Mitsubishi i-Miev pioneers electric highway

We drive a Mitsubishi i-Miev electric car from San Francisco to Sacramento, with a recharge stop in Vacaville.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi plans on selling its i-Miev electric car in the U.S. late next year. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Mitsubishi i-Miev preview drive (photos)

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The plan: Drive one of Mitsubishi's i-Miev electric cars from San Francisco to Sacramento. But there were two things wrong. No. 1, the i-Miev is based on Mitsubishi's i model, a Japanese Kei-class car designed for cities and not the length of high-speed freeway we would drive into California's Central Valley. No 2, it is 85 miles from San Francisco to Sacramento and Mitsubishi puts the i-Miev's best range at 80 miles.

We can solve one of these problems with a stop at a new Eaton rapid charger in Vacaville, about 55 miles outside of San Francisco. That charger should bring the i-Miev's batteries to an 80 percent charge in 25 minutes, reminding us that "rapid" is a relative term. Mitsubishi scheduled a lunch during the recharge stop, as five i-Mievs would need to take turns at the single charging station.

We were presented with a small number of i-Mievs, various test cars that had been brought over to California from Japan, all with right-hand drive. Our first lesson in right-hand drive is that you turn on the windshield wipers to signal a turn.

Bigger on the inside

At a little more than 11 feet long and less than 5 feet wide, the i-Miev is a tiny car; however, it is surprisingly roomy inside thanks to its high roofline. We imagined zipping around the dense urban streets of San Francisco, parking with ease at any spare bit of curbing and slaloming down narrow streets. But no, our route plan would put us amongst tractor-trailer rigs thundering down a multilane blacktop at speeds of about 65 mph.

Powering the i-Miev's 25-kilowatt electric motor is a lithium ion battery pack. Using a standard 120-volt power outlet, you can charge the battery to full in 8 hours to 12 hours. At a 240 volt outlet, common for large appliances such as dryers, you can fully recharge its battery in 4 hours to 6 hours. Eaton's rapid charger, which relies on a three-phase 208-volt supply, takes 25 minutes to charge the battery up to 80 percent capacity.

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 maneuvering 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.

Mitsubishi i-Miev
The i-Miev wasn't built with California freeways in mind. Mitsubishi

Aware of the long trip ahead, we remained careful about excessive go 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 minimize long stretches of acceleration. Of course, merging onto the freeway, we had no choice but to push the i-Miev to a traffic-friendly speed.

Once our Japanese spec'ed cars showed about 100 kilometers per hour on the digital speedometer, we settled in for the long cruise. All of these cars only had a basic radio, but a Mitsubishi representative promised a "sassier" version of the car when it goes on sale in the U.S. late in 2011. That should mean the availability of the Mitsubishi Multi-Entertainment System, a hard drive-based navigation and stereo unit similar to what we've seen in the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback.

The i-Miev can maintain an acceptable speed on the freeway in the right lanes, but didn't feel like we could get high speed acceleration for quick passes and left lane work. 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 excessive road noise, and we easily carried on a conversation with our driving partner while covering the miles.

Running on empty

Just before our recharge stop in Vacaville, Calif., we had to negotiate a range of mountains that forced us to heavily use the accelerator. The little i-Miev climbed the long ascents feeling like the little engine 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, shown in kilometers, 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 4 kilometers left when we exited the freeway. But that was plenty of power to drive the few blocks to the recharging station. Although the battery was drained in 55 miles, well short of Mitsubishi's stated 80 mile maximum range, we weren't surprised by the difference considering the speeds we had been driving and the terrain.

Eaton, of supercharger fame, installed its new rapid charger at the recharging station, next to a variety of other electric car chargers, including one for Tesla and a few for electric Toyota RAV4s, the latter being an earlier electric car effort that has since been dropped.

Mitsubishi i-Miev plug
The i-Miev's plug is built on the SAE J1772 specification, with electric conduits and communication channels. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

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 is 100 percent carbon free, said one of the Vacaville city representatives we spoke with.

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 easily plugged in the first car and got the charging process started. As mentioned above, charging would take a little while, so we all went off for lunch.

Although these testing stations provided free charging, the vision for the future is that chargers would fill parking lots at rest stops, workplaces, and shopping malls. You could swipe a credit card or use a cell phone to pay for a charge. But this model still needs a lot of work. One hurdle in particular involves differing local laws limiting who can sell electricity.

After lunch and with our i-Mievs charged, we were ready to make the 30 mile run to Sacramento. With few miles and flat ground to cover, we rolled into the city with plenty of range to spare. 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. But that doesn't rule out electric cars entirely, this just serves to point out some of the immediate problems with electric cars. Looking at the work Tesla is doing, longer range electric cars are possible. And a profusion of rapid recharge stations could make even cross-country trips in an electric car possible. Just plan to take a lot of food and bathroom breaks.