The Mitsubishi i-MiEV has taken the crown as the very first mass-produced electric vehicle to land in Australia and this morning Mitsubishi handed us the keys for a quick test drive.
The light car is based on a petrol-powered model which has been on sale in Japan for some time. The MiEV stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle and signifies the car's completely zero-emission drivetrain.
The Mitsubishi i MiEV electric car is not the first of its kind from the Japanese giant. The very first of its kind was built in 1971 after the Japanese government asked the company to help reduce smog in Tokyo.
150 of the cars were made but the main problem was the batteries as the units were far too heavy and unreliable. The formula worked out to be that when the battery packs weigh less than 20 per cent of the car it becomes practical to build electric cars. Fast forward nearly 40 years to the enormous advancements in electrical technology and the introduction of lithium-ion batteries and you have the i MiEV.
The full-electric Mitsubishi is designed to be just like a conventional car in the way it drives, feels and looks. Mitsubishi says running costs will be roughly one-third of the petrol equivalent given it requires no fuel, almost no traditional type of servicing and can travel roughly 140-160km on a single tank of fue.... electricity.
It's also almost completely silent apart from the tyre noise, similar to the Toyota Prius when it's running in full EV mode. What is not similar to the Toyota Prius is that there is no longer a need for a petrol engine to help the electric engine along.
The main problem with the soon to arrive plug-in hybrid vehicles is that when they are running on full electric mode they are carrying around a heavy petrol engine and fuel tank and when they are running on petrol mode they are carrying around a battery pack and electric engines. It's not an ideal situation.
What is obvious to all of us inside the car industry is that the car as we know it is going through a period of fundamental change.
According to numerous recent studies, Australia is currently the no.1 producer of CO2 emissions per capita among developed nations. Hearing that should really make you wonder how you're contributing. No doubt we can keep going after China, USA and India as the sure to be biggest polluters of the next decade but even here in our humble country we are regarded as the biggest individual polluters.
Although there needs to be a greater change overall than just cars, the wave of soon to arrive electric vehicles will do their bit to reduce our carbon footprint.
Mitsubishi representatives were very clear to point out that what their company does is make cars. They are not in the business of making clean renewable energy and no doubt they would love the idea of electricity being produced with less carbon footprint than our current coal powered stations. However they are doing their bit and the rest is up to the energy companies.
The i MiEV takes roughly seven hours to charge from empty but can be recharged at any time just like your mobile phone. Interestingly the car's batteries are just like a mobile phone's. In its first modern iteration it stores power using a lithium-ion battery pack consisting of 22 modules of 4 x 3.7v-50Ah Lev 50 battery cells which are produced indirectly by the same company that makes batteries for space shuttles.
That should tell you that it's not going to be cheap. Although no official pricing has been announced it should retail for around $70,000. Before you start writing a comment about how expensive that is, just remember 40-inch plasma TVs cost $27,000 in 2003 and now you can get one for under $1,000. This same principle of technology coming down in price will also apply to electric cars.
The issue is the batteries, they simply can't make enough of them and there is a shortage of lithium production (although I hear Bolivia which holds more than half the world's lithium supplies will soon become the new middle-east given the world's growing dependence on lithium).
Mitsubishi Australia stands in a unique position having got the very first full-electric car complied and ready for this market. The idea is to get the cars out there as soon as possible to raise awareness and also help pay for the enormous R&D costs involved in its development. As is the case with all first-generation technology the early-adopters fee applies and Mitsubishi is very keen on getting governments and fleets on board.
Developing 47kW of power and 180Nm of torque the i MiEV is the ideal city car, it accelerate a lot faster than you'd expect and it develops maximum torque at all times given its electric power source. There is no transmission as it requires none to deliver the power and it also has no reverse gear in the traditional sense of the word. The software simply tells the engine to drive the motor backwards and away you go (technically you can go 130km/h backwards if you really wanted too).
It comes with a basic charge cable which can plug straight into your household charger. We are actually rather lucky in Australia as most of us have lock-up garages that can recharge the i MiEV. In European and Asian countries not many are blessed with garages.
For all the geeks out there the i MiEV's total voltage measures 330V and has a total battery storage capacity of 16kWh. The battery and electric motor are located under the seating in the rear of the car and power is subsequently delivered to the rear-wheels (unlike most light cars which are driven via the front wheels).
Technical details and presentations aside it was finally time to drive the i MiEV. There is something relatively momentous about getting behind the wheel of a car that's all-new, or at least I thought.
Mitsubishi has built the i MiEV to be essentially just a normal car but with an electric power source for an engine, it looks and feels the same in every other way. I was hoping it would be like getting behind the wheel of a futuristic space-mobile. Not so. It's almost identical to a normal car inside.
So much so that the transmission gear-lever is exactly the same as a conventional car despite being completely computer controlled. So putting the gear in 'D' simply sends a signal to the car's computer to engage forward motion.
There is no technical reason as to why it has to look like a gear-lever except that people are used to it. It would be great to see a simple array of buttons on the dash board as oppose to wasting space with a gear-lever which really doesn't do much technically.
Maybe I am being unfairly critical here, no doubt keeping costs down meant simply using an already existing platform and interior and producing an electric engine to drive it.
The i MiEV is a proper four-seater city car and it can easily carry four adults around town. It certainly doesn't lack any power with a full load.
If you flatten the accelerator it will push all that 180Nm of torque (more than a current generation Toyota Corolla) to the ground via the rear-wheels instantly. It's certainly not shy of getting up to speed. With four adults in the car there was no issue keeping up with traffic or merging on to the highway. It has an electronically (or electrically) limited top speed of 130km/h but can go as high as 160km/h if delimited.
