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With its bulbous cabin and tiny wheels pushed to the corners of the car, the 2012 Mitsubishi i-Miev resembles an overgrown golf cart. It drives like one, too, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The i-Miev is the second purely electric car, after the Nissan Leaf, to be offered from a major automaker in this decade. Compared with the Leaf, the i-Miev is certainly the economy car of this two-car segment.
Instead of the electric parking brake of the Leaf, the i-Miev comes with a classic e-brake lever. Where the Leaf lets you remotely schedule recharging and access a list of electric charging stations in its navigation system, the i-Miev has a small range gauge and a plug.
The i-Miev's base price of $29,125 accounts for those differences. However, CNET's SE trim model, with its premium option package, went for $35,085, pretty close to a similarly equipped Leaf. The i-Miev qualifies for the full $7,500 federal tax credit, with potential state tax credits and other benefits, such as use of HOV lanes, thrown in. With that factored in, the price can be brought down to the low 20s.
Instead of designing a car from the ground up, as Nissan did with the Leaf, Mitsubishi converted its i model, not sold in the U.S., to an electric drive system. The i is a kei-segment car in Japan, a type of car designed for the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and other cities, and not particularly suitable for long-range excursions.
The i-Miev does not try to reach beyond the city, or suburbs, either. Its 16 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack gives it an EPA range of only 63 miles. And while the immediate push from the electric drivetrain is reasonable, it starts to lag above 30 mph, making freeway merging a daredevil exercise. When I drove it across the windswept San Francisco Bay Bridge, the lightweight i-Miev felt like it might get blown over the side.
The narrow, 15-inch wheels on the i-Miev may lessen its rolling resistance, but do not contribute much to stability.
Add to these poor freeway manners the fact that the range goes down rapidly at high speeds, and the conclusion can only be that the i-Miev is best driven in the city or suburbs. Its length of just over 12 feet makes it easy to park, also a benefit in the city. The extreme front drop-off made it initially difficult to judge how close I was to other cars ahead. I always had a few extra feet in front after parking.
Following its i-car roots, most of the i-Miev's electric drive system is packaged around the rear axle. The i-Miev is actually rear-wheel-driven. Mitsubishi includes a 110-volt adapter cable, which takes 22.5 hours for a full charge, and offers an optional 240-volt charging system that owners can install in their garages. That 240-volt system only takes 7 hours to restore the charge.
I left the car, with a near-dead battery, plugged into the CNET garage's 110-volt outlet for 24 hours, and came back to a range reading of 65 miles.
Helping the i-Miev maximize range is a regenerative brake system. The power gauge on the instrument cluster shows when it is using power and when it is recharging. Hit the brakes or just let it coast, and the needle goes into the blue.
Among the drive modes on the i-Miev's shifter are Eco and B. Eco mode detunes the accelerator pedal, making for slower starts but less energy usage. It also activates heavier brake regeneration. In Eco mode, as I coasted toward a stoplight, the car slowed more quickly than when left in D, with the power gauge showing greater regeneration.
The shifter's gate is strangely designed, making it difficult to find a desired driving mode by feel.
Driving the i-Miev around San Francisco, I came to the conclusion that I could simulate the Eco mode merely by using a lighter foot on the accelerator and applying the brake pedal when coasting. It seemed like the friction brakes on the car got very little use during my time with the car.
B mode does not affect the acceleration, but applies the heaviest level of brake regeneration when coasting. Using it while going down a San Francisco hill, I found it began to slow the car too much, so that I actually had to give it a little acceleration to keep up with traffic.
The EPA rates the i-Miev at 112 MPG equivalent, using its formula for comparing electric to gas usage. The Leaf is only rated 99 MPGe, although it gets substantially more range.
As a test of the i-Miev's range gauge, I took a trip through San Francisco, from the Marina to CNET HQ. I zeroed the trip meter and noted the range showing 20 miles left. This trip involved two major hill climbs, which were somewhat mitigated by the resulting downhill braking regeneration. There was also downtown traffic, with stoplights every block or so.
The little display to the right of the power gauge, currently showing the odometer reading, also indicates remaining range.
This journey covered 4.7 miles, according to the trip meter, but used up 6 miles of range. Given the hills, I was impressed that the difference was so slight. On flat ground, the i-Miev should easily measure up to its EPA range.
With the Premium package in CNET's car, a big navigation head unit dominated the center of the dashboard. But Mitsubishi does not take good advantage of all that prime LCD real estate for the electric i-Miev. There are no screens relating to the electric power train at all, and I was amused to see that one of the main points-of-interest categories was gas stations. Well, those tiny tires will occasionally need air.
Despite the lack of useful power-train information on this head unit, the navigation system offers a useful array of features. It shows maps in 2D only, but they are stored on the hard drive, making the response times quick. The system also integrates traffic data, showing it on the map and using it to route around bad traffic jams.
The route guidance from the system is not flashy, but it does show useful information such as the appropriate lanes to be in at freeway junctions. The touch-screen keyboard works well for manually entering addresses, but I found the POI interface baffling. Choosing a category, for example, merely led me back to the search screen when I tried to select a location entry.
The motorized LCD hides a CD slot and the navigation system's hard drive.
The CD slot is hidden behind the LCD, which flips down at the touch of a button. This arrangement is ultimately clunky, but there is very little reason to use the CD player when the car also offers a USB port for iPod or USB drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, and space for music on the navigation system's hard drive.
Unexpectedly for an electric car, the audio system uses a robust, 360-watt amp, powering eight speakers. I liked the placement of the tweeters, which were very far forward on the dashboard, at the base of the windshield, and pointing back into the cabin. This placement resulted in crisp and well-separated sound with good staging. The low end was a bit lacking, though, as the system would benefit from a subwoofer.
The 2012 Mitsubishi i-Miev's electric drive system means home charging at rates likely to be much lower than the cost per mile of gasoline. The i-Miev's MPG equivalent rating is also a testament to the efficiency of its power train. But limited range and the car's poor freeway performance restrict its usefulness to a few very specific situations.
The available cabin tech is decent, but shows no integration with the electric nature of the car. And when optioned up, as CNET's car was, the price becomes equivalent to that of the Nissan Leaf, which has greater general capabilities, including better range and stabler driving at speed.
The easily accessible cabin, front and rear, is testament to some thoughtful engineering, considering the short overall length. And its size makes it very good in the city, nicely maneuverable in heavy traffic and on narrow streets. Not everyone will like its looks, but it is an unmistakable design, easily separated from the many homogenous sedans on the road.
|Model||2012 Mitsubishi i-Miev|
|Power train||49-kilowatt electric motor, 16 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack|
|EPA fuel economy||112 MPGe|
|Observed fuel economy||Not tested|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||360-watt 8-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$35,065|