Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mitsubishi i-MiEV a wonder, but not a commuter

Mark Glover’s AutoGlo reviews also can be seen on the business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website – via the “GALLERY: Reviews of new cars” link at

Sacramento, California – My first prolonged, truly solo effort in the brave new world of all-electric vehicles left me impressed … and a nervous wreck.

Sure, I’ve driven countless EVs at various events and auto shows, with the typical experience lasting maybe 10 minutes.  And yes, I had my time in the Chevy Volt, a plug-in that has a much longer range than a typical EV, thanks to a gas-fueled engine that seamlessly regenerates the battery on the fly.

But my week in the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV SE was like no other, with full responsibility for managing the small car in heavy freeway traffic and making sure the vehicle was adequately charged via a portable charger plugged into a 110-volt outlet in my garage.

They brought the car to me on a flatbed.  That gets your attention.  But it was necessary, because the i-MiEV’s 60-mile range negated its ability to make it the 100 or so miles from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento.

Propulsion is provided via a 66-horsepower electric motor linked to an 88-cell, 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.

At first glance, the car looked like the Volkswagen Beetle Year 3000, a rounded space bug that gave the appearance of perhaps having the ability to lift into the air for flight.  Its small size is understandable.  I get it.  We’re using only electric here.

One other thing about the car’s appearance: Looking at the front straight-on, the car’s architecture resembles a Smiley Face.

Interior controls for basic functions were easy to understand.  The ones you need to pay attention to are a little different.  Key among these is the mileage readout, the all-important vehicle range based on the last charging session.  Upon arrival, it read 61 miles.  OK, good to go.

Later that day, anticipating my usual 15-mile commute to the suburbs, I started it up (actually, the vehicle says it is “ready” as startup is silent) and the readout said 48 miles.  Huh?  Did the battery run down that much when the car was parked for six hours?

Yet as I drove the vehicle like it was made of glass, the mileage-range number started going up, a reward for cautious speed, regenerative braking and slow, gradual accelerations.  I became so fixated with the mileage number that I became the most cautious driver in the world; maybe that’s a plus.  And my worries didn’t end there.

What if I got stuck in a hopeless traffic jam?  Will the juice run out before I get home?  What if I really had to smash the accelerator to get out of harm’s way on the freeway?  Would I get enough oomph to dodge potential danger?  And how much juice might that use up?

How did it drive? Well, things went fine on city streets.  On the freeway, I felt like a pinball waiting to be batted around.  That was accentuated by exterior noise penetrating the cockpit, a byproduct of driving an all-but-silent electric vehicle.  The i-MiEV also makes some strange noises of its own at various times – no problems, just systems making necessary adjustments.

Safe at home, I immediately employed the 110-volt charger – the 240-volt, super-quick charger system is a must-install if you get this car – for its six- to eight-hour run to hopefully give me the full 60-mile range.  The next day, however, it showed 72 miles after a charge.  On the following day, it showed 48 miles.  Did I not have the charger plugged in correctly on the second day?  Maybe, I suppose.  I was later scolded for not having the 110-volt portable charger plugged in for longer than eight hours.  My bad!  Read the manual, idiot!

One other thing: The starting price on my four-passenger, five-door hatch was $31,125, quite pricey for a subcompact that you have to recharge.  But it’s reasonable, given the somewhat incredible technology therein.  And let’s face it, if you’re living near where you work, you’re not going to have to pay for gas if you religiously recharge the vehicle.

And folks, there it is:  If you live in the city and are, say, 10 to 20 blocks from where you work, this is the ideal urban vehicle to beat the gas price punch.  And yes, the same applies if your workplace is near your rural/suburban home.

No, it’s not the ideal car for someone with a daily 30-mile round-trip commute on the freeways.  Believe me, I know!  But that did not deflect the car’s potential in my mind.  Given the right living/working circumstances and driving the car for many years, it’s going to pay for itself.

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