Test driving the Mitsubishi i electric car

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On Monday I was handed the keys to a Mitsubishi i electric vehicle to try out for the day. This four-passenger vehicle is not a plug-in hybrid, but a true electric car. The price is very attractive: it starts at $21,625 after a federal tax credit of $7,500.

I drove the Mitsubishi i in the hills, in city streets, and on the freeway. It had no problem accelerating up to 70 miles an hour (it has a rated top speed of 80 miles an hour, but I didn't want to get a speeding ticket). I tried it out in the three driving modes it offers: standard, economy, and regenerative braking mode. Standard, as you might expect, is the zippiest. Economy mode is slightly anemic, but not as sluggish as I thought it might be. I did not like the regenerative braking mode, because as soon as I lifted my foot from the pedal, the brakes would kick in and the car would slow down in a way that would certainly end up making me and my passengers feel sick after a while. (The regenerative braking happens in the other 2 modes as well, but the effect is more subtle.)

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Even though the seating and interior was of the no-frills variety, the car came with a nice audio and navigation system, with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. Hurray for cheap electronics that make driving more fun!

When I picked up the car, the mileage indicator said the range was 91 miles (the rated range is 62 miles/charge). As soon as I started driving it I noticed that the miles were dropping faster than the distance I was traveling. By switching it to economy mode, the mileage indicator seem to be more accurate.

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I took the car home, and parked in the garage. I topped off the batteries by plugging it into a 120 V AC outlet. After a couple of hours, the mileage indicator increased about 12 miles. It turns out that there are three ways to charge the Mitsubishi i, and the 120 V standard outlet is by far the slowest -- it takes 22.5 hours to fully charge it. The optional home charging dock (which uses 240V) will charge the car in 7 hours. If you are lucky enough to have public quick-charge ports in your area, you can use one to charge the car to 80% capacity in 30 minutes. Mitsubishi claims that "thousands of public quick-chargers are currently under development across the nation," but "under development" is a mighty loose term. (Here's a list of electric vehicle charging stations currently in operation.) If there were already a widely distributed network of quick public chargers, I would buy one of these cars without hesitation.

It's rated at 112 MPGe (from the literature: "the energy present in one gallon of gasoline -- if you converted that gallon into electricity -- can send the Mitsubishi i a whopping 112 miles.")

Here's some info about the motor and batteries, cribbed straight from the press release:

Powered by Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle (MiEV) technology, the rear-wheel drive vehicle’s drive system includes a 49 kW (66 bhp) AC synchronous electric motor; an 88 cell, 330V lithium-ion battery pack for a peak storage of 16 kWh; and a single fixed-reduction gear transmission. This electric motor is capable of producing its peak torque of 145 lb.-ft. almost instantaneously when accelerating from a standstill; the vehicle has a top speed of approximately 80 mph.

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The back seats are roomy enough for adults, but with four people in the car, there's not a lot of room for groceries. If you don't have backseat passengers, the seats fold down, providing plenty of room.

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The most striking thing about the Mitsubishi i is that it behaves pretty much like a standard gasoline powered car. I was anticipating having a futuristic experience driving it around, but instead it felt pretty much like a standard issue econobox. I realized that's exactly how an electric car should feel -- like a car everyone is already comfortable driving. I would be perfectly happy driving one, and am thinking about buying one when they become available in the coming months, despite the fact that there's not a lot of public charging stations around.

I know that there is a trade-off between using gasoline and using toxic batteries, but after testing the Mitsubishi i, I think the future of cars is going to be fully electric.

Find out more about the Mitsubishi i