Road Test: Urban Electric

i-MiEV a tempting choice for fleets

November 7, 2012
by Tony Whitney

Drivers and fleets wanting to shed their dependence on the internal combustion engine and escape ever-higher gasoline costs have reason to celebrate right now.

For the first time in many decades, Canadians can head for an auto dealership and buy an electric car—something they haven’t been able to do since the 1920s. Several major automakers have electric cars rolling off their production lines and a handful of minor manufacturers are also building vehicles. There are even a few highly priced and exotic electric sports cars such as the Fisker Karma and Tesla, but these will see very limited production.

BODY STYLE: Four-occupant hatchback
ENGINE: Electric motor, 47 kW (63-horsepower)
BATTERY: Lithium-ion 330-volt
RANGE: Up to 155 km
TOP SPEED: 130 kmh
1.9-litres/100 km city; 2.1-litres/100 km hwy.
PRICE: $32,998

We’ve driven just about every experimental electric vehicle (EV) built over the past 20 years or more—some promising, others little more than glorified golf carts. We’ve driven the three main EV contenders in the Canadian market—the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. For 2013, Mercedes-Benz will introduce an electric version of its smart two-seater.

Like just about everything else in the world of automobiles, there’s nothing new about the idea of an electric car. For a while, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were more popular than internal combustion engine cars, which were regarded as noisy and smelly—and they certainly were at the time. Back in 1898, an EV held the World Land Speed Record and was the first road vehicle to top 100kmh. They faded from sight in the 1920s as internal combustion engines gained popularity, thanks to greater refinement, cheap fuel and long range. Interest was not revived until more recent times, as consumers became more concerned about the environment. There was a minor revival in the late 1990s when the GM EV1 and Ford Ranger Electric pickup debuted and the EV1 remains the first electric car of the modern era.

The move from development lab to dealership and products like the i-MiEV was greatly aided by technological advancements made by battery and electric motor manufacturers over the past decade. The i-MiEV, like the Nissan Leaf, depends solely on battery power, while the Volt and one or two other products have an on-board battery charger in the form of a small gasoline engine for use when power ebbs. The Volt thus has a much greater range than its two rivals, and the range anxiety dreaded by owners of dedicated EVs is mitigated.

It should be pointed out right from the start that the i-MiEV is primarily a city car and has plenty of range for that kind of driving. The body of the i-MiEV is based on a Japan-only gasoline-engine product called Mitsubishi i or “i-Car” and this to some extent explains the EV variant’s less-than-snappy name. Say “I’m Eve” and you’ve got it about right, but perhaps a slicker model name would have been a good idea.

Names apart, the i-MiEV is a great looking subcompact automobile —both modernistic and practical. It looks rather like one of those imaginary cars architects like to depict in conceptualizations of futuristic cities.

It’s quite roomy inside and there’s plenty of leg, hip and headroom. The rear seats are perfectly usable given its size class and they fold down to create a surprising 1,430 litres of cargo space. The battery packs are under the floor and don’t interfere with either passenger or luggage space. This location also has a beneficial effect on the i-MiEV’s centre of gravity and consequent stability.

Smooth power
Power is provided by a very compact permanent magnet synchronous electric motor with a maximum output of 47 kW or 63 horsepower and it drives the rear wheels. The torque from this motor is 180 Nm (133 ft-lbs), a shade more than what you get from a basic Toyota Corolla, to make what is probably an unfair comparison.

High torque is one of the major benefits of electric motors and it’s right there as soon as you drive off. There’s no power band as there is with a gasoline engine, where torque builds fairly slowly when you step on the gas. Although the Mitsubishi EV boasts what seems a modest 63 horses, it feels far more than that when the car is driven.

Another benefit of the electric motor is its smoothness. Even a very simple gasoline automobile engine may have more than 200 parts and many of them are moving in opposite directions at the same time. It’s amazing that automotive engineers build gasoline engines that are so free from vibration these days, given they face far more problems than designers of electric motors, which have few moving parts and thus need a lot less maintenance.

