THE FUTURE sounds different – that's the first thing you'll notice behind the wheel of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV. If anything, it sounds a little like a modern Melbourne tram; there's a soft rising “whrr” as you accelerate, but that's about all.
Best of all, and a blessing to urban environments, it does it with zero driving emissions if recharged using renewable energy. Yes, Mitsubishi's all-electric i-MiEV, based on the Japanese model 660cc “i” series minicar, is the future for urban driving. (And more about that shortly.)
That said, for this car, there are some HUGE hurdles for Mitsubishi to overcome before you will see i-MiEVs slipping around shopping-centre car parks in any numbers.
The first is cost. Like the first plasma screen TVs, most people will see the i-MiEV as an exclusive and 'not-entirely-necessary' plaything for the environmentally-conscious well-heeled.
While Mitsubishi is still hazy on it, its little EV is expected to sit at a $60-$70k price point in Australia. That, my friends, is a shirt-load for what is, essentially, a moderately-kitted small car with an uber-premium drivetrain.
The test model we drove did not even come with leather interior. (At least you won't get bowled over in the rush into Mitsubishi showrooms.)
Secondly: don't hold your breath waiting to jag one. They will be made available for public sale here, but not yet, and Mitsubishi can't yet tell us when. Possibly 2011.
It is a supply problem; Mitsubishi can't make enough to satisfy demand because it can't get enough lithium-ion batteries.
For now in Australia it will only be offered – and exclusively on lease – to select government and private fleet customers.
This is a shame, because it would sell: there would be enough early-adopters with overweight wallets to see at least small numbers on the road.
Because, as a car, it works. And, for urban and city dwellers, it makes sense for a number of reasons.
So, before you pass judgment, let's examine the i-MiEV as 'a car'.
Remarkably, fundamentally, nothing is new. The i-MiEV may be among the first of a wave of all-electric mass-production cars to make it to market in the modern age, but all-electric cars have been around for a century or more.
In the early years of motoring, they were reasonably common.
Somewhere around the time of the first world war, the wheels 'fell off the cart' for the all-electric car. The inherent efficiency of fossil fuel as an energy source, and its relatively cheap supply, was one reason. Another, ironically, was the advent of the electric starter motor, instead of a crank handle, for petrol engines.
But the i-MiEV is part of the first trickle of what will become a tsunami. Unlike a hybrid car, which has a petrol engine, and an electric motor, and a transmission, and a large battery, the all-electric i-MiEV has just an electric motor, a reduction drive (no gearbox necessary) and a battery.
Whereas a hybrid carries around – at most times, depending on which power source is in operation – at least one redundant technology, the all-electric vehicle operates with just one fully-dedicated system.
What's the appeal?
You can all-but forget fuel bills with the i-MiEV. While it is not cost-free, 'filling up', recharging fully under current charges for renewable energy, will only cost around four dollars.
If the 'tank' is empty, that is the batteries need a full recharge, it will take seven hours using a domestic power supply. (To recharge 'drags' around the same energy in kWh as if running two electric toasters for the same period.)
But, like your mobile phone, recharging takes much less time if only a 'top-up' is needed to the batteries. While the i-MiEV has a range of 140 to 160 kilometres from a single charge, it takes less than an hour to fully recharge after a short trip.
When fast-charge outlets become available in Australia (as they are in Japan, the UK, Paris, etc.), filling up to 80 percent charge will take just 30 minutes.
The further appeal of the i-MiEV is its efficiency and ease of operation. It is very easy to drive, it can seat four adults, and has a range that will satisfy the daily driving needs of the vast majority or Australian urban dwellers.
That's not to say we would – at this point of its development – recommend the i-MiEV as a 'first' car for the Australian family. No, without charging infrastructure you could never take it down the coast and get the family back (unless they were happy to push it home).
But as a 'second' car, for getting the kids to school, for the work commute, for that endless running around between home, family and shops, an all-electric car with the range of the i-MiEV is ideal.
In Sydney, 87 percent of car driver trips in any day are less than 100 kilometres. In Adelaide, 98 percent are less than 100 kilometres. (Source: Dr Peter Pudney, University of SA)
Most city commuters, especially those closer in, can be comfortably accommodated by the i-MiEV's range.
And lastly, it appeals because – like the plasma screen that ushered in a revolution in home theatre – it provides new solutions for modern living. In the case of urban environments, air quality and carbon emissions, it also provides solutions for greener and more sustainable cities.
What's under the bonnet?
Up-front, nothing – the motor sits over the rear wheels (kinda like the Smart fortwo). Underneath the floor and rear seats sits the bank of lithium-ion batteries.
With wheels at each corner and a long (relatively) 2550mm wheelbase, cabin space is barely compromised by the i-MiEV's driveline arrangement.
With total voltage of 330 volts and 16kWh output, the raw energy numbers providing the charge for the high-output electric motor would appear modest.
But from that charge, the i-MiEV's single electric motor produces 47kW of power and a potent 180Nm of torque. Being all-electric, that torque is available from rest (although things are automatically nobbled from the line to prevent launches being too startling).
No gearbox is necessary – there is just one gear but three 'speeds' (drive programs) with three positions of the gear lever: Drive, Eco and Brake.
Drive provides full power mode, Eco for a more 'economical' use of the stored electricity, and Brake which provides more regenerative charge to the batteries while absorbing more kinetic energy (so you don't have to ride the brakes if on a long downhill incline for instance).
