It’s clear from the first glance that this car is something out of the ordinary. The egg-shaped body looks like nothing else on the road. At a glance it looks out of place on the highway, but the Mitsubishi i is right where it belongs. This fully-electric commuter may look like a golf cart, but it’s a real car.
While the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf have been grabbing all of the electric-car headlines, another major player has been quietly working its way into the market. The Mitsubishi i electric car received a relatively subdued introduction in 2011, and it continues into 2013 as one of the most distinctive vehicles in a market segment already notable for being outside the mainstream.
The styling has been optimized for crowded urban environments. The i started life as an ultra-efficient city car in Japan in 2006, with a rear-mounted engine (similar to the smart fortwo) for maximum interior space. The unusual engine layout made the installation of an electric motor and battery relatively simple, and the popularity of the i in Japan led Mitsubishi to develop the i-MiEV electric vehicle. The gasoline-free version of the i made it to our shores in 2011.
It’s rather adorable. The i is all passenger cabin, with small 15-inch wheels pushed out to the extreme corners of the vehicle and a rounded, egg-like shape. The headlights are mounted halfway up the almost nonexistent hood, and tower-style taillights dominate the rear aspect. This is a very small five-door sedan. It looks as though everything not vital to carrying people has been removed because it has; the smaller dimensions make it easier to maneuver and park in crowded cities.
On the inside, the i is shockingly spacious. From the driver’s seat, you can’t see the stubby tail, and the lack of a hood isn’t as noticeable. Mitsubishi widened the i’s track by more than four inches for the North American version, providing additional interior space. The dash and small console are typical economy-car utilitarian plastic, but the i is reasonably well-equipped as a base model. Air conditioning, a heated driver’s seat and a four-speaker sound system are standard equipment. The i even can be optioned up with heated exterior mirrors, a navigation system with rearview camera and steering wheel audio controls. Around town, the i is pedestrian-safe, thanks to a standard noise generator that alerts people to the presence of the silent-running electric car.
At the rear, there’s a 13.2 cubic-foot cargo area. With the seats folded, this expands to more than 50 cubic feet, giving the i the volume of a small SUV.
Power comes from a 49 kW AC synchronous electric motor that produces 66 horsepower. Energy comes from an 88-cell lithium-ion battery pack, and the i boasts a range of 62 miles. There are three different charging levels; a full charge from a household outlet takes about seven hours at the slowest rate. A single-speed transmission puts the power to the road efficiently and without drama.
The suspension is independent, with MacPherson struts in the front and a deDion style rear. Out on the road, the i drives like a small car, and apart from the lack of noise there’s not much to distinguish it. From behind the wheel, it doesn’t feel as stubby and top-heavy as it looks. The i is happiest on surface streets. It will take to the freeway readily enough, but its small size and 2,500-pound curb weight mean that it’s prone to crosswinds. You’ll also have to deal with gawkers wondering why you’re driving a golf cart on the freeway.
From a safety standpoint, the i is well-equipped with standard stability and traction control augmenting the four-wheel anti-lock brakes. A total of six airbags are on hand to protect the i’s occupants, including roof-mounted curtain airbags.
Mitsubishi’s little electric car is odd, but it doesn’t wear the oddness as a quirky badge of pride. The i wants to just fade into the background and do its job, but until electric cars become a lot more commonplace, it’s unlikely to accomplish this goal. What it will do is get you from Point A to Point B with a minimum of fuss and absolutely zero tailpipe emissions. The minor celebrity that comes from running around town in an egg-shaped electric car? Consider that a bonus.
Base price for the i is $29,125, and option packages will quickly drive it into the mid-thirties. That may seem like a lot — but how many cars at any price point .get the equivalent of 126 miles per gallon?