Mitsubishi PX-MiEV Review (Outlander preview)

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A super efficient SUV that can also power your camping equipment? Yes please...

Mitsubishi continued its pursuit of mass migration to electric and hybrid vehicles with the unveiling of the advanced hybrid PX-MiEV II in Japan last week.

Although not officially announced as the next-generation Mitsubishi Outlander, the PX-MiEV is about the same size both inside and out as the current model. And if you needed more convincing of its future potential in Australia, Mitsubishi brought us out to Japan to review the PX-MiEV using test cars based on current Outlanders.

Unlike traditional hybrids, such as the current Toyota Prius, which run on the electric motor alone for only a limited time and mostly complement the petrol engine, the PX-MiEV is heavily focused on using electricity as its main source of power. Mitsubishi expects the PX-MiEV to use just 1.67 litres of fuel per 100km, a figure that if achieved will make the Mitsubishi Outlander hybrid the most fuel efficient SUV on the market.

The PX-MiEV makes use of two electric motors - one to power each axle - but has no mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels. Use of lithium-ion batteries has resulted in a significant 50km-plus pure electric drive system (compared to the current Prius's 2km), which will allow owners to drive around using no fossil fuel for the majority of everyday journeys. Australia's reliance on coal to produce electricity means the environmentally friendly issue is an area of contention.

Mitsubishi has used all of its expertise learned from its i-MiEV electric car, so in essence the PX-MiEV is much more a reverse-engineered electric car than a hybrid based on a traditional platform.

It'll take four hours to charge the battery from empty to full (30 minutes for a fast charge up to 80 per cent using a quick charge station), or you can simply drive it around and the petrol motor will act like a generator. It will take the petrol engine roughly three litres of fuel to recharge an empty battery to about 80 per cent. There’s even a button you can press that will prioritise battery recharge when driving.

The hybrid system offers three modes of driving: full electric (for at least 50km), series hybrid mode and parallel hybrid mode.

In full electric mode the vehicle uses all the charge in its battery for maximum effect, with the petrol engine unlikely to start unless there's a big sudden demand for power. Acceleration in this mode is pretty quick given each electric motor supplies 60kw and 200Nm of torque, all delivered immediately and not letting up till about 120km/h. We performed a number of 0-100km/h tests at Mitsubishi’s Okazaki test track and found the accelerator response instant and power delivery roughly equivalent to a 3.0L V6 petrol. There is no official 0-100km/h time yet but it certainly feels well below 10 seconds.

The PX-MiEV's lithium-ion battery pack is 90 percent similar to the ones found in the I Miev - so it’s expected to perform at peak capacity for at least 10 years, with a replacement battery easily attainable if or when needed.

In series hybrid mode the PX-MiEV's 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (70kW) kicks in to assist the electric drive, not by supplying power to the front wheels but by charging the battery. When there's a sudden demand for power, the petrol engine helps replenish lost energy quickly to eliminate power supply issues. It's an interesting system, similar to the Chevrolet volt, which uses its petrol-powered engine as a generator for the batteries. Essentially it converts fossil fuel into electricity.

The benefit of this system may be to hard to see at first, it may even seem a bit of a waste given you're using a relatively inefficient power system (with the majority of the fuel energy lost to heat) to burn fossil fuels to then generate electricity, nonetheless its positive attributes only become obvious once experienced.

Being an SUV it's likely that owners will take their vehicles on long drives, so the hybrid system eliminates any sense of range anxiety (be it real or not) associated with battery electric vehicles, but provides similar benefits.

By incorporating a 100V AC power outlet, PX-MiEV also has the added benefit of acting like an actual power generator, suppling power for all sorts of appliances when needed.

This is more than ideal for those that enjoy the outdoors but can also be extremely crucial during power blackouts or natural disasters. The PX-MiEV also supports vehicle-to-home technology, so you can plug it into your home electricity grid and it will work out the best times to recharge itself (off-peak) and the ideal time to supply power to the house to help save you money.

In parallel hybrid mode the petrol engine kicks in to both charge the battery and supply motive force to the front wheels. It does this at the same time as the electric motors are supplying power to all four wheels.

Parallel mode only activates when the vehicle reaches speeds of 120km/h and above, so it’s fair to say that many Australians will never get to experience it when driven within our draconian speed limits.

The point of parallel hybrid mode is to compensate the electric motors' weakness at the higher end of the speedometer. While it's more than capable of powering the vehicle at low to medium speeds, the petrol motor is more efficient at high-speed power delivery. It's a case of best of both worlds.

This MiEV system does come at a price, of course. For a start it weighs a good 200kg more than the standard petrol model since it's carrying not only a petrol engine but also two electric motors and a battery pack. Then there’s the actual cost. Although it's unlikely we will know pricing for at least another year (the next-generation Outlander is due late 2012 or early 2013) it's likely to be the most expensive variant in the range. We believe the difference in price between petrol to diesel (about $2,000 to $3,000) will be similar to that between diesel to MiEV.

Mitsubishi is working on numerous other alternative fuel systems at the same time, but it's more than likely going to apply this type of technology to the next-generation Mitsubishi Pajero and Mitsubishi Outlander.

Behind the wheel the un-tuned development mules provided a good example of what a next-generation Outlander hybrid will drive like. Apart from sounding like a jet fighter pulling in for take-off, the test vehicles supplied ample acceleration force and a very traditional car-like driving feel. Interestingly, one of the factors that negatively affected the driving experience was the sound of the petrol engine powering the battery or driving the front wheels. Once you begin to appreciate the high-pitch UFO sound of an electric car, it's hard to go back.

During our high-speed laps around the Okazaki test track, There was never any sense of waiting for power to kick in (something that effects the Prius and most traditional hybrids) but it did begin to feel more sluggish past the 120km/h mark (which is probably why Mitsubishi had given us a 120km/h speed restriction).

With a 52:48 front and rear weight distribution (thanks to the placement of electric motors and battery) and a 30mm-lower ride than the standard Outlander (for better aerodynamics), the production model is more than likely going to present a more dynamic driving experience than its petrol and diesel equivalents.

Will Australians fall in love with a car that can power their camping equipment and help save energy?

Despite all the effort and resources put into hybrid and electric vehicle technology, Mitsubishi believes only 10 percent of buyers will opt for the hybrid variant over the diesel (30 percent) and petrol (60 percent) models worldwide. This is likely to be a reflection not just of the higher price tag but also buyer apathy towards hybrid vehicles that exists.

Hybrids and electric vehicles, however, are likely to become increasingly common on the road in the years ahead, and the impressive development muleof Mitsubishi's PX-MiEV suggests the Japanese brand is ready to capitalise and prevent a Toyota hybrid monopoly.