2009 Mitsubishi i / i-MiEV Prototype

2009 Mitsubishi i / i-MiEV Prototype 2009 Mitsubishi i / i-MiEV Prototype
Quick Spin

What Are They?

A pair of Mitsubishi’s home-market minicars, one powered by gas, the other by electricity. The i minicar features a 63-hp, 0.7-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission tucked Smart-style between the back seat and rear axle. The i-MiEV—currently in prototype form—swaps in a 63-hp electric motor and lithium-ion battery in place of the former’s drivetrain and fuel tank. To be sold as minicars in Japan, they must indeed be micro (and adorable): 133.7 inches long, 58.1 inches wide, and 63.0 inches tall (yes, that makes them taller than they are wide). But that doesn’t mean they are devoid of interesting mechanical bits. The gas version we drove even came with a viscous all-wheel-drive system complete with an aluminum front differential carrier.

How Do They Drive?

All you need to know about how Mitsubishi’s i cars drive can be deduced by looking at them. They're tall and skinny with scrawny wheels, meaning they're less than planted. In a drag race with each other, they both lose. The i-MiEV is said to have the advantage off the line, albeit barely (11.2 seconds to 60 mph versus 11.4 for the gas i), and it obviously goes about its meager accelerative task with far less mechanical fracas—it’s amazing how much noise 40 cubic inches can make. Even with the added weight of the all-wheel-drive gear, however, the 2150-pound gas version we drove had a claimed 264-pound weight advantage over the i-MiEV, which made a difference in handling—a term we use loosely in this case, as the mid-engined, rear-drive layout does not necessarily translate into a Ferrari F430–like driving experience. The gas version can travel much farther than the claimed 80 miles that a fully charged i-MiEV can muster.

Even more terrifying than hustling along, say, a mountain road in either of these right-hand-drive cars was riding shotgun, which, due to the globelike cabin contours, creates the sensation of crab walking down the road like a school bus with an out-of-whack rear axle. It’s less noticeable from the driver’s seat, where at least you have something to hold on to, but from the left-side passenger seat, every right turn is cause for much screaming and futile reassurance (or bitch slapping) from the driver (who may or may not also be screaming).

How Do They Stack Up?

At this point, the i has no real competitors here other than the Smart Fortwo, which we’d say is even more of a penalty box. The gas version is no Prius at the pump, however, with fuel economy claimed to be in the mid-30-mpg range in the U.S., or roughly the same as more fun (and dignity preserving) choices such as the Honda Fit and Mini Cooper. Most of us would rather spend our hard-earned money (while keeping our hard-maintained self-esteem) on one of those. As for the i-MiEV, it might have exactly the sort of range and visual statement that could satisfy the growing number of Americans who are hungry for a tailpipe-free way to go about their day-to-day urban commuting. And at this point, only the marginally more attractive 2011 Nissan Leaf would be a direct competitor. However, if Mini decides to mass-produce its Mini E, the i-MiEV’s competitive set would effectively double.

What’s the Cost?

Neither i car is available in the U.S., at least not yet, but Mitsubishi has said that one or both are being studied “very closely” for possible introduction sometime by mid-2011. “It wouldn’t be difficult to turn the switch on once Europe starts getting its left-hand-drive versions next summer,” Mitsubishi spokesman Moe Durand tells us. If we do get the car, he says, we will certainly see a new fascia with greater crush space for frontal impacts, as well as a 1.0-liter three-cylinder with a few more ponies than this gas-powered version had, with presumably better off-the-line response. In Japan, after government subsidies, the i-MiEV costs the equivalent of about $30,000, which is more or less double the cost of the gas-powered i. If either or both were to make it stateside—a decision we should hear more about at the upcoming Los Angeles auto show—Durand says the company will probably aim to keep prices at a similar level, presumably including a sizable electric-vehicle tax incentive that also will apply to the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and other zap-driven cars.