It’s been nearly four years since the tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV hit the market. And considering the rapid evolution and transformation of the electric-car market that’s occurred over the past several times the earth has gone around the sun, that’s really light years.

So when we decided to go back and revisit the little i-MiEV, which returns for 2016, we couldn’t help but see it in a different light. It’s no longer so much the technological curiousity, or a forerunner of a new technology—or, to early adopters, a long-awaited, fully legal electric passenger car.

Since it arrived on the market, so has the Tesla Model S, and a slew of other compliance-car models, like the Fiat 500e, that add some allure to going electric.

An odd one that makes sense up close

The 2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, no matter how you try to spin it in your head, isn’t sexy. It’s a weird little tall hatchback with slab sides and an ovoid profile. It’s only 145 inches long and derived from Japanese kei cars, and it does wonders with space. But in the U.S. it looks more than a bit foreign, in an awkwardly small way.

2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Quick Drive

2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Quick Drive

Functionally, it’s brilliant. I’m 6’-6” tall and can fit quite easily (in terms of entry and general comfort) in back, and there’s a useful 13.2 cubic feet of cargo spaces with the seats up in place. Flip down the rear seatbacks and you have space for the largest grocery runs. Or rou can fit four adults in the i-MiEV surprisingly well—although it’s nearly a foot narrower (62.4 inches) than a lot of U.S.-market models so you’re practically brushing shoulders with them.

The i-MiEV offers an official range of just 62 miles—the lowest of any of the battery electric cars sold in the U.S.—but it remains one of only a few electric cars to use the CHAdeMO standard for fast-charging (an 80-percent charge in under half an hour), and include it standard. That’s tremendous advantage in places like the region around Portland, Oregon, where electric-highway networks extend along major Interstate highways as well as to tourist regions like the coast, Mt. Hood, and surrounding wine country.

Realistically, the i-MiEV isn’t a vehicle you’d likely take to wine country. Its interior is downright drab, which is just one of many turnoffs here. Frankly, they may mostly have to do with any of your existinc preconceptions of economy cars. The doors close with a light, hollow ‘thunk,’ and they’re disconcertingly thin. You sit on what amounts to short, high benchlike perches, with no tilt adjustment (yes, I thought the front seats were less comfortable than the back ones) and sit awfully close to the steering wheel—which neither tilts nor telescopes. Switchgear feels borrowed from some 1990s econo-hatchback, while climate pre-heating is handled via a weird remote-control/fob thingy that looks like it should bear a Casio logo.

Simple in layout... and fun to drive

The i-MiEV is rear-wheel drive, and has its battery pack under the passenger floor, while the motor, inverter and controller are all at the far rearward portion of the car, under the cargo floor. Pop the front ‘hood,’ and it’s a tiny space, mostly with steering gear, braking and stability systems, and some ancillaries.

Gauges are refreshingly simple, with large analog meters for the speedometer as well as power input/output. It’s accompanied by a bare-basic LCD display that provides things like range and trip functions. They may seem cryptic at first, but it’s all you need.

The modes provided are just the basics, too. The i-MiEV provides more brake regen in its normal ‘D’ mode that many other electric cars, while you can pull the shift knob back to ‘B’ for something approaching true one-pedal driving. We should add that with the i-MiEV’s height and the tendency to bob fore and aft, it’s something your passengers may not love. In between there’s Eco, which merely softens accelerator response and reduces power.

What’s surprising about the i-MiEV, given all this, is how much fun it ends up being to drive. You can fling it around corners with increasing boldness, and this little minicar surprises. The little 145-width tires (staggered with 175s in back) struggle for grip, but the steering is communicative in a way that few other new cars possess, and the car is stable. It carries its weight very low, and it’s stable, even sporty. And it’s super-easy to park, as the wheels are pretty much at the corners.

Not anything but a city car

Yet out on the highway things get very different. That perkiness (and this model’s efficiency) fades markedly at around 50 mph, and a daily freeway commute isn’t for the fain of heart. Don’t even consider a daily 20 miles on the Interstate; you’ll feel vulnerable while between those semis, Escalades, and F-150s.

In short, what you have is a great city car. The i-MiEV weighs less than 2,600 pounds, has great outward visibility and sightlines, is plenty perky, and is easy to whip into gaps in traffic.

This time, we drove the i-MiEV only on a series of urban and suburban errands, and we did better on driving range with the i-MiEV than its official EPA 62 miles suggests, if you go by what its trip meter was suggesting. We’d gone 48 miles by the time we plugged the i-MiEV into the charger, and at that point it showed about a quarter capacity left and estimated a surprising 20 miