail and having it installed yourself can often work out to be the cheapest solution.
Feeding at the solar charging canopy beside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry:
The battery pack (as previously noted) is located under the floor of the vehicle, sealed into its own waterproof and dirt resistant stainless steel battery case, which is in turn integrated into the monocoque chassis, improving rigidity throughout the whole car. Cooling is via a forced air induction system tied to the car’s climate control system – cool air pumped in at the front; hot air extracted at the rear.
So who is likely to be a buyer of this car? Well, I dare say that a prime candidate would be the person who wants to get into an EV at the cheapest possible price point. Another might be the person who wants a smaller city car, yet still needs something that is highway capable. But to my mind this is the ideal EV for the technophobe who wants to step into a car; start it with a key; select drive via a lever set into the center console; and be gone, exactly as they’ve been doing since first learning to drive. The bottom line is the i is certainly a technologically advanced vehicle, but most of the technology works in the background and even the stuff you do see when sitting in the driver’s seat can either be acknowledged or largely ignored, depending on your frame of mind.