Mitsubishi i-MiEV: A Pure-Electric Car That’s Fun, But Not Yet Practical

Geek Culture

Photo: Mitsubishi Motors North America

I’d driven a hybrid car before, but never a pure-electric one, so I was excited to try out the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Despite the car’s awkward name, it’s a very nice little machine, and one that’s remarkably fun to drive. Whether it’s practical or not for the general consumer is another matter entirely.

(Note: In my previous car reviews, I’ve called out a section labelled “Geek Factor” which contains info about the car that I think will interest geeks the most. In this review, I haven’t done so, because pretty much everything about electric cars fits the category.)

There are two things about an i-MiEV (which stands for “Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle”) that you notice right away the first time you drive one. First, its pickup is amazingly fast — sports car fast, really — which makes sense when you think about it, as there’s no chemical reaction to wait for. Second, it’s startlingly easy to drive way faster than you intend to, because the feedback you’re used to getting from engine noise and feel are completely absent.

It’s that silence that may be my favorite part about driving the i-MiEV. As I said, I’d driven a hybrid before, and been impressed by the car’s quietness, but driving a car that has no gas engine at all makes a hybrid seem positively loud. In fact, the engine is so quiet that when you’re driving slowly enough that you might be in a parking lot, the car automatically makes an artificial noise so that pedestrians can hear you coming.

I was surprised to find that the i-MiEV had a navigation system, a good stereo system (with Bluetooth audio, even), and a backup camera — I’d figured that anything that would drain the battery unnecessarily would be left out, but I guess the amount of power the accessories draw is fairly insignificant compared to what the engine draws. I was very impressed with the user interface of the console, in fact — it just displayed the necessary info clearly and simply, and provided access to the necessary controls for the various functions without a lot of clutter. In particular, the car’s speed — which as I mentioned you really need to keep an eye on — was displayed in big bold red numerals right in the middle of the dashboard. And the seats were quite comfortable, including the back ones (according to the friend of mine who tried them out, anyway).

Of course, there are still the two biggest issues with electric cars left to address. The i-MiEV has an expected range of about 80 miles on a full charge. And you can charge it either at a publicly available charging station — which are more common than you’re probably aware, and for which the federal government provides a web-based location search utility — or using your regular old home power outlet.

Just to see how well it would work, I hooked up the car to a regular power outlet at my home overnight, after having drained the battery about halfway. For reasons I still can’t fathom, while all the indicators said it was charging the whole time, the battery’s charge level rose only a very little bit. This wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for buying one, though, because purchasers are required to get a charging station installed at their house (the car comes with a coupon to help defray the cost), so the likelihood of an i-MiEV owner needing to use a normal 110V outlet for charging is pretty low.

I haven’t mentioned the car’s appearance yet, and that’s because I’m not sure exactly how to describe it. Some might call it “funky,” and I might be tempted to call it “weird,” but perhaps for the sake of some impartiality I’ll say that it’s simply eye-catching. I know this is true, because when I had the car out and about, I think there was perhaps one time when I parked it anywhere — including in the lot of the townhouse complex I live in — when I didn’t have at least one person ask me about the car, and that wasn’t just because the sides of the car each spelled out what i-MiEV stood for and sported a painting of an electrical cord.

So, what’s the overall verdict? It’s a great car to drive, and of course is a huge energy saver — its equivalent combined MPG is 112, with 126 highway and 99 city. You’d be hard-pressed to find a conventional car or even hybrid that could come close to matching that. Mileage like that really could justify getting a fairly small car for a retail price of just under $30,000.

The chief problem, of course, is its range. And it’s that which is going to keep electric cars from becoming widely used for some time to come. For everyday commuting and errands, having an electric car would be fantastic, but what if you had to take a long car trip? Even if you knew exactly where to find charging stations at the right points along the way, it’d still take about two hours to do a full charger, and the “quick charge” that is evidently available at many such stations is not good to do multiple times in succession. My family regularly takes 500-mile road trips several times a year — I can’t imagine adding an extra 12 hours to the ride in order to avoid running out of juice.

So, would I buy a Mitsubishi i-MiEV? No: it’s just not practical for my family’s needs, and $30,000 is a lot of money — even with the government’s continued tax breaks for buying an electric vehicle. I’d love to have one for my daily commute, both for the pleasure of driving and because it has so much less environmental impact than a conventional automobile — I just can’t see spending the money on it myself.

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