Mitsubishi has announced that Australia's first publicly available electric car from a big name manufacturer will go on sale for AU$48,800 from August 2011.
A raft of small changes have been made to the car since it was made available last year to state and federal government agencies, as well as a limited number of companies, including Google. Changes include the addition of side and curtain airbags, electronic stability control, keyless entry, automatic lights and some subtle styling changes.
The car's electric motor generates 49kW of power and 180Nm of torque. That's enough to haul the 1100kg i MiEV to a maximum speed of 130km/h and a cruising range of around 155km. A full recharge of the 330V Lithium-ion battery will take seven hours via the 240V on-board charger, while a DC quick charger can replenish the batteries to 80 per cent capacity in just 30 minutes.
All Aussie bound i MiEVs will also be fitted with rear drum brakes, a tyre repair kit instead of a spare wheel, 15-inch alloy wheels, LED tail-lights, and front and rear power windows. The sound system features an auxiliary jack, USB port with iPod compatibility and Bluetooth hands-free, as well as four speakers up front and none in the back. An optional AVN system adds DVD video playback, 7-inch touchscreen and sat nav with traffic updates.
Our mission should we decide to accept it: drive one of Mitsubishi's i MiEV electric cars from San Francisco to Sacramento. There are two issues with this scenario, though. Firstly, the i MiEV is based on Mitsubishi's i, a Japanese kei car designed for congested city streets and not the high-speed freeways we would drive into California's Central Valley. And secondly, while the i MiEV's range is rated at 160km in Japanese testing, this was done on the 10.15 driving cycle where the average speed is 26km/h, far less than on California's freeways.
To mitigate the second problem there's a stop planned at a new Eaton rapid charger in Vacaville, about 85km outside of San Francisco. That charger should bring the i MiEV's batteries to an 80 per cent charge in 25 minutes, reminding us that "rapid" is still a relative term. Mitsubishi scheduled a lunch during the recharge stop, as our five i MiEV convoy would need to take turns at the single charging station.
Big inside, small outside
Measuring 3.4m long, 1.48m wide and 1.6m tall, the i MiEV is smaller than a Mini, but taller than a Honda Odyssey. Despite this it is surprisingly roomy inside thanks to its high roof-line. We imagined zipping around the dense urban streets of San Francisco, parking with ease and slaloming down the city's narrow streets. But no, our route plan would put us amongst semi-trailers thundering down the multi-lane blacktop at speeds in excess of 100km/h.
Powering the i MiEV's 47kW electric motor is a Lithium-ion battery pack. Using a standard 240-volt outlet, you can fully recharge its battery in seven hours. Eaton's rapid charger, which relies on a three-phase 208-volt supply, takes 25 minutes to charge the battery up to 80 per cent in capacity.
And they're off!
Our test cars were lined up, ready to go with a full charge. We got in and joined the short caravan of automotive journalists from a variety of publications. As we expected, the small size of the i MiEV made urban manoeuvring easy. The electric motor also provided ready acceleration; other drivers had no reason to complain as we were quick off the line, reaching city speed limits faster than most other cars around us.
Aware of the long trip ahead, we remained careful about excessive gas pedal use. The i MiEV coasts just fine and its regenerative braking system gives the battery a boost, so we adjusted our driving style to minimise long unbroken stretches of acceleration. Of course, merging onto the freeway, we had no choice but to push the car to a traffic-friendly speed.
The i MiEV can maintain an acceptable speed on the freeway, but didn't feel like it had enough in reserve for high-speed acceleration to perform quick passes. There is a slight whine from the motor when accelerating, but, in general, its drive system is quiet. Riding in the i MiEV, we didn't hear an excessive amount of road noise and we easily carried on a conversation with our driving partner while covering the kays.
Running on empty
Just before our recharge stop in Vacaville, California, we had to negotiate a range of mountains that forced us to put the pedal to the metal. The little i MiEV climbed the long ascents like the little car that could. Admittedly, our own trepidation about pushing the accelerator too hard for too long is why it didn't jet up the hills, but that fear was justified as we saw the level on the digital battery meter decline rapidly. Our range meter also took a beating during this climb.
The final push was downhill, which is a good thing as our car had just about had it. The range meter showed just four kilometres left when we exited the freeway. Thankfully, that was plenty of power to drive the few blocks to the recharging station. Although the battery was drained in about 90km, well short of the official 160km estimated range, we weren't surprised by the difference considering the speeds we had been driving and the terrain.
