After several years of taunting and many months of speculation, the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show is finally the venue chosen for Mitsubishi to show off their U.S.-specification 'i' electric car to an expecting public.
We've featured the Japanese-spec 'i' several times, as the company has shipped examples around the world for demonstration purposes and to run user trials. Journalists quickly discovered that the version they were testing wouldn't quite be up to the requirements expected of cars on American roads, so we were pleased when Mitsubishi announced that the U.S. would be getting a revised version more suited to American tastes.
The biggest revisions were to the car's dimensions, taking it away from the Japanese kei-jidosha limitations borne from the needs of Japanese cities and Japanese traffic and providing extra space for more demanding, and indeed larger, U.S. consumers. Longer, wider and taller, the car is much more suited to U.S. streets. Quality had come under the critics' spotlight too, so the new version has been subtly tweaked to offer more of a big-car feel inside.
The drivetrain though, with limited top speed and even more limited range remains the same, and this could present Mitsubishi with some issues.
EVs are a fairly hard-sell item in the States, a nation hooked on an oil habit through generations of gas-guzzling muscle cars and SUVs. Gasoline is cheap and plentiful and roads are long and wide, meaning personal transportation has been absorbed into American culture and the fuel that powers it has become a sweet nectar that's difficult to give up.
It's taking enough effort for companies such as General Motors and Nissan to persuade customers that an electric car is what they really need, and their products the Volt and LEAF are both at the cutting edge of EV technology, offering qualities on par with their purely gasoline-fuelled equivalents. Both GM and Nissan have large orders down from companies like General Electric and the buying public to prove that their tactics are working.
But Mitsubishi? Whilst impressive, their 'i', even in U.S. specification, has limited highway capabilities and limited range at 60 to 80 miles realistically, effectively relegating it to urban-only journeys. Indeed, Mitsubishi are marketing the vehicle as such, but in a country where a car is so much more than a commuting tool we wonder whether a $30,000 urban vehicle really has a market.
It's a question that smart must be pondering too with their fortwo electric drive, but then the fortwo is more obviously an urban vehicle with no pretence of suitability over longer journeysthanks to the two-seat limitation and miniscule size - customers don't expect any more of the electric smart than they would of the gasoline version. It also has sub kei-car dimensions on its side - width should be fairly similar to the i-MiEV yet length is usefully shorter for those tight urban parking situations.
With competition like the highly accomplished Nissan Leaf ready and available to the public (and it's impossible not to draw comparisons in the Leaf's favor when it costs only a few thousand dollars more pre-incentive), is Mitsubishi's decision to market the smaller and less rounded 'i' as an urban vehicle really the right decision? Would they have been better served with a U.S.-spec version offering more power and a bigger battery for greater range?
Only time will tell, but we hope for Mitsubishi's sake the gamble pays off, since the market has never been kind to the automotive world's "nearly men".
For more on the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i', check out AllCarsElectric's Ultimate Reference Guide.