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First drive: Electric i-car heads Down Under

Power play: Mitsubishi's i-MiEV hits New Zealand in February.

We drive the automotive future according to Mitsubishi: the i-MiEV electric car

15 Dec 2008

MITSUBISHI will import two electric i-cars to New Zealand in February, as part of the Japanese manufacturer's preparation for a global roll-out that should include Australia from 2010, making it one of the few countries outside Japan to get examples of the 100 or so hand-built i-MiEV prototypes in existence.

Mitsubishi NZ's general manager of sales and marketing, Peter Wilkins, said the i-MiEV will be officially launched on February 10, with one car going to to power company Meridian Energy, which is billed as NZ's only carbon-neutral power generation company.

Meridian will monitor power absorption during charging and evaluate the impact more widespread use of electric cars would have on infrastructure, providing feedback to Mitsubishi Japan as it goes.

The i-MiEV uses a single-phase overnight charging device, a simple winding charger that plugs into a 15-amp wall socket. Home sockets are 10-amp with an earth pin the same size as the other two. On a 15-amp plug the earth is longer most switches aren't rated to handle 15 amps, but their wiring is 20-amp, so the only changes i-MiEV owners must make is to their socket.

Cost to 'fill' is rarely discussed, but Mitsubishi NZ's technical services manager Lloyd Robinson says "If you can get people to charge at night it won't need an increase in generation capacity, as most water and wind-generated power produced at night is wasted".

The car can go from empty to full charge at 18.4kW/hour for seven hours on just NZ$4.30 of electricity, based on the current Mercury Energy NZ rate.

That will take the car 160km, while a quick-charge system produces 80 per cent charge in just 30 minutes. Meridian will evaluate these claims and the car's real-world range, and relate that - and a possible electric population explosion - to generation capacity.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi NZ will run its other i-MiEV through a full program of press, government and corporate fleet drives before both cars return to Japan later in the year. Once it arrives in earnest, Mr Wilkins is confident the i-MiEV will sell.

"We've had interest from government and local authorities, and a few corporations," he says. Some will buy into the new technology to support their market position. Others await the cost, "And we can't yet give it, though we know they'll be considerably more than the standard car.

"Think of the cell phone," Mr Wilkins says. "It was costly at first but now it's almost a throw-away item." Nevertheless, "Our suspicion is we won't be able to meet demand irrespective of price for the first two or three years".

21 center imageMr Wilkins has confirmed next year's production numbers at 2000, restricted by the availability of batteries, which will be initially available to power companies and fleets within Japan.

"Our objective is to get a few of the 2009 production if we can as a start point, and by 2010 we should be into the business." He expects 100-plus sales "It might be 100, it might be 200, it's difficult to say without price.

"If we're going to do it we want to do the job properly, though that's where availability comes in - we would hope to source sufficient to meet NZ market demand." Those buying an i-MiEV will effectively get a standard i-car, with the same specification - including air-conditioning and airbags - as the petrol version, and in New Zealand the same road user tax that cripples diesel sales, but is levied at the pump for petrol cars.

The differences are hidden. The high-density lithium-ion batteries - with 22 modules of four cells each - fit beneath the floor along with the motor inverter, the charger and control unit. They replace the fuel tank, with the electric motor displacing the rear-mounted petrol engine.

Thus there are no modifications to the bodyshell at all and no changes to passenger or luggage space, though the suspension is certainly different, to cope with the additional 180kg of weight.

We understand the struts remain as per the standard car, but springs and dampers have changed. There's no conventional gearbox instead there's a final drive and differential gears with diff ratios around 6.1:1 - ie: the motor, which spins up to 8500rpm, revolves 6.1 times for every revolution of the rear wheels.

Though the layout's now fixed, work continues on battery development aimed at cutting weight and increasing range, with batteries currently a joint-venture between GS Yuasa, Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Mitsubishi owns hundreds of patents on the vehicle, its systems and technology, including the electric drive and management.

There's no expectation at this stage that it will sell the technology, says Robinson, though Mitsubishi has signed a technology agreement with PSA Peugeot Citroen in France to work together on electric programs in future.

Drive impressions:

AT Mitsubishi Motor Corporation's Tokachi, Japan test track on other business, we spotted a diminutive i-car with a difference. Forget the in-your-face graphics, it had a socket in place of the fuel flap. This was Mitsubishi's electric i-car, the i-MiEV.

Superficially it's the same as a standard i-car. The same diminutive 3395mm length, 1475mm width and 1600mm height the same wheels-to-the-corners stance and teardrop shape the same dinky-toy interior.

But driving it is quite a different experience as progress is silent, but for the whirr of tyres on tarmac.

There's incredible low-down punch from even this modest 47kW electric motor, which like all the breed pulls at its best from rest. So where the standard 48kW/95Nm car feels relatively relaxed, the electric version throws 180Nm at the road, that torque only dropping to equal the petrol's at higher revs.

Claimed zero to 80km/h acceleration is 1.5 seconds faster for the electric i-car, and it's positively perky at round-town speeds, particularly during pulling-from-junction manoeuvres.

Cruising the straights of our test loop, the i-MiEV initially felt just like an i-car on speed. Corners were taken with less confidence, the sweeping bend at the end of our short straight revealing an i-car's fairly average handling abilities - but with less bodyroll.

There's a lot of extra weight beneath our feet, keeping the centre of gravity low even with over-fed motor noters aboard. Down the short straight, curving into esses of cones and a tightening sweeper, the car's handling limitations reappeared.

Just like the standard i-car, this is a city-slicker - not an open-road warrior - and its electric version is even keener to sniff the outside of the apex. All that extra weight clearly makes itself felt, though the effect is predictable and gradual - front-to-rear weight balance isn't available, but the extra heft appears to be evenly spread, the batteries stretching as far forward as beneath the driver seat.

To be fair, buyers aren't likely to sample tightening-radius corners with quite the brio we applied, the understeer is unlikely to be discovered during round-town jaunts and lighter batteries are in the offing.

What could be problematic is the car's silence, for unlike a hybrid there's never a petrol engine at work, so there's nothing to warn pedestrians that the mighty mote approaches.

An NZ Ministry of Transport employee suggested all electric cars should play birdsong noises once they're underway...

Our brief taster of the electric i-car proved it could work - at the right price. It looks like an ordinary car, it feels like one and it's easy to use - just switch on and go, or stop.

If you want you can select "eco" from the gear lever to limit power to the motor, or brake to apply more aggressive regenerative braking on steep descents (further boosting battery power) and that's it.

Once it's on sale sockets will proliferate - as a recent visit to Seattle proved, charging stations will even pop up in commuter car parks. The main problem will be power generation, for running a zero-emissions car will lose its savour if power stations burn fossil fuel to cope with demand.

That said, Mitsubishi says that well to wheel, electric vehicles are five per cent more efficient than petrol hybrids and 15 per cent more efficient than diesel and boast a quarter the CO2 emissions of a petrol engine.

Read more:

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Mitsu i-car still on horizon

Mitsubishi electricar closer

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