Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?
Not the European version, no. The diminutive Mitsubishi i city car closely resembles the ‘Concept i’ shown back in Frankfurt 2003 and a production version has been on sale in Japan since January 2006 – and CAR Online drove the Japanese version recently. But from 1 July 2007, you’ll be able to buy this innovative rear-engined, five-door, four-seat urban runabout in UK showrooms. Mitsubishi UK thinks the car will appeal to design-conscious city-dwellers who want something small (it’s shorter than a Fiat Panda by 143mm and narrower than even the new Smart forTwo by 84mm), nippy (57bhp 659cc engine) and eco-friendly (54.6mpg and 114g/km CO2). Crucially, it doesn’t look like a Noddy car either.
Is the UK-spec car different from the original?
Not too much, which is a good thing. The UK version is almost identical to the Japanese car save a few Europe-specific legislative necessities like a rear foglamp, radio bandwidth converter (so when you tune to Radio 1 you don’t get Radio 4) and a carbon filter in the catalyst and a slight engine re-map to trim emissions below the 120g/km mark to ensure a Band B road tax rating. Mitsubishi hopes it may qualify for London Congestion Charge exemption under new CO2-based proposals. But the remapping blunts power (by 7bhp) and mpg (by 1mpg) slightly over the Japanese version. A shame.
What’s it like to drive on UK roads?
Weaving in and out of traffic and parking in town is easy with such light steering and a titchy small turning circle. It's fine at faster speeds on dual carriageways and bigger roads, too; the small engine is peppy enough and it can keep up with bigger cars. Let's keep it in perspective, though. You wouldn’t want to drive the length of the M1 in an i, but it will cope for occasional motorway trips. Besides, the decent stereo soon drowns out the loud thrum of the engine. On windy A and B roads the steering feels light and the car understeers everywhere, but this is not the sort of car to take on hot hatches. The option to drop the auto lever into a fixed third or second gear helps if you want to take things more quickly. The only other downside is a ride that can crash over big bumps and holes. Take speed bumps slowly or you’ll soon prefer to use roads that don’t have them.
What’s it like inside?
The big windscreen and simple but stylish layout make the cockpit very airy. Although there are a few hollow-sounding and cheap-feeling plastics about, they don’t seem out of place on a car of this size. The one-colour seats are unusual and minimalist – with a distinctive groove in the seat and back – and comfortable with it. Six-foot adults can fit in the back with head and legroom to spare – even behind six-foot adults in the front. Only rear shoulder room is a little tight, owing to those narrow dimensions, but it’s fine for most journeys. With the engine just in front of the rear wheels, the boot floor is higher than in most cars, but a few weekend bags or a single child buggy will squeeze in there – and the rear seats fold flat easily for bigger items.
What do you get for your money?
The UK i is being launched as high-spec, one trim-only car at £9084. For that you get 15-inch alloys, CD player, climate control and all-electric windows. You even get electric folding mirrors, though they seem superfluous: unless you park several feet away from the kerb, the i will rarely stick out on English streets. For the UK you also get an optional Mini-style £150 cut-price servicing deal, covering the car's routine maintenance for three years. The only options are sat-nav, leather seats and an iPod socket. It's a tiny car, but safety is well covered by two airbags, and a large front crumple zone without the complication of a front-mounted engine for frontal collisions or pedestrian impacts.
How does the i compare with other city cars?
Let's not beat around the bush. The i is expensive. Many other city cars – the Ford Ka (from £7117), Fiat Panda (£6995) and Toyota Aygo (£6845) offer cheaper starting prices, but the i’s £9084 price reflects a top trim model that compares with top-end models from other brands. And it's only available with five doors. What the baby Mitsub can't do is offer the bigger engines of rivals. The only true rivals in image terms are a top-spec Smart Fortwo or perhaps the Fiat Panda Alessi special edition.
The Mitsubishi i has style and substance in spades. Its layout and design have won numerous Japanese design awards (and not just car-related ones); it's the concept car (above) that escaped the motor show - a pointer to what the Smart forFour could have been. It's also great fun and perfectly practical for the city dweller that needs to hit the motorway only occasionally. In a nutshell? Good design and a thoroughly refreshing take on the city car.