Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev. Click image to enlarge

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Mitsubishi i-Miev

Mitsubishi Motors recently completed a 28-day, cross-Canada journey and publicity tour of its right-hand drive Japanese-production i-MiEV (i-Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle), a four-passenger, subcompact urban car that’s already been on sale in Japan for over a year where it sells for four-million Yen, or about CAN$49,000. In late 2011, the left-hand drive production version of the i-MiEV will go on sale in Canada at an estimated retail price between $30,000 and $40,000. That price is expected to come down when and if sales and production increase.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is just one of a torrent of electric cars expected to be available in the Canadian market in the next few years. Later this year, the two-seater Smart ForTwo Electric Drive and the Ford Transit Connect EV van will go on sale here. In 2011, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, and Ford Focus EV will arrive. In 2012, expect to see a Fiat 500EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, Honda EV and Honda plug-in hybrid. And in 2013, BMW will introduce its MegaCity urban car. Also under development is a Chevrolet Cruze EV, Volvo C30 EV, Hyundai BlueOn EV, Mercedes-Benz and Audi electric sports cars, BYD (Chinese) electric car and other electric cars designed for foreign markets.

Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev. Click image to enlarge

Then there’s the “extended range” Chevrolet Volt expected in mid 2011, a plug-in battery electric car with an onboard gasoline motor for recharging the batteries to give it a range comparable with gasoline cars.

Most of them, including the i-MiEV, use lithium-ion battery packs because of their slower discharge rate, better energy-to-weight ratio and lack of memory effect (they can be recharged at any time without losing capacity) when compared with other automotive batteries such as nickel-metal hydride and lead-acid.

Even so, lithium-ion batteries take a long time to fully recharge using normal household current. In the i-MiEV’s case, it takes 14 hours to recharge from empty. If you have a 240-volt charger, which can be adapted from your home’s existing wiring for your clothes dryer (for a price), it takes about seven hours to recharge. Of course, if the battery has half the charge left, it takes only half the time to recharge.

Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev. Click image to enlarge

As the i-MiEV is designed for city use, and most city dwellers live in condominiums or townhouses where access to an outside 110-volt powerpoint is not possible, many won’t even consider buying an electric car because they won’t be able to charge it overnight. Some Canadian cities, such as Vancouver, have enacted new legislation to require power outlets in the parking garages of new buildings, but this represents only a fraction of the buildings now occupied.

One worry for Canadian drivers is the power drain when the heater is turned on in winter. While the i-MiEV’s headlights and wiper motors draw power from the standard 12-volt battery, the heater and air conditioner draw power from the main lithium-ion battery. “The 16 kw/h (Li-ion) battery could be drained within three hours by the five kw/h heater if it was turned on to maximum heat and fan speed,” said Tomoki Yanagawa, VP Sales, Marketing and Corporate Planning Mitsubishi Motors of Canada. Of course, most drivers won’t be running with the heater at full blast for three hours, but the power drain from the heater will reduce overall driving range.

As it is, the i-MiEV has a total driving range of only 120 kilometres between charges, typical of many electric cars. That’s akin to about a quarter tank of gas. It may be enough range for city commuters, but long-distance road trips would be impossible due to the amount of time it would take to “refuel” every 120 kilometres.

Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev. Click image to enlarge

Though the i-MiEV does have a top speed of 130 km/h, its performance is better suited to low speed conditions. Mitsubishi says the i-MiEV has a zero to 80 km/h acceleration time of 10.6 seconds, and with maximum torque available from zero rpm, the i-MiEV is designed for quick acceleration from stop light to stop light rather than for highway passing.

As well, as a small, narrow urban car, it’s easy to manoeuvre in city traffic and easy to park. The tall cabin is surprisingly roomy and can seat four adults plus some luggage behind the rear seats.

Yanagawa estimates the cost of electricity to power the i-MiEV to be about one-tenth the cost of gasoline for a comparable car. In Ontario, that works out to just one cent per kilometre compared to about 5.9 cents per km for gasoline. And as a zero-emissions vehicle, the i-MiEV is about 70 per cent cleaner than a gasoline vehicle, even after taking into account CO2 emissions from power plants.

But though fuel costs are lower, the i-MiEV’s projected purchase price in Canada is expensive when compared with traditional gasoline vehicles. Even if the i-MiEV owner were to save five cents per kilometre compared to a gas car, it would take about 10 to 20 years to recover the estimated $10,000 to $20,000 difference in the retail price of the i-MiEV when compared with a subcompact economy car like the Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris*. And if the i-MiEV owner needs a second car for longer highway drives, that just adds to the cost.

The i-MiEV is a wonderful piece of ‘green’ technology, but unless and until the price comes down and the range goes up, its sales are likely to be limited – a concern that’s likely to apply to other battery-electric cars.

*Calculation based on driving 20,000 km per year.

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