i MIEV

The “slap, slap slap” of raindrops on the windshield, ricocheting through the Spartan little cabin of the i MIEV, takes some getting used to on a rainy day, says David Patterson, who heads up Mitsubishi’s electric vehicle program in North America.

The almost dead silence of the running vehicle itself is just one of many adjustments we’ll need to make when, or if, electric vehicles go mainstream, he adds. When the only noise the car makes is the whir of its electric motor and the faint thrum of the tires, whatever else is out there resonates, says Patterson.

What will that mean for consumers, and just as importantly, for pedestrians who will no longer be able to use their ears to judge traffic? Mitsubishi is searching for these answers right now in anticipation of the commercial launch of the i MIEV this summer in Japan.

So the i MIEV on the Mitsubishi stand at the Canadian International Auto Show is not a concept, but a real car. Mitsubishi Canada has designs to sell it here, too, though no one is talking about a launch date – officially.

Quietly, on the side, we’re hearing talk about putting a fleet of i MIEVs on the streets of Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Mitsubishi Canada might be able to sell 2,000 a year in Canada. They’d be city cars for the crowded downtowns of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, at least to start.

Take a close look at the i MIEV at the show. It is a minicar, pretty much like any current showroom model from Mitsubishi.

The vehicle starts life as the i minicar sold in Japan with a small gasoline motor. So that’s the ‘i” part. MIEV stands for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle.

What’s innovative? The i’s regular four-speed automatic transmission has been replaced by a two-position gear selector that lets you choose Drive or Eco mode. And where the tachometer normally goes on the instrument panel, this i sports a meter that indicates the charge status of the battery and the discharge rate.

But the critical innovation is the lithium ion battery back. Lithium ion batteries are smaller, lighter and more powerful than conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries and they are what makes the i MIEV work – what gives it decent performance and range that in ultra Eco mode can extend to 160 km, though 100 km is probably more realistic.

The i MIEV’s batteries have been co-developed by Mitsubishi Motors, GS Yuasa Ltd. and Mitsubishi Trading Co. That, says Patterson, is one of the things that gives Mitsu an advantage in what is shaping up to be the electrification of the automobile.

A few quick details: the i MIEV’s motor, inverter and charger are located under the floor of the luggage area behind the driver, with 22 lithium-ion cells artfully spread under the belly pan. A rear-mounted, permanent-magnet synchronous motor develops 63 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque.

Patterson says the i MIEV is pretty sprightly around down: 0-100 km/hour is possible in around 9.0 seconds, but it feels faster because all that electric thrust goes right to the wheels.

Of course, with electric cars, the vehicle itself is just one of the issues. There is also the electric charging mechanism for the car and infrastructure to support recharging.

For this runabout, there is plug-in recharging using the regular grid. That takes 14 hours for a full charge on a 110-volt domestic outlet or half that time on a 220-volt industrial outlet. Patterson says Mitsubishi has also developed its own quick-charge system that replenishes 80 per cent of the battery charge in just 30 minutes.

If you charge at night when the electric grid is not so busy – at least in Japan where Mitsu has done fleet testing for more than a year – you can reduce your running costs by 87 per cent compared to the conventional gasoline-powered i.

So if you take into account the CO2 emissions produced by Japan’s electric power plants (mostly nuclear) the i MIEV emits only 28 per cent of the CO2 of a comparable gasoline-powered i.

Finally price. Mitsu officials hint at $25,000 or so, though Patterson is not willing to be pinned down on a price tag here in Canada.

What he will say is that the Japanese government subsidies zero-emissions cars and they slice the price by 50 per cent. Something similar in Canada would surely kick-start an electric car business here.

In any case, have a look at the i MIEV for yourself. It’s at the show running until Feb. 22.