The Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car first appeared on the roads of Japan in 2009, its commercial launch predating the Nissan LEAF and making it the first true mass-produced electric car to hit the market.
While the Mitsubishi i-MiEV didn’t officially head to Europe until 2010, a limited fleet of Japanese-specification i-MiEVs headed to the UK back in 2009 as part of the CABLED trial — an early test-fleet designed to investigate the use of electric cars on the roads of the UK. In July 2013, long after the trial ended, one of these early Mitsubishi electric cars found its way onto our Transport Evolved staff car fleet.
Since then we’ve kept you up to date with our experiences via regular staff car reports, but as the second member of our editorial team follows the call of the U.S. west coast, it’s time for us to say goodbye to the trusty Japanese kei car which has been our daily driver for two years.
In our time with this car, we’ve covered 16,000 miles, and our car has celebrated its sixth birthday. So how has it performed, and given that it’s almost exactly the same as the current iMiEV, how does it rate against the current crop of electric vehicles?
These cars traversed the streets of the West Midlands, England, in the hands of novice EV drivers who’d gone through a rigorous application process for the chance to take part. The process captured scads of data on usage, people’s opinions and experiences, and the reliability and infrastructure required for a transition to zero emissions motoring. It was all terribly exciting and cutting-edge.
A year later, when the iMiEV was properly introduced to Britain it had gained a few tweaks and tucks over those earlier Japanese specification cars. With a quoted range of 99 miles (160 km) — but a realistic range of around 50-60 miles (80 – 95 km) — and a tiny 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack, sales have been dwarfed by its Japanese rival, the larger, more family-oriented, longer-range Nissan LEAF.
When you look at the iMiEV, the first thing that strikes you is the size. It is small. Tiny, really. Especially when you consider that it will reasonably comfortably hold four full-sized adults. Designed for Japan’s keijidōsha light automobile class (colloquially known as ‘kei-class‘ or ‘kei-car‘), the diminutive size of the Mitsubishi i means that owners in Japan are exempted from some onerous parking requirements. Whilst that doesn’t apply in Britain, in jam-packed city streets, the car’s size and shape, combined with an SUV-like driving position give excellent visibility. On congested roads, the minute turning circle makes the car an absolute diamond, allowing the owner to turn on a pin. And the lack of length and narrow wheelbase do make parking a breeze.
That said, road holding and ride quality aren’t going to win any awards. Whilst you can throw it with abandon in the dry, the skinny tyres up front that no doubt help with efficiency mean that in wet or icy conditions, caution and restraint have to be maintained. No mean feat, because despite the iMiEVs near decade old suspension design, the car provides a sporty feel. Some might consider the ride a little harsh, but it handles like a go-kart, which tempts you to throw the car around with a degree of abandon. Fortunately, the low centre of gravity and reasonable steering geometry mean that vigour behind the wheel is rarely rewarded with anything worse than a bit of understeer.
All of this you can discern within a few minutes behind the wheel. But what is interesting is that after 16,000 miles of driving the iMiEV has retained its charm. It remains a vehicle that you hop into cheerfully, knowing that from the shortest to the longest journey, the iMiEV will be fun to drive. Responsive steering and the quiet of the EV make the whole experience pretty pleasurable. And its 47kW motor, whilst not exactly phenomenally powerful, is certainly adequate.
Many modern cars, both EV and conventionally powered, take a fair amount of time to perform their self checks on start up. In contrast, the iMiEV chirrups cheerfully, provides a brief flash of all the dashboard lamps, and then the ‘Ready’ light illuminates. The whole thing is over in seconds, giving an eagerness to those moments before the drive and making the car feel like it’s enthusiastic to go. Hopping into a car like the Toyota Prius, the Nissan LEAF, or the Chevy Volt and waiting for the start-up checks to finish seems painfully slow in comparison.
But it’s not all fine wine and cheese in the iMiEV life. Although it’s been incredibly low maintenance, requiring naught beyond periodic services and tyres, the iMiEV’s lacklustre sales performance has lead to some disappointments. Whilst there have been significant advances in tyre technology assisting those enhancements in EV range (and fuel economy), those skinny obscure tyres on the iMiEV? They’re pretty much the same tyres which you could install when the conventionally powered i (on which the i-MiEV was based) was first introduced in 2006. On the plus side, despite there being very little choice, at least they’re pretty cheap.
And whilst the current iMiEV has some form of infotainment system, that first generation iMiEV sports a simple car radio. No navigation, GPS, and range guestimation that is hilariously awful with no accounting for topography.
Simplicity is part of the iMiEV dashes’ charm, but the complete lack of available information regarding energy usage is something that is a disappointment.
And that simplicity can lead to other issues. Whilst Bristol is well served for Level 2 EV chargers, the Transport Evolved team have found many of the older Chargemaster ones to be unreliable, and recent experiences have not changed that. Unfortunately, having been parked for some time on a charger that appeared to be working, on return the charger had crashed after adding only 2 bars of charge.
With no remote link to the vehicle, the car couldn’t inform us that it had been disconnected, and nor could we check it was charging until we got back. Fortunately, we’d enough charge to get either home, or at a push, there are multiple other chargers in Bristol city centre, but it was a reminder of how useful this information can be. Throughout time with the iMiEV this has been an issue, from early experiences finding misconfigured rapid chargers (which would only charge to 70%), to problems like the recent Chargemaster one; the iMiEV’s lack of telematics is something that rankles in this always-connected era.
