The Mitsubishi 'i' has always been one of our very favorite cars-that-you-can't-have. Cleverly designed within a breathtakingly small package, the five-door hatch holds four adults and makes a Mini Cooper look downright porky.
But it was never designed to meet U.S. safety regulations, so despite rave reviews, it's only available in Asia and Europe. Now, you can have the next best thing: a paper model of the 'i', courtesy of the Mitsubishi website.
The 'i' is a recent example of the Japanese kei car, a special class of cars--largely restricted to Japan--with limited dimensions (3.4 m long, 2 m high, 1.5 m wide), engine size (0.66 liter), and power (63 horsepower), in exchange for local parking and tax benefits.
Though tiny by US standards, the egg-shaped five-door body of the 'i' makes it appear larger than it is. Every review praises the design for all the interior space it manages to pack into the kei dimensions. Its “rear midship” engine sits below the rear seat, lying on its side, which makes the cabin the lengthiest in its class, and frees up space for passengers in the nose.
In a recent test drive, we were able to fit four male adults adequately—if not extravagantly—into an 'i'. One rear passenger, more than 6 feet tall, easily had 3 or 4 more inches of room above his head. We guessed that the 'i' was almost as spacious as a Honda Fit, and certainly its interior was far roomier in the rear than the Mini Cooper ever will be. The one drawback is the lack of shoulder room; an 'i' is more than 12 inches narrower than a Cooper.
The 'i' was designed when Mitsubishi was the third member of the Daimler-Chrysler partnership. Daimler owns Smart, so you can almost think of the 'i' as a Smart ForTwo that's been stretched into a four-seater. The car's gotten such good reviews that an executive at Mitsubishi's U.S. arm said they were thinking of designing the next version to meet U.S. standards--although we'll believe that when we see it.
Meanwhile, if you live in California or New York City, you may be lucky enough to see an 'i' on the street. There's a standard one running around Southern California, and a handful of the electric version--called the i-MiEV--are being tested by utilities and fleets in various locations. Mitsubishi may also build the i-MiEV for Peugeot.