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First drive: i-MiEV a mighty quiet achiever

Smooth as: The whisper-quiet electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV whets the appetite for more sophisticated EVs.

We drive the first Mitsubishi i-MiEV production car to land Down Under

31 Mar 2010

THE i-MiEV is unlike any other car on our roads, not least because Mitsubishi hopes it will be the first all-electric car from a major manufacturer to grace Australian showrooms later this year.

Small cars generally come with small engines, but the i-MiEV replaces the mid-mounted petrol engine found in the Japan-only Mitsubishi ‘i’ upon which it’s based with a 47kW/180Nm electric motor that drives the rear wheels and is powered by a 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack under the rear seat and boot floor.

In the 1080kg i-car, the result is instant throttle response and brisk acceleration from just about any speed, making the i-MiEV more satisfying – at least in a straight line – to drive than most other small cars.

In ‘Brake’ mode – which, unlike the transmission’s Drive or Eco modes, delivers both maximum performance and maximum ‘engine’ braking – the i-MiEV adds another dimension to the small-car menu with enough retardation to make braking unnecessary if you read the traffic right, while also maximising energy regeneration.

This is no tyre-squealing hot-hatch, but the i-MiEV is more than a match for most cars in inner-city traffic and with an electronically limited top speed of 130km/h (Mitsubishi says it would otherwise do 160km/h), Mitsubishi’s all-electric pioneer is also suitable for short freeway runs.

Mitsubishi freely admits the i-MiEV is not ideal for a day-long freeway voyage between Sydney and Melbourne. In fact, this EV is probably even more out of its depth on the treacherous two-way stretches of Pacific Highway between Sydney and Brisbane.

That’s why our first taste of a production i-MiEV was limited to 20 minutes exclusively within the city of Brisbane – an environment for which it was designed – as part of the opening leg of a whistle-stop tour of Australia’s biggest capital cities to showcase the first two production examples to arrive here.

21 center imageAlso unlike nearly anything else on the road, the i-MiEV makes only wind and tyre noise, and the fact the i-MiEV offers up a seamless wall of readily accessible torque from any speed in almost complete silence will be the icing on this tempting cake for some.

Truth be told, the i-MiEV’s eerie silence went barely unnoticed within the bustle of even Brisbane’s city streets, where streams of noisy traffic reduced the ground-breaking Japanese hatch to being just another small car on its way to somewhere else.

But the i-MiEV’s near-silent running was well noted by at least one person in the forecourt of the hotel that Mitsubishi used for the event. Highlighting the potential safety problems posed by a whole city full of whisper-quiet EVs, one Brisbane woman almost walked backwards into the i-MiEV as it drove past – at snail’s pace – while she exited a taxi.

While an almost total lack of noise could create significant pedestrian safety problems in the natural home of EVs, the most obvious upside is the difference a whole city full of EVs would make to overall noise and pollution levels.

No, while Australia’s power stations remain predominantly coal-fired, the i-MiEV or any other EV will never be a true zero-emissions vehicle. Unfortunately, nor does the i-MiEV feature the vehicle-to-grid technology of some of its rivals, meaning it can’t be pre-programmed to take advantage of lower off-peak electricity costs or feed power back into the power grid like some EVs.

Coupled to solar panels at home, however, there’s no reason i-MiEV owners can’t be fully self-sufficient in terms of their automotive energy consumption by using power free from the sun. Moreover, there’s no doubt EVs are a step towards reducing our reliance on diminishing fossil fuels and, if governments act too, slowing global warming from man-made emissions.

Unlike their Japanese counterparts, individual Australian i-MiEV owners will not have a fast-charge option, which can deliver an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes by connecting a different cable between a 200-volt or three-phase power outlet and an inlet port in the left-rear of the car – rather than the right side for regular charging.

However, Mitsubishi says none of this is a problem because fast-charge stations are expected to eventually be installed at many office, residential and shopping locations, and a full range of up to 160km should easily accommodate most city dwellers on any given day. Like mobile phones, Mitsubishi expects EVs will most likely be charged overnight.

