Ready, aim, charge

There’s a revolution under way, and it’s being fought with volts and kilowatts. This is the new-age arsenal of which those shopping for electrically powered automobiles such as the Mitsubishi i will become increasingly familiar.

The i hatchback joins the all-electric Nissan Leaf and Tesla roadster plus the gasoline-supported Chevrolet Volt as pioneers in the automotive clean-energy movement. Additional models, including the Mini e and Smart Fortwo Electric, are currently (pun intended) in limited production, while Ford’s Transit Connect van and compact Focus will become electrified for the 2012 model year. Other automakers, both large and small, have similar plans to join the electric motorpool.

At this point, the i (simplified from the original iMiEV name), will be one of the smallest electrical offerings to be mass produced for general consumption. But in terms of accommodations and price, it should prove to be one of the more attractive.

The i’s true purpose is also abundantly clear: a short-haul urban commuter pod that can also tackle more mundane chores. It will easily accommodate four adults as long as they’re packing light. However with only the front seats in use, cargo capacity with the 50:50 rear seatbacks folded flat matches the space available in the larger Nissan Leaf.

The other major difference between the i and the Leaf is that the i’s 49 kilowatt (66 horsepower) electric motor is located in the rear and directs its 145 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. The Leaf’s 107-horsepower front-mounted motor sends 207 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels.

The i’s top speed is 80 mph, but driving at that velocity for any length of time will quickly sap its 330-volt lithium-ion battery pack positioned beneath the passenger floor. The vehicle’s fuel-economy equivalency rating (charge cost per distance compared to gasoline cost for the same distance) is 126 mpg in the city and 99 mpg on the highway, or 112 mpg combined.

Mitsubishi places the i’s range at about 85 miles per charge, less than the 100 miles claimed by the Leaf and other electrics.

Driving the i involves shifting the single-speed controller to one of three operating modes. The “D” position is for maximum performance, while “Eco” position increases battery life to the max. The “B” slot increases the amount of regenerative breaking to help replenish the batteries and stretch the i’s range as much as possible.

A 240-volt home charging system will top up the i in about six hours. Plug it into a regular 120-volt home outlet, however, and it’s an agonizingly long 22.5-hours. That doesn’t leave much time in the day for driving. Many states, especially California, are quickly creating a network of public charging stations that will top up the i to 80 percent of full capacity in just 30 minutes.

Sales will begin with the Western part of the country and Hawaii this November, with nationwide availability by the end of 2012.

The $28,700 (excluding a $7,500 federal tax credit) base ES includes air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, heated driver’s seat, all the requisite safety content and a four-speaker, 100-watt audio system.

At $30,700 (also excluding the federal tax credit) the SE bumps up the content with fancier alloy wheels, fog lamps, two-tone instrument panel, upgraded seat covers and an eight-speaker, 360-watt sound package.

A Cold Zone package, consisting of a battery-warming system and heated side mirrors, can be added to both models, while SE buyers can opt for a navigation system, rearview camera and the quick-charge DC port as part of the Premium package.

The compact, lightweight (2,600 pounds) and efficiently packaged i is bound to succeed on price alone. The fact that its minimalist and futuristic styling will play well with the eco crowd should help keep Mitsubishi’s green machine solidly in the black right from the outset.

Revolution? Ready, aim, charge.

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