Similarly, without that remote link, there’s no way to preheat the car. Indeed, even if you sit in the car, you can’t turn it on whilst it’s connected to a charger, so there’s no way to pre-heat before a journey without using battery power. This is no-doubt related to the car’s cunning use of the air-con system to keep the batteries cool whilst rapid charging, but is an annoyance none the less. At times experiments have been performed with a fan heater in the car before journeys (on an extension lead), but these are only possible thanks to a generous garage, and turned out not to be terribly effective.
Given the fairly archaic technology used in the iMiEV’s heater, this is a serious lack of foresight. Turning on the heater in the iMiEV leads to a substantial drop in range, making longer winter journeys either tediously cold or even unfeasible. Worse, the car lacks a heated windscreen, so when it rains you’re forced to use that inefficient heater, sucking range amazingly quickly.
One other criticism levelled at the iMiEV and it’s kin is that the fit and finish is poor, which is something we’d have to disagree with. Whilst the materials certainly aren’t exciting, bare black plastic abounds and the seat coverings certainly aren’t expensive, it seems well put together. After 21,000 miles, the car has no noticeable rattles, and everything still feels sturdy. It’s rather more ‘utilitarian’ than ‘cheap’.
But before you leap out and buy an early iMiEV, many of which are great bargains in EV terms, there is one thing to be aware of. The very early iMiEVs (2010 model and earlier) have a non-J1772 compliant charger.
We’re talking about the on-board communications protocol which serves as the rudimentary communication between an electric car and its charging station and ensures that when you plug in, there’s no electricity flowing between the charging station and car until basic safety tests have been met.
While it had the same physical J-1772 (Type 1) inlet as the Nissan LEAF, these early Japanese-specification cars used the inlet as a dumb electrical socket. Provide mains power to the right pin and the car will start charging. But all of today’s modern charging stations won’t provide power until the car provides the correct voltage on the control pin to signal that it’s ready to receive power.
On our early i-MiEV, despite the socket looking correct, and the power pins all being present, the control circuitry is missing. It also uses a maximum current of 10, rather than 13 amps.
In realistic terms, this means it takes 6.5hrs to go from completely empty to full, rather than 5 hours on the newer version. Something that is not actually noticeable if you charge overnight. And indeed this has been advantageous at times, allowing charging using a 100 foot (30 meter) extension lead with no concern regarding heat and power draw when staying in a location that had no proper charger. That said, given the option, a 13 amp charger would have been preferable!
It is possible to use Level 2 charges, though. Using a specially made adaptor that 10 amp charger will happily do its stuff, but it does mean it <em>cannot</em> charge from tethered Level 2 chargers (although those, thankfully, seem to be disappearing). If you lack the knowledge to safely manufacture one of these leads, they can be expensive due to very limited demand.
Even Mitsubishi don’t sell anything appropriate, and stated that it was not possible to modify the charger, nor fit a later charger to the vehicle. It was left to the DIY community to ‘hack’ the charging protocol. A real lack of effort on the part of Mitsubishi to care for those early adopters.
But when it comes down to it, despite its quirks and lack of telematics, there are two questions that need to be asked about the iMiEV; Would it stay part of the fleet if we weren’t moving? And will another one be joining the fleet later?
The first can perhaps be answered by the fact that we looked up how difficult it would be to squeeze the 2010 iMiEV through the US’s federal safety requirements. Very, is sadly the answer. The only reason we’re selling is because like a large chunk of the Transport Evolved team, we’re emigrating to the USA. We are, unreservedly, sad to see the iMiEV go and would have kept it indefinitely if staying in the UK.
So then, like the first Staff Car, Hiro, will another iMiEV be replacing it in the USA?
Despite the fact that the range is just about acceptable in our intended locations (but only just), the iMiEV’s downfall is the near complete lack of development it’s received since introduction. A local dealer has an iMiEV sat outside, and beyond a shiny new radio it’s pretty much the same car that currently graces our driveway. The US specification iMiEV sports a redesigned front end, but only due to federal safety laws. It still contains the same batteries, power management system and, most importantly, heater, that graces our first generation, Japanese specification car.
And that heater is the deal-breaker.
Whilst the range would, just, be adequate for daily driving in the US. And the CHAdeMO charger makes longer journeys both feasible, and indeed pleasant, the inability to do so in winter is beyond the pail. Not only that, it speaks to a lack of commitment to pure electric vehicles on the part of Mitsubishi. With no development the iMiEV has fallen far behind its competitors, meaning that it is cheerfully comparable to other first generation EVs, but doesn’t stack up against the current crop.
The early iMiEV is a great car; fun, cheap to own and run, and a delight to drive. For a city runabout it’s amazing. For anything else, look out for something with more modern tech surrounding that drivetrain.
As for our next car? We’ll be looking for an electric car of course, and still plan to convert our Morris Minor to electric when she arrives in one piece on the west coast.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear your suggestions for our next car in the Comments below. Sadly, before you suggest it, a Tesla Model S is well out of our budget.
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