Further, it says Australia’s 230-volt household power outlets will make local i-MiEV owners better off than in Japan or the US, where only 100-volt power is available, because it cuts the trickle-charge rate in half – from 14 to just seven hours.

All this cutting-edge car technology is easily accessible for any driver, because the i-MiEV is like any other car to drive.

While a digital battery charge meter takes the place of a traditional fuel gauge and a large central power consumption gauge replaces a speedo, the i-MiEV features keyless ‘starting’ like many other models these days. Simply turn the dummy key on the steering column and the ‘ready’ light illuminates on the instrument panel to advise the car is ready to drive – just like the Toyota Prius.

Indeed, what differentiates the four-seat i-MiEV most is not its all-electric drive system, but the fact it will be the first car in Australia to comply with Japanese kei-car regulations, including a total length of less than 3400mm and width of 1600mm.

That makes the i-MiEV almost as small as a Smart, but bigger than Australia’s first affordable sub-light model in Suzuki’s Alto, which in turn is one size smaller than top-selling B-segment cars like Toyota’s Yaris, the Mazda2, Hyundai Getz, Holden Barina and Ford Fiesta.

Naturally, space is therefore limited in the i-MiEV, which appears even smaller in the metal than you’d expect but compensates somewhat for its tight elbow room, upright seats and cramped rear legroom with a tall roof that liberates decent headroom.

There’s no getting away from the i-car’s utilitarian roots as an affordable Japanese runabout, however. Hard plastic surfaces abound in the funky but functional interior and the hard seats offer limited adjustment up front, even if there is a modicum of luggage space behind the rear seats.

Like any car with a wheelbase this short and wheel tracks this narrow, fore-aft pitching is brutally apparent over pavement joints you’d never notice in a Commodore.

The i-MiEV’s steering is best described as wooden and, despite a refreshingly firm suspension set-up that returns minimal bodyroll, the tall seating position and high perceived centre of gravity don’t inspire the confidence to test its cornering grip.

Of course, the elephant in the room when it comes to any comparisons between the i-MiEV and similarly-sized petrol (or even diesel) cars is price.

At a projected initial price of up to $70,000 – almost six times the price of the Alto – the i-MiEV will compete in the marketplace with European models as accomplished as a BMW 320d, and is therefore likely only to attract well-heeled early-adopters that want to broadcast their environmental conscientiousness.

Since the (high) cost of electric vehicles is inextricably linked with the price of batteries, which in turn is dictated primarily by production volumes, the price of the i-MiEV and a host of other imminent new EVs will eventually come down.

In the same way prices of plasma-screen TVs have plunged in just a few years, Mitsubishi expects the i-MiEV to cost less than a Prius by the time it’s widely available here.

When it first arrives, however, the i-MiEV will be no cheaper than locally converted EVs like the Mazda2-based evMe from Dynamique in Armidale, NSW, and the Getz-based Blade produced in Castlemaine, Victoria.

Mitsubishi says that although it also shares its basic architecture with the petrol-powered i-car, the i-MiEV is the product of a 10-year development program and is built in the factory from the ground up as an electric vehicle, rather than being created in an aftermarket conversion.

With an influx of other EVs from Japan and China – and the plug-in Volt hybrid from Holden – due here by 2012, the i-MiEV’s success in Australia could well hinge on how soon it hits local showrooms. Mitsubishi is betting against global demand to make that happen sooner or later, and hopes the i-MiEV will become to EV what the Prius is to hybrid.

Of course, the i-MiEV is far from perfect and will never replace petrol or diesel power as a means of long-distance travel, let alone for traversing vast, rugged continents like Australia.

However, given the refreshingly crisp performance on offer in a vehicle that is bound by Japanese kei-car regulations, which include limits on vehicle size and power, the i-MiEV is a tantalising taste of larger, more powerful and eminently more versatile EVs to come.

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