Power me up buttercup
Eaton — a company famed for its superchargers — had its new rapid charger installed at the recharging station, next to a variety of other electric car chargers, including one for Tesla Roadsters and a few for electric Toyota RAV4s, the latter being an earlier electric car effort that has since been dropped.
Vacaville, a town of almost 100,000 people and a former Pony Express stop, hosts a surprising number of electric car charging stations because of a forward-thinking city council. The charging station we were using is covered by an array of solar panels and, although the panels aren't the sole source of electricity, it doesn't add any carbon into our atmosphere, according to a Vacaville city representative.
The Eaton charger, as well as the other newer chargers on hand, use the SAE J1772 connector, a new standard for electric car charging plugs that not only sends power to the batteries but also has communication channels so the car can tell the charging station how much it needs. One of our Mitsubishi guides plugged in the first car and got the charging process started, and with that sorted we retired for lunch.
Crystal ball gazing
Although these test charging stations provided their juice for free, the vision for the future is that chargers would fill parking lots at rest stops, workplaces and shopping centres across America. You'd simply pull, plug your car in and pay via credit card or mobile phone. This model still needs a lot of work though. One hurdle in the US involves differing local laws limiting who can sell electricity.
After lunch and with our i MiEVs charged, we were ready to make the 50km run to Sacramento. With not many kays and just flat ground to cover, we rolled into the city with plenty of range to spare. All in all, the i MiEV had proved usable in conditions that were decidedly not optimal.
Given the time it took us to make this trip, the i MiEV didn't prove to be that practical, even with the recharge station. This, however, doesn't rule out the viability of electric cars in the future, it merely serves to point out some of the immediate problems. With battery capacity steadily improving, longer range electric cars are not too far off in the future. And once rapid recharge stations are appropriately scattered from coast to coast, cross-country trips would become a reality; just plan on taking a lot of food and bathroom breaks.
Updated (12 June 2009): Mitsubishi has now announced availability, pricing and specifications for the Japan market i MiEV, and this first take has been refreshed with this information.
Based on the company's city car, the Mitsubishi i, the i MiEV features an electric motor in place of the regular i's 660cc three-cylinder petrol engine. Aside from the near-silent operation and, of course, the charging socket, Mitsubishi has attempted to keep the experience as bog standard as possible. Having sat inside the electrified i, we can confirm that the i MiEV looks, smells and feels almost exactly like a normal i. Despite its diminutive size — it's shorter than a— there's ample space for four non-NBA-sized adults. This is thanks to both its height and the placement of the engine just in front of the rear wheels, underneath the boot floor, a la the .
On the outside there's the obligatory fashionable LED tail-lights, as well as LED headlights. The most noticeable change on the inside is the 80s-style electronic speedometer and a prominent battery charge gauge, in place of the fuel gauge, in the instrument panel. There's also a dial to let you know whether you're sucking juice out of the battery pack to propel the car, or recharging the batteries as you coast downhill or hit the brakes. The gearshift has also been changed; while it still features the common squiggly gate and the standard positions P, R, N and D, there's no option to select gears, only a choice between eco mode or greater engine braking. Available as a factory option is an entertainment system featuring a 7-inch LCD screen and a navigation system stored on a solid-state drive.
The i MiEV's electric engine offers 47kW of power — about the same as the turbocharged version of the 660cc engine — and 180Nm of torque, almost double the amount offered by that same petrol engine. This should be enough to see the electric i hit a top speed of 130km/h and, in official Japanese testing, have a range of 160km on a full charge, which takes seven hours from empty using a household power point. With a three-phase quick charge system, 80 per cent charge can be achieved in 30 minutes. According to the company, the running cost per kilometre, including the electricity required to recharge the car, works out to about one-third of an equivalently sized petrol car.
Mitsubishi is expecting to ship 1400 i MiEVs this year on maintenance leases to corporate customers and local authorities. Private sales will begin in the land of the rising sun in April 2010. Unfortunately, there are no announced plans to bring either the petrol i or the i MiEV to Australia for sale. The car we saw at the Melbourne Motor Show is currently in the country for a round of feasibility studies, similar to what Mitsubishi arms in the US, UK, Europe, New Zealand, Iceland and Canada are presently undertaking.
In Japan the petrol i retails for about ¥1.5 million (AU$22,370), the i MiEV will retail for ¥4.6 million (AU$57,370) inclusive of GST, slightly less than the recently announced. Japanese buyers who elect to go electric will be saved some of the sticker shock by tax breaks of up to ¥1 million (AU$15,300).
Rumours persist that Mitsubishi will bring its electric kei-car here, if so it will be intriguing to see if it limbos under the AU$70k price point of the, which is engineered and assembled in Armidale.