By Joe Wiesenfelder
July 30, 2010
Cars.com has been testing the Japanese version of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV battery-electric vehicle on Chicago streets.
Our car had keyless access and keyless start, like a lot of cars nowadays. With the keyfob in your pocket, you can unlock the doors by pushing a button on the driver's door, and then start the car by turning a knob where the ignition key would be.
Notwithstanding the fact that our car was right-hand drive, it was like a normal car in most ways. When you first turn it on, you hear some buzzing from the back, which is the electric power-brake assist preparing for the next stop. The sound then goes away and comes back only after you hit the brakes a couple of times. You don't hear it at all once you're on the move.
The i-MiEV (pronounced EYE-meev, according to Mitsubishi) has impressive get-up-and-go even with four occupants, as is the norm for electric cars. It doesn't make for lightning-fast sprints to 60 mph, but it's quite satisfying in urban and suburban settings. The transmission has the familiar PRND settings, plus Eco and B modes. Drive is the most like a normal car in that it lets you coast along when you lift off the accelerator. Eco gives you more engine braking (or motor/generator braking to be exact).
The B setting, which we've seen on some hybrids, gives you even more engine braking. Coasting down a hill, I switched from Drive to Eco to B and felt the car decelerate faster with each change. With the greater braking comes more battery regeneration, as indicated on the charge gauge. This type of braking will boost the electric vehicle's range.
With its increased regeneration, B turned out to be the most efficient mode. By controlling the car's acceleration and deceleration with the accelerator pedal, I maximized regeneration and made very little use of the brakes. Unlike hybrids, the i-MiEV's brakes don't regenerate energy. They're just normal brakes, and as such, they operate and feel better than brakes on most hybrid cars. But they actually rob you of efficiency by turning your inertia into heat in the brake pads rather than electricity in the generator. The best-case scenario is that you use them as little as possible, and the B setting does this best.
So what's Eco mode? It makes the accelerator pedal -- there's no gas, after all -- less sensitive and provides more regeneration than Drive but not as much as B. Here's my problem with it: It doesn't just change the nature of the accelerator response; it limits your power. When you floor the pedal, the i-MiEV scoots from zero to 45 mph in about 7 seconds when in Drive and B. It takes 9 seconds when in Eco. Whether it's in an electric, gas, diesel or any other kind of car, an economy mode should always give you full power when the pedal is floored. It's the only safe approach.
Overall, the i-MiEV was a fun experience. Its shortcomings -- top-heaviness, susceptibility to crosswinds and prodigious wind noise at highway speed-- are a byproduct of the car, not its electric nature. (The "i" has been sold overseas for about five years with a three-cylinder gas engine.) Comparisons to the Smart ForTwo are natural, and we noticed similar problems with that car -- plus a good many others.
That's not to say the electric aspect didn't have its shortcomings. To my way of thinking, the main problem isn't the limited range so much as the utter inability to gauge how much range you have left.
The paperwork says the i-MiEV's range is 80 to 100 miles. The U.S. version may deliver those numbers next year, but this Japanese-market model is probably good for 80 miles in the best circumstances. Mitsubishi estimates that each segment of the battery-level bar graph represents three to 4.5 miles, and with 16 bars, that adds up to 48 to 72 miles. Our test car's distance-to-empty gauge never read more than 80 kilometers, or about 50 miles.
It's possible that such indicators will improve, but I wouldn't count on it. The problem is the same as it is with gas cars: Mileage varies with driving style and environment, and it's exaggerated in hybrids and electrics. Turn on the air conditioning, and the distance-to-empty meter instantly dumps more than 10 km.
Driving to downtown Chicago in B mode at a moderate speed on a slight downhill grade with the windows open, I covered more than 15 miles when the second gauge segment ticked off — much better than the three-plus segments I'd been led to expect.
In contrast, if it was raining, forcing me to turn on the headlights, close the windows and turn on the air, it would have been a different story. If you add some winter cold and short days, which decrease battery capacity, and call for electric heat, this viable commuter car would probably become unusable for me.
These complaints aren't about the i-MiEV alone. Other battery-electrics will be equally unpredictable. As for charging the i-MiEV, it could hardly have been easier, but the unattractive realities were also easy to see. I had 110 volts in my garage. A 220-volt outlet is less common. Mitsubishi estimates that recharging fully depleted battery can take 12 to 14 hours at 110 volts and six to eight hours at 220 volts.
To give the benefit of the doubt, assuming a full 80 miles of range from the shorter time estimates, 110 volts works out to 6.7 miles of range for every hour of charging, and 220 volts gives you 13.3 miles. Unlike some rechargeable appliances, you drain an electric car battery way faster than you can charge it. Charge times might improve, but there's no overcoming the physics.
The i-MiEV also supports high-voltage three-phase charging, which can hit an 80 percent charge in 20 to 30 minutes. It's certainly better, but this much power is unlikely at home or even at a curbside charging post. Even if you find such a station, 20 minutes is a long time for 65 miles of range when you're accustomed to pumping a few hundred miles' worth of gas in five minutes.
This is just one illustration of how much expectations must change for buyers to be satisfied with electric cars. Another adjustment is the i-MiEV's size. It's small by necessity. More size would mean more weight, which would mean a shorter range and/or a larger battery and thus longer charging times and a higher purchase price. Mitsubishi estimates that the U.S. i-MiEV will retail for just under $30,000, and you can subtract $7,500 with a federal tax credit.
I suspect that battery-electrics like the i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf will sell out. There are plenty of early adopters and ecological stewards, but the notion that electric cars will replace what we've grown accustomed to is optimistic at best. Barring sustained high fuel prices, Americans as a whole won't want to make any sacrifices, much less the myriad sacrifices that battery-electric cars require.
Substantial government subsidies for the manufacture and sale of the vehicles and supporting infrastructure are meant to jump-start an entire industry, but will prices really come down as much as hoped? How soon? How long will taxpayers stomach footing the bill for niche buyers? I remain as skeptical as I am enthusiastic.