With its bulbous cabin and tiny wheels pushed to the corners of the car, the 2012 Mitsubishi i-Miev resembles an overgrown golf cart. It drives like one, too, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The i-Miev is the second purely electric car, after the Nissan Leaf, to be offered from a major automaker in this decade. Compared with the Leaf, the i-Miev is certainly the economy car of this two-car segment.
Instead of the electric parking brake of the Leaf, the i-Miev comes with a classic e-brake lever. Where the Leaf lets you remotely schedule recharging and access a list of electric charging stations in its navigation system, the i-Miev has a small range gauge and a plug.
The i-Miev's base price of $29,125 accounts for those differences. However, CNET's SE trim model, with its premium option package, went for $35,085, pretty close to a similarly equipped Leaf. The i-Miev qualifies for the full $7,500 federal tax credit, with potential state tax credits and other benefits, such as use of HOV lanes, thrown in. With that factored in, the price can be brought down to the low 20s.
Instead of designing a car from the ground up, as Nissan did with the Leaf, Mitsubishi converted its i model, not sold in the U.S., to an electric drive system. The i is a kei-segment car in Japan, a type of car designed for the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and other cities, and not particularly suitable for long-range excursions.
The i-Miev does not try to reach beyond the city, or suburbs, either. Its 16 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack gives it an EPA range of only 63 miles. And while the immediate push from the electric drivetrain is reasonable, it starts to lag above 30 mph, making freeway merging a daredevil exercise. When I drove it across the windswept San Francisco Bay Bridge, the lightweight i-Miev felt like it might get blown over the side.
Add to these poor freeway manners the fact that the range goes down rapidly at high speeds, and the conclusion can only be that the i-Miev is best driven in the city or suburbs. Its length of just over 12 feet makes it easy to park, also a benefit in the city. The extreme front drop-off made it initially difficult to judge how close I was to other cars ahead. I always had a few extra feet in front after parking.
Following its i-car roots, most of the i-Miev's electric drive system is packaged around the rear axle. The i-Miev is actually rear-wheel-driven. Mitsubishi includes a 110-volt adapter cable, which takes 22.5 hours for a full charge, and offers an optional 240-volt charging system that owners can install in their garages. That 240-volt system only takes 7 hours to restore the charge.
I left the car, with a near-dead battery, plugged into the CNET garage's 110-volt outlet for 24 hours, and came back to a range reading of 65 miles.
Helping the i-Miev maximize range is a regenerative brake system. The power gauge on the instrument cluster shows when it is using power and when it is recharging. Hit the brakes or just let it coast, and the needle goes into the blue.
Among the drive modes on the i-Miev's shifter are Eco and B. Eco mode detunes the accelerator pedal, making for slower starts but less energy usage. It also activates heavier brake regeneration. In Eco mode, as I coasted toward a stoplight, the car slowed more quickly than when left in D, with the power gauge showing greater regeneration.
Driving the i-Miev around San Francisco, I came to the conclusion that I could simulate the Eco mode merely by using a lighter foot on the accelerator and applying the brake pedal when coasting. It seemed like the friction brakes on the car got very little use during my time with the car.