Last year, the only volume battery electric car on sale in the U.S. was the Nissan Leaf. But for 2012, there's a new electric vehicle in town: the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i'.

The egg-shaped minicar is Mitsubishi's first plug-in offering, but it's actually been around longer than the Leaf, with tens of thousands sold in Asia and Europe under the name "i-MiEV". Initial U.S. sales markets are California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii.

Though it's remarkably small, the 2012 'i' seats four full-sized adults comfortably. Its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack (one-third smaller than the Leaf's) powers a 49-kilowatt (66-horsepower) electric motor driving the rear wheels.

The EPA rates the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' as having a range of 62 miles, lower than the Leaf's 73 miles. But the Mitsubishi electric car gets a slightly higher efficiency rate of 112 "MPG-e," an equivalency rate that equates the energy used to power the car with that in an equivalent number of gallons of gasoline.

This means the 'i' uses its stored electric energy more economically than any other vehicle on sale in the U.S.--an esoteric distinction, given how cheap electricity is, but one that its maker is touting nonetheless.

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

Like the Leaf, the 'i' offers an optional DC quick-charging port that provides an 80-percent battery recharge in about half an hour. While those quick-charge stations are quite rare at the moment, expect to see more of them installed in the early-launch locations for both electric cars (largely the West Coast and some east-coast locations).

The 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' and the Nissan Leaf may be the first two battery electric cars to go on sale in the U.S., but over the next few years, they'll be joined by many others: this year, the Ford Focus Electric and, later, perhaps the Tesla Model S all-electric luxury sport sedan.

As a small and perennially struggling maker, Mitsubishi is making a big gamble on introducing an electric car. But for what it is, the 'i' is a creditable entry. It's nimble to drive, if hardly the quickest car on the road, and its minimal exterior dimensions hide a remarkable amount of space inside.

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

We think the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' is ideally suited to a role as a second or third car, a commuter vehicle, or an urban runabout. You might not want to drive it cross-country, but its limited range would make that a challenge anyway.

Its clever design, four-person capacity, and overall efficiency prompted us to name the 2012 'i' as one of our six nominees for the GreenCarReports Best Car To Buy 2012 award.

We've been describing each of the contenders, one per day, over the course of this week. Come Monday, we'll name the winner for 2012.

If you'd like more information, have a look at our summary page, Best Car To Buy 2012, to get access to every story we've written about both the candidates and the award.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.