Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mitsubishi i-MiEV - The Electric Car You Haven't Met Yet

You've surely heard a lot more about electric cars lately, with the Tesla, Leaf, Volt and others making the news. You probably haven't heard much about the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, however, so here's a chance to find out about it.I drove one of these revolutionary vehicles for a work week: Monday through Friday. It was an adventure.

Knowing I had an all-electric car coming, I prepared. With a posted 62 mile average range, the Mitsubishi would just barely cover my 60-mile round-trip commute, so I explored the neighborhood for a place to plug in. I found four ChargePoint charging stations, and applied and received an account card. That would allow me to use them. But, when I swiped my card at the station, I found out that they were only usable by the company whose building stood behind them. Oh, well.

The i-MiEV (i for short) is more pod-like and futuristic than most cars. It's a "one box" design, but there's nothing boxy about it. It is kind of cute, really. Inside, there's room for four people, but kneeroom is tight in back. It does feel spacious, however, with a high roofline. The hatchback configuration is useful.

The instrumentation is minimal, but it has what you need. Unlike a hybrid, you don't need to know when the gas is flowing or the battery is discharging. All you need is a digital speedometer, an estimated range meter, and a gauge that shows you how you're driving. Like all electrics and hybrids, the car is either using battery power or recharging the battery. You can be driving in town and alternating between using and charging--and keep that estimated range at the same figure for quite a while. I noticed that the i regenerates without an unnatural feel to the brakes that makes it feel like someone is pushing the pedal for you.

Receiving my White Pearl/Ocean Blue 2012 test car at work, I drove it home in the blissful silence of electric vehicles--and kept an eye on the range meter. With a posted 51-mile range, I figured I could go 30 miles with no problem, and when I pulled in the driveway, it read 22. That was perfect. However, it was obvious I'd have to prepare to charge at work during the day.

I went online and found another charging location a 20-minute walk away. The press fleet had kindly given me two charge company cards to use. This station was from Blink Network, another supplier, and I found a long row of  unoccupied stations. Great! It's easy to use these stations. You just plug in the cord from their machine into the socked on your car (behind what would normally be the gas door) and walk away. I used the regular (240-volt) charger and walked the 20 minutes to work. I called it my "exercise program" - helping the planet and myself at the same time. I would hate to have to do this every day, rain or shine, however.

When I got to the car 10 hours later, I found that it had filled the battery, but also charged me $1.50 per hour--$15. That wouldn't do for the long term. Apparently, it's connection time, not amount of juice you take, that they use to calculate your bill.

The next day, I worked from home, but used the car to visit a friend who lives 24 miles away. I figured, starting with a range of 65, I'd have enough. But, when I got there, I saw that I had only 29 miles left on the meter. I tried not to worry about it, but on the way home, I tried driving as carefully as I could, using good electric car technique. This involves accelerating gently, not going over 55 on the freeway, and being sure to get maximum regenerative braking where possible. From that 29 on the meter, when I got home it said 17. A miracle.

The most convenient place to charge your car is at home, even at normal 110 household current, so I pulled the cord out of the modest bag it came in and plugged in when I was at  home. However, 110 is slow, so you need to charge all night. With a partial charge in there already, it was full by morning, but when I started the process with the battery near empty, overnight was not enough to complete fill the battery--something to think about. You can have a 240 charger installed that should cut that time significantly.

On Thursday of my test week, I tried another charging approach. I had a friend (in an all-electric Nissan Leaf) follow me to the Blink charging station. We saw their quick station was free, and since the i has both kinds of sockets, I was able to plug in to the 440-volt charger. My i had have a battery's worth of juice when I did. We had lunch and returned 45 minutes later and the battery was full! If you can use quick charging, it's a real advantage, but stations are only in certain locations. Actually, the charging infrastructure is still in its infancy, so if you plan to charge on-the-go, you'll need to do your research. The charging company websites can help, and their systems can text you when your car is charged and provide other ways of making it easier.

The EPA numbers for electric cars use the MPGe rating--an "equivalent." My i had an average of 112 MPGe, figuring on 126 City and 99 Highway. The sticker says I'd save $9,850 dollars in fuel costs over five years compared to an average new vehicle.

That's good, because the total MSRP of the car, including $3,000 in options and $850 in destination charges, was $35,065. Of course, there are federal and state rebates that can save you a significant amount, and the cost of fuel and maintenance is much lower. Some cheap lease deals are around on electric cars, as well.

There are numerous advantages to owning an electric car, including low operating costs, minimal maintenance requirements, and a low carbon footprint. The main downsides are initial cost of purchase and limited range. You have to decide what works best for your driving needs. With a 30-mile each way commute, a 62-mile range is a little small. Other electrics have EPA numbers of 70 or 80 miles, and the Tesla offers a much greater range--but at a much higher price.

I actually enjoyed driving the i. It felt responsive, with the torque inherent to all electric motors. It was stable on the road, although it did move a little side-to-side on a major bridge with the wind blowing. The seats were comfortable, the leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter made those touch points feel upscale, and the silent, smooth travel was kind of like flying. The car is fully loaded with things like a heated driver's seat, a 360-watt, eight-speaker audio system, keyless remote, and attractive alloy wheels.

Oh, I left out one of the best parts--the carpool lane stickers. I was able to use the carpool lane as a solo driver in commute hours and it cut my trip by about a third. I was flying by those poor gasoline-using folks! That alone may be worth the price of admission to an electric car.

If I could use an electric car like this for commuting only, and had a fuel-burner for all my other errands, it would be almost ideal. The manufacturers are scrambling to increase range, and prices will come down as volume increases. I can see a day when the 200-mile range, $25,000 electric car will be a reality. For now, if you can live with the 62-mile range, you should at least consider the Mitsubishi i when you're shopping.

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