Plug-in electric cars have been getting quite a lot of press, but their numbers are still low. The main contender in the market for 2012 is the Nissan Leaf, but a smaller, less expensive five-door minicar from Mitsubishi may attract its own following among folks who don't drive particularly long distances and are comfortable in a car about the size of a Mini Cooper.
The new 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' carries a starting price of $29,125 before any incentives, meaning it's $6,000 cheaper than the cheapest Leaf. That means it's the lowest-priced electric car on sale in the U.S. this year.
It's also the most efficient; the EPA has given it an official rating of 112 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent), based on the distance it will travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. As for range, the EPA rates the Mitsubishi i at 62 miles--though like all electrics, that figure can vary significantly with driving style, temperature, and accessories used.
The i's rear-mounted electric motor is rated at 49 kilowatts (66 horsepower), and its lithium-ion battery pack holds 16 kilowatt-hours of energy. By comparison, the Leaf's motor is rated at 80 kW (107 hp) and its battery pack holds half again as much energy.
The 2012 'i' is happiest in urban traffic and city driving. Its electric motor develops peak torque from 0 rpm, so it accelerates from 0 to 30 mph as quickly as most gasoline cars and keeps up with traffic just fine. But above 50 or 55 mph, it starts to lose steam, and the rated top speed of about 80 mph is a real strain that will drain the battery more quickly than you'd like.
The Mitsubishi i doesn't look quite as small as it actually is, and it's got surprising interior volume for its size. You can fit four six-foot adults into the car, though the cargo space behind the rear seatback is minimal. In its likely use as an urban runabout, drivers may choose to fold down the rear seats to carry home the week's groceries for the family.
The ride is smooth on good roads, and the suspension soaks up most bumps happily. The car doesn't have enormous grip, but the battery weight is carried low in the chassis, so it handles well--though we don't recommend getting into cornering contests with Mini Coopers.
Sales numbers for the 2012 Mitsubishi i--or "i-MiEV" as it's also known--are likely to be a few thousand a year. Mitsubishi isn't likely to sell as many electric cars as class leader Nissan, but make no mistake: the 2012 i is a real electric car, on sale to all comers, and not a limited-edition offering or any kind of test car. Mitsubishi has built and sold tens of thousands of i-MiEVs in Asia and Europe, and the company (which struggles in the U.S.) is serious about its electric car. It expects to sell about 1,500 of them this year, and as many as 5,000 in 2013.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Mitsubishi i range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.