The 2012 Mitsubishi i subcompact electric car falls short both as a car and as an electric vehicle (EV).
The i is a battery-powered subcompact four-door hatchback. It's based on a gasoline-powered car Mitsubishi sells in Japan. It's one of a small but growing number of EVs and plug-in hybrids.
Prices start at $29,125. All i's come with an electric motor that produces 66 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque, and a single-speed automatic transmission.
The SE adds 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lights and a few other features. It starts at $31,125. I tested an SE with options including a navigation system and hands-free phone compatibility. It cost $33,915. All prices exclude destination charges and federal and state tax incentives.
The i competes with cars like the Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus electric, Honda Fit electric, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid.
The i costs less than most electric and plug-in hybrid cars, but it's smaller, less comfortable and has less range than most competitors. All electric vehicles face questions about their battery range and charging time, but the competitors outperform the i.
The EPA says the i's range is 62 miles on a charge. That's less than a quarter tank for most gasoline-powered cars, and less than any other EV claims. The battery is a 16 kWh lithium-ion unit that takes seven hours to charge fully with a 240-volt outlet.
The bottom line is that an i owner shouldn't figure on going more than 30 miles away-more likely 25, since most people are conservative about running out of fuel-unless there's a 240-volt charger and a place they can wait for seven hours at the end of the trip. The i's charging time is comparable with Nissan's Leaf, which has an EPA rated 73-mile range, but longer than Ford claims for its Focus EV, which has a 76-mile range.
I found the i's range to be less than 62 miles. In mixed surface and highway driving around metro Detroit, I used about 1.25 miles of charge for every mile I actually covered. The range improves when driven exclusively in stop-and-go traffic on surface streets.
Range isn't an issue if you buy an extended-range electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid. The EPA says the Chevrolet Volt can cover 38 miles on a charge before its gasoline-powered generator starts.
Total range on a battery charge and a tank of gas is 382 miles. The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid that goes on sale shortly claims a battery range of up to 15 miles. Like the Volt, its gasoline engine takes over for longer drives.
Extended-range EVs and plug-ins - the distinction between the two is largely semantics - erase range anxiety, the fear that an EV will leave you stranded miles from home.
The i's interior looks and feels cheap, with very little storage space for glasses, phones and other items. The steering wheel neither tilts nor telescopes, something that's almost unheard of in contemporary cars.
There's plenty of room in the front seat, and the high roof affords ample head room.
Rear leg room is severely limited. There's a useful 13.4 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seat. The voice-recognition system is not as sophisticated as those competitors offer.
The car also has a couple of design failings. The odometer and cruising range use the same gauge. That means you can't see the two most critical parameters for driving an EV - how far have I gone and how much farther can I go - at the same time.
The location of the charge port in the rear fender - it's at the front of the Volt, Focus and Leaf - makes it hard to plug into charging stations in public parking lots.
The i is extremely easy to park. It's about 30 inches shorter than the Focus, Leaf, Prius and Volt.
Acceleration is excellent, because electric motors produce plenty of torque as soon as they start.
Despite the i's shortcomings, there's something very satisfying about a high-efficiency subcompact that blows the doors off a hopped-up pickup truck revving at the stop light. The "eco" button extends the car's range, but power falls significantly.
The steering is very light. It provides little feedback, and I found the car tended to wander in its lane. The i is best suited for surface streets. It feels jittery at highway speeds.
EVs and various types of hybrids are almost certainly the way of the future. Unfortunately for Mitsubishi, there's no "i" in future.
2012 MITSUBISHI I SE
Front-wheel drive four-door subcompact electric hatchback
Rating: Two out of four stars
Reasons to buy: Electric power, easy to park, acceleration
Shortcomings: Price, range, handling, passenger room, interior storage
Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive battery-powered electric four-passenger subcompact four-door hatchback
Power: 66-horsepower electric motor, 16kWh lithium-ion battery
Transmission: Single fixed reduction gear
Base price, base model: $29,125
Base price, test model: $31,125
Price as tested: $33,915
All prices exclude destination charges and tax incentives
Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press.
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