Just another pie-in-the-sky electric concept car, right?
Wrong, for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve driven it: CAR Online is the first to get behind the wheel of the Mitsubishi i-EV. Second, Mitsubishi reckons it can have it on sale in the UK as early as next year - though 2009 seems a safer bet – for under fifteen grand. That will buy you a properly engineered, four-seat city car with a decent boot, an 80mph top speed, a 100-mile range and a charge time of as little as half an hour.
What if I need to do more than 100 miles in a day?
Don’t buy it. But the vast majority of cars cover nothing like as much, and if Mitsu can bring the i-EV here for that price there will be so much interest from those whom the range suits, those with a second car and those who simply want to be seen to be green that the UK importers will sell every one they can get their hands on. And as we discovered, you won’t be deterred by its dynamics.
How does it work?
It uses lithium ion batteries, like those in your laptop or the £50,000 Tesla Roadster electric sports car. They have much greater energy density (power-to-weight, basically) than old fashioned lead-acid or nickel metal-hydride batteries, so less battery weight carries your car further and faster. That’s why the i-EV is so much more practical than the 40mph, 40-mile range G-Wiz. The batteries are expensive but they’re rapidly getting cheaper, and production electric cars like this will help drive the price lower. The electric motor drives the rear wheels and replaces the standard i's petrol unit under the boot. There is no gearbox.
But is it dull to drive?
It’s actually slightly quicker than the petrol car. Start-up is disappointingly conventional; twist the key, choose drive or reverse on the conventional auto-style shifter. There’s no noise of course, until you hit the ‘gas’, when it moves off with a sigh from the electric motor, and a bit of tyre and chassis whir which a regular engine would usually mask. There are no official acceleration figures yet but it feels easily brisk enough to keep pace with conventional traffic, even with three beefy blokes aboard as we tested it. Mitsu says only that it’s a third quicker between 40 and 60kph than the standard car; it has a little more peak power than the petrol but twice the torque, enough to compensate for a 180kg increase in kerb weight to 1080kg. Expect a 60mph time of around 14 seconds.
So it’s faster, greener…
And it handles better too; the batteries are housed under the floor, lowering the centre of gravity a little and keeping the car flatter under cornering. Not that limit handling is really the issue here. You’ll be more interested in energy costs that are between a third and a ninth of even the 660cc standard i-car, zero tailpipe emissions and an estimated 72 percent reduction in CO2 if you charge the i-EV using standard grid power; using nuclear or renewables reduces that to zero too. A full charge using standard mains supplies is seven hours, but eighty percent can be had in around half that. Use a higher voltage supply and the 'quick-charge' facility will give you that eighty percent charge in just half an hour.
Fifteen grand is a lot to pay; the standard car is nine…
True, and it looks the same as the standard car (above). But despite being significantly more expensive than conventional rivals of the same size, hybrid sales double each year in the UK. Early adopters are happy to pay a premium to be seen in the latest green kit, and this thing makes a Prius look like a supertanker. There is serious pent-up demand for a practical electric car, and this could be the first. Mitsubishi’s UK arm did something similar with the standard i. When we first drove it early in 2006 they hadn’t persuaded the Japanese to sell it here. But you said you wanted it, they listened, and the first batch of 300 arrived this autumn and sold out in two and half weeks, with some buyers offering their dealers a premium. So register your interest now.
From what we know about battery tech it’s going to be tough to get the i-EV on sale for fifteen grand. But rapidly-changing technology and economies of scale mean Mitsu just might by 2008 or 2009. If it can, the i-EV will make a sufficiently compelling package – good range, good performance, good practicality – for the hefty premium over the standard car to be a non-issue for a large number of us. Britain’s first usable, affordable electric car? The i-EV could well be.