How does it drive?
It is the near-absence of familiar noises that make driving the i-MiEV so mind-altering.
That, and the linear way it accelerates. There is only one gear all the way from rest to a governed top-speed of 130kmh. And, in case you're wondering, it is no slouch. Once rolling, it accelerates strongly – those 180Nm are moving just 1080kg - and is at least a match for most small conventional-engined cars.
That is one of the reasons why, after bare minutes at the wheel, zipping along with the traffic, it begins to feel like an ordinary car.
The nature of the electric drive-train however, and the deadening affect of the large battery 'cell' below the floor, imbue the cabin with a spookily-quiet ambience. At 60kmh, only the shearing of the tyres on the tarmac intrudes at all – and very little at that.
We had it for just a couple of short spins around the Albert Park circuit – hardly a real-world test – so how it drives at highway speeds will have to wait for another assessment.
There are some things we can report however. It is a little sedate over the first five metres – releasing 180Nm from standstill would have it lunging into the car ahead - but will happily pick up its skirts from there. Pulling from a side road to accelerate briskly into traffic can be done like in any small car.
The low down weight of the battery also gives a feeling of balance when cornering. Again, we didn't stretch it, but, for 'feel', it foreshadows a reasonable capability here. Once again, we'll be looking for a longer assessment before passing judgment.
A couple of speed humps also showed that the suspension would appear to have good compliance and comparable performance to other 'well-sprung' small cars in isolating road shocks.
What is the interior like?
Part of the i-MiEV's light weight is explained in the 'light' interior. There is nothing unnecessary inside – quite plain cloth seats, hollow-sounding plastic dash, thin metal garnishes.
In the Japanese-spec model we test-drove, the interior finish is perhaps on par for style and finish with a $20k small car. This will disappoint buyers if the Australian-market models come in a similar level of trim. A premium price may suggest a premium interior but that is not the case with the i-MiEV we drove.
It doesn't look bad, and the ergonomics are quite good. So too the design of the unique instrument cluster ahead of the driver.
There is one large dial showing road speed and what's happening with power usage; another showing the remaining charge (like a fuel guage), and the other the odometer.
The flattish seats seem comfortable enough but that is best assessed after a day in the saddle.
What did our passengers think?
Shoulder room isn't at a premium, the i-MiEV is narrow, but the long wheelbase – Mercedes A Class style – gives surprising leg-room inside.
You wouldn't call it spacious, but, for two adults and two kids, there is ample room. We were three adults up for one part of the drive. Our average-height companion in the back had no problems with the legroom.
With a large glass area, curving ahead over the nose, the feel inside is airy and quite appealing.
So, no complaints for short haul work. Whoa, just a minute, that's precisely what it's designed for.
What features does it have?
In the country at the moment there are just two Japanese-spec models – a silver and a burgundy example.
We will provide detailed information once specifications and equipment levels, including safety features, for the Australian market i-MiEV are announced.
The motor over the back wheels means that boot space under the hatch is shallow.
You will fit a couple of smaller suitcases or the weekly shop there, but it's a bit of a compromise. Other conventional small hatches will have it tossed for luggage space.
Like most modern hatches, the rear seats split-fold and can be tilted forward to accommodate larger items
Zero driving emissions if recharged using renewable energy (available, at slightly increased cost, from all Australian electricity suppliers) gives the i-MiEV all-electric unmatched environmental performance.
Even if using the dirtiest energy from the worst-performing grid in Australia, Victoria's brown coal, emissions generated by recharging amount to around 160g/CO2 per kilometre (compared with the current 'conventional new car' average of 227 g/CO2).
If recharged in Australia's 'cleanest-energy' state, Tasmania, emissions drop to an also-unmatched 25g of CO2 per kilometre.
This calculation of course does not provide a comparison of energy consumed and CO2 generated in the production and manufacture of the i-MiEV as compared to a conventional car. Information of that type is currently unavailable.
That said, if we all drove EVs, the air above our urban environments would be considerably cleaner – and for that the planet would thank us.
How does it compare?
At the moment, there is no direct comparison. It sits in a class of its own. The question for buyers will be whether they can make the leap on behalf of the environment to that expected $60k-plus purchase price.
Some will, but waverers will likely choose cheaper options like the comparably-sized and brilliantly executed Fiesta ECO-netic. And they'll think of some other way to spend the $40k price differential.
Hybrids, of course, will be the more natural direct competitor. Both the Prius and the Camry Hybrid enjoy a considerable price and 'usefulness' advantage (you can drive both to Sydney and back without having to look for a power socket).
We were genuinely surprised with how well the i-MiEV drove and how easy it was to adapt to its operation and performance.
There is no question, the all-electric vehicle is the future. The limiting factor is battery performance and vehicle range. But every year the envelope is being pushed further out.
That said, while Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is a huge step-forward for all-electric motoring, it is doubtful that this car will ever become the 'next big thing' in suburban carports.
Those hurdles we mentioned at the outset will limit its opportunity for success, regardless of its strengths.
So, unconventional, expensive, but ultimately sensible in concept and performance, the i-MiEV is probably best considered as a flag-bearer for a new technology rather than part of a mass-onslaught.
As Mitsubishi Australia Vice President of Corporate Strategy Paul Stevenson said, "i-MiEV is not the end of the story, it is just the start of it."
He's right. Take a good look at it. You are looking at the future of urban motoring.