December seems to be the month when new electric-car makers manage to squeak their first deliveries in under the wire.

Last year at this time, Nissan delivered its first Leaf electric car in San Francisco on December 12, with the first Chevrolet Volt following on December 18.

This year, it's the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' electric minicar, of which the first production model was delivered for fleet use in San Francisco yesterday.

The brief event took place in the very same spot in front of City Hall where the first Leaf was handed over a year ago, although with fewer media in attendance.

Nonprofit car sharing

The new owner is City CarShare, the 10-year-old nonprofit car-sharing service whose 15,000 members can now choose among 400 cars in 200 locations around San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. The car actually came from San Rafael Mitsubishi, several miles north over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County.

City CarShare's goal is to have 50 percent of its cars using alternate fuels--meaning they're hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full electric--within five years, to cut vehicular emissions and improve air quality throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

A large proportion of its fleet already comprises 50-mpg Toyota Prius hybrids. It also plans to convert up to 10 of its older Prius model to plug-in hybrids with battery packs that give them 20 to 40 miles of all-electric range. (The production 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid offers only 9 to 13 miles of electric range.)

Paying for the 'i' itself

Because the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' electric car isn't U.S.-built, City CarShare wasn't able to use monies from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant it received to buy it. It does expect to use grant funds to acquire several Chevrolet Volts, Ford Focus Electrics and, later, Nissan Leafs--once production starts in Nissan's Tennessee plant in 2013.

In the end, says Mike Harrigan, its eFleet program manager, City CarShare suspects that plug-in hybrids with 40 miles of electric range will make up a larger proportion of its total fleet than will pure battery-electric vehicles.

Not only are they more flexible for longer trips, but they don't have to be trailered to a charging point if members run them completely out of range.

Suitable for cities

GreenCarReports got a ride in the little electric 'i' before the ceremony. It's not the speediest electric car we've ever been in, but it keeps up with traffic well enough below 40 mph.

We weren't able to take it on the freeway, but we're told it's less appealing there, with its small tires tramlining and a notable lack of acceleration for cut-and-thrust traffic in that crucial 55-to-75-mph window.

Still, we think its plain, uncomplicated interior may appeal to casual drivers who could be confused or intimidated by the more complex electronics and infotainment in the Leaf or Volt.

DC quick-charging a plus

One of the appeals of the 2012 'i', Harrigan said, was that Mitsubishi offered a simple, stripped-down fleet model without a fancy stereo, but including the CHAdeMO DC quick-charging plug, meaning that if and when quick-charging stations arrive in the Bay Area, members will be able to use them in the 'i'.

Car sharing, quick-charging, and plans for zero-emission vehicle requirements make California the unquestioned leader in advanced transport. While other car sharing services are offering electric cars--most notably, Car2Go in San Diego--City CarShare's plans are as aggressive as any we've seen.

Meanwhile, the spate of new electric-car deliveries may not be over.

We expect some sort of delivery event for the first 2012 Ford Focus Electric (to a fleet, not a retail buyer), and the first registered sales for the very, very long awaited 2012 Fisker Karma range-extended electric sport sedan as well.


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