2012 Mitsubishi i: First Drive, U.S.-Spec MiEV

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The Mitsubishi MiEV went on sale in Japan and Europe back in mid-2009, and it’s sold 11,000 of them in those markets combined, since then; and including those rebadged as Peugeot and Citroen models, it adds up to about 15,000 in all. And that’s about, as of last month, the same number of Nissan Leafs sold worldwide.

Among pure electric cars, Mitsubishi’s lead might have slipped away, but it does have one very significant claim: The 2012 Mitsubishi i (what it’s called here) is the most efficient DOT-legal vehicle for sale in the U.S. market, with an official MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) rating of 112.

That’s right; the MiEV is finally officially U.S.-legal, with first deliveries slated for late November. And in Portland, Oregon, we recently got the chance to drive a couple of the first pre-production U.S.-spec cars to be shipped over.

U.S. version bulges outward—for the better

First off, our version does end up looking a bit different. The U.S.-spec i is altogether about eight inches wider, for two reasons—to accommodate side-curtain airbags for front and rear occupants, and in order to increase track significantly, for better highway stability as U.S. cruising speeds, even for those used mainly in urban situations, are higher than those in Europe or Japan.

The U.S. cars also get more prominent, bulging bumpers front and rear, with a fascia around them, adding nearly a foot of length. Another concession to DOT approval is the odd dual-wiper setup, with one of the wipers especially long and bent at an odd angle—partially obscuring a corner of the windshield even when they’re off—which replaces the otherwise elegant single-wiper setup that other markets get.

Underneath, the MiEV has the same chassis layout as elsewhere in the world—and the same layout as the Mitsubishi i on which it’s based: MacPherson struts and a 21-mm stabilizer bar in front, with a three-link DeDion rear configuration. From the outside, it’s a bit novel to see a minicar with staggered tire sizes (145/65R15 in front, 175/60R15 in back).

While the MiEV wasn’t designed, ground-up, as an electric vehicle like the Leaf, you might suspect that it had been; that’s because the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout of the gasoline-powered Mitsubishi i minicar proved to be especially friendly for packaging a battery pack and electric-drive components. The surprisingly small 16 kWh (330V) lithium-ion battery is placed low, beneath the floor of the vehicle, with the engine at the rear.

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