Even a short drive in an i-MiEV is enough to confirm that the smoothness and comfort of electric vehicles is remarkable. Even a small car like this Mitsubishi feels in many ways like a large luxury sedan out on the streets and not a small hatchback which is basically an economy car.

The car has a very respectable range for its class of up to 155 kilometers in ideal conditions and it will quickly reach 130 kmh, making it easy to merge onto a freeway and keep up with fast traffic. Even so, city streets are its best driving territory.

Even at speed, the only noticeable sound is a subdued hum from the motor and a certain amount of tire noise. The car is great fun to drive and very easy to get to know. EVs are uncomplicated as far as cockpit controls go and any employee assigned to a fleet vehicle like this could learn how to handle it in a matter of minutes.

Charge it
As with all electric vehicles, charging can be a challenge. The i-MiEV is the only EV right now that can be charged three ways: by a conventional 110-volt household supply, by a 220-volt supply, and by using a dedicated charging station. A 110-volt supply will take 14 hours to fully charge the car, the 220-volt about seven hours, and a three-phase 200-volt “quick charger” will get the job done in about 30 minutes.

In an ideal world there would be quick chargers available everywhere, but this is not the case right now. Progress is being made and these chargers are likely to become more widespread as EV use grows. Several municipalities across Canada are legislating that new residential and commercial buildings have a certain number of electric outlets available to EV users. These are unlikely to be quick chargers, but hopefully a 220-volt supply will be available, rather than the usual 110-volt outlet.

A recent announcement from Hydro-Quebec and Plug ‘n Drive Ontario will be welcomed by EV owners and manufacturers alike. The Quebec utility operation and Toronto non-profit coalition are working together to set up a chain of public charging locations in both provinces. No timeline has been given and right now, the consortium’s work involves determining where the first chargers will be sited and seeking private and public partners.

So far, Mitsubishi has delivered over 150 of its new EVs across Canada and there’s been a lot of interest from fleets. The little car has been adopted by municipal authorities in Toronto and Calgary in addition to Hydro-Quebec, BC Hydro, Transport Canada and even the Saanich Police Department on Vancouver Island.

But the greatest interest has come from the City of Vancouver where 13 i-MiEVs were recently delivered and as many as 17 more may follow. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson wants his city to be world’s greenest by 2020, and EVs are clearly on the agenda. City of Vancouver manager of equipment services Doug Smith told us that the Mitsubishis will be used by a wide range of City departments and in addition to the welcome fuel savings, low maintenance was also a clincher when it came to buying the cars. Mitsubishi has said that an owner can save over $10,000 in five years on fuel costs alone with the i-MiEV.

Pricey premise
Of course, one of the factors that has been slowing the pace of electric car adoption is price. There’s no escaping the fact that an EV will cost a great deal more—perhaps twice as much—as a comparable vehicle with a small gasoline engine. And even with the EV’s remarkable economy, it can take a while to recover the initial purchase cost via fuel savings. The fact is any new form of propulsion is going to be costly until sales build to high levels. Right now, it is possible all major EV products on the Canadian market are being subsidized by their manufacturers. This was exactly the scenario when hybrids first appeared on the scene, but as popularity grew, prices came down and automakers started to reap some profit from them. Toyota has sold nearly 70,000 Prius hybrids in the 12 years since the first version was launched in Canada. Perhaps EVs will follow a similar pattern. A little respite comes from the various government grants that are available in some regions to both fleets and individuals if they purchase EVs.

Most major automakers are working on zero-emission vehicles of some kind or another and others are certainly looking closely at the idea. But Mitsubishi, Nissan and General Motors (and soon, smart) earn praise for actually getting on with the job and delivering vehicles to the dealerships. Volumes are going to be slim at first, but when it comes to EVs, we have to start somewhere. Some time in the distant future, oil reserves will start to dwindle and now is the time to start doing something about it.                   b2b