The engine is designed to act exactly like a petrol engine would, if you engage 'D' it will slowly move forward and gain momentum as it goes. Technically Mitsubishi could have built it not to do that but to keep a familiar feel it was programmed that way.
The drive consisted of a brief pass through Brisbane CBD and onto Coronation drive towards Toowoong. Other driver's couldn't help but to stare at the i MiEV thanks partially to its tiny size and 'electric-car' stickers.
After the first two minutes behind the wheel you'll quickly realise that even though the i MiEV is an electric car, it most definitely feels exactly the same as any other car except that it makes almost no noise and going past petrol stations all of sudden makes you smile.
There are three different driving modes to pick from, 'D' which is basically drive, 'E' mode which is drive but the engine has reduced power so that you get maximum range and there is 'B' mode for brake regeneration which means it will increase the friction on the brakes to allow more recharge for the batteries (acceleration is still the same as D''). To give you an idea, the brake regeneration technology can only currently capture about 10 per cent of the power which is used to accelerate to the speed at which the brake is applied.
As a car the Mitsubishi i MiEV is exactly what you'd expect. Comfortable, easy to drive and park. Loads of instantaneous torque (more than its petrol equivalent) and surprisingly satisfying behind the wheel.
The majority of drivers do far less than 160 kilometres per day, so the i MiEV is ideal. You simply drive it around during the day and charge it up in your garage at night (similar to your mobile phone). There is the possibility of charging it back up to 80 per cent capacity from 'fast-charge' stations that deliver 200v and 50kW straight to the battery. That takes only 30 minutes and will give you another 128 kilometres. The fast charge stations currently don't exist in Australia but are popping up everywhere in Japan.
Mitsubishi has a three-phase process to release the i MiEV here. The first stage is exposure which is why CarAdvice got to drive the car today, the second phase is trials with fleets to showcase the car's credentials and finally the car will be launched. There is no confirmed time line for when the car will officially go on sale but it could be towards the end of the year.
So what problems do we face with electric cars in Australia? In Europe, France in particular where Nuclear power means emission free electricity, the i MiEV makes perfect sense but what about Australia?
The argument that electric cars pollute more than their petrol equivalents is not a valid one according to Dr Peter Pudney, a researcher focusing on electric cars from the University of South Australia.
According to Dr Pudney Petrol cars can only increase in efficiency but another 30 or so per cent and hence there is no way to make a zero-emission petrol vehicle while electric vehicles are by their nature zero-emission. So the problem is not with electric cars but with creating green renewable energy.
Every single one of us will need to reduce our Co2 emissions by 95 per cent by 2050 if we are to meet the goals set by international committees in reversing climate change. Australia has set a target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 but that figure seems rather optimistic given the lack of initiative.
Mitsubishi says it doesn't see the lack of recharge station infrastructure as an issue in Australia given the availability of household power plugs. Nonetheless fleets can purchase the fast recharge stations if the need arises.
The company believes the government can go a long way in helping increase electric vehicle take up. In Japan the federal government is currently paying half the difference between the price of a petrol Mitsubishi i and an electric i MiEV. Some regions go one step further and pay half the remaining half so buying an i MiEV is not much more than its petrol brother.
In Europe some countries have passed laws to allow for special parking for EV vehicles and in France there are recharge stations available for free throughout CBDs. It seems as though Australia is a long way behind but the introduction of the i MiEV might mean a kickstart for the process of change.
Mitsubishi will not be following a battery-swap model for the i MiEV (or any other electric vehicles in the near future) which some companies are currently creating in Australia. Instead the company expects the batteries to last a minimum of 10 years or 150,000km.
Overall it's actually rather hard to fault the Mitsubishi i MiEV except on price (but that is simply a process which has to take place).
CarAdvice will conduct a road test of the i MiEV in the near future and no doubt as the number of electric vehicles increases we will find ourself behind the wheel of numerous other examples, such as the Nissan LEAF.
A few facts on the Mitsubishi i MiEV:
- i MiEV = i (based on Japanese model ‘i’ car) MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle)
- Zero drive-time CO2 emissions, plug in, all-electric car
- i MiEV utilises a large-capacity lithium-ion battery system
- A high-output electric motor replaces a traditional gasoline powertrain
- i MiEV hits a regulated top speed of 130km/h
- The i MiEV has a range of 140 to 160kms from a single charge
- A full charge from a domestic household power supply will take seven hours
- The i MiEV is whisper quiet
- i MiEV produces 47kW of power and 180Nm of torque
- Strong acceleration with instant maximum torque
- With seating for four people, ample cabin space, and a sizeable luggage compartment in the rear, i MiEV’s smart design maximises space
- i-MiEV’s curb-weight is 1080kg
- Total voltage measures 330V and total energy output is 16kWh
- The compact battery and motor reside under the seating in the back of the i MiEV
- Compared with a turbocharged petrol engine, the i MiEV’s electric motor is smaller, produces more torque at low revolutions, is quieter and cleaner
- Feasibility studies have been conducted in USA, Europe, UK, New Zealand, Iceland, Canada and now Australia.
- i MiEV is a rear-wheel drive with three driving modes: Drive, Eco and Brake
- In Japan, a quick charge system is currently in development that will allow an 80 per cent battery charge in 30 minutes
- Mitsubishi’s i MiEV is the product of over 10 years of research and development and is now production ready
- i MiEV has been on sale in Japan since July 2009