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Mitsubishi i-Gas and i-MiEV – Ready for Prime Time?

I have been looking for a chance to drive the diminutive Mitsubishi i-Cars ever since I first saw the photos of them. When visiting Mitsubishi HQ in Cypress, California, there they are in the lobby on display. But it wasn’t until the just finished Outlander and Friends press preview Mitsubishi held in Palm Springs that I was able to drive both of the i-Cars.

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There were two i-Cars at the preview – the i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) – the all electric Japanese kei car that the press is reporting on continuously and its gasoline-powered base car. Lets talk about the gas-powered version first.
“kei” Car for the USA? First, the Mitsubishi i is a very, very small car. It is a Japanese “kei” car meaning it is designed to be a tiny commuter car for dense urban environments. It also means that the car is limited to a 660cc engine. The example we were able to drive was powered by a turbocharged 660cc engine, had an automatic transmission and all wheel drive.

Innovative Package a Substantial Advantage – but Very Narrow The i has a very innovative package. The base rear-wheel-drive car has its engine mounted flat under the rear floor. This is similar to the Daimler smart, and no coincidence since the Mitsu shares philosophy if not components with the German-French smart. This gives the Mitsubishi an outstanding package for its footprint. It is relatively tall, has a very long wheelbase for its overall length with its wheels pushed out to the corners. Because of its shape, its doors are generous making easy to get into and out of. Where it lacks is in width. Two full-size Americans sitting abreast in the i-Car are shoulder-to-shoulder. Visibility is great.
Driving the i-Gas is Seamless It is easy to drive, very maneuverable, responsive in a small, slow car way. While this example was the top-of-the-line i-Gas it still feels like a very small car designed to a tight budget. There are few customer frills. The door trim panels are hard plastic and the instrument panel is very basic. The engine vibrates a bit at idle and buzzes mightily under full throttle acceleration. The transmission shifts smoothly (this is totally different from the smart where the transmission is its killing point).
Trim Needs an Upgrade – Big Time On the negative side, the instrument panel and door trim panels look like they are cost-reduced within an inch of their lives. Think Yugo and you have the ambiance of the I/P and door trim in the i-Car. Hopefully, if it comes to the USA, these components will be substantially upgraded.
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Electric i-MiEV a Pleasant Surprise With all the hoopla about electric cars of late, it is a little known fact that the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is the only full electric vehicle in mass production today. All others are short runs of other cars, golf carts, or test beds for EVs of the future. It counts that Mitsubishi is the first with an EV and the question is when it will come to the USA.
The i-MiEV is very, very quiet and smooth. Driving through the gray-haired environs of Palm Springs the biggest concern is that you might hit a pedestrian who never hears you coming. Another concern is that you won’t get crushed by a snow bird driving their S-Class or DTS and not seeing you you.
At the right price, the i-MiEV is a salable proposition in the USA. Priced at $45,000 as it is in Japan sales would be minuscule even with government subsidies taking care of half the price. There aren’t enough tree huggers living in congested cities to absorb many at lofty prices. In fact, AutoPacific’s most recent research shows that people who would consider an EV actually expect to pay lass, not more, than people considering any other type of powertrain. Think mid-twenties and you might have a price point that people would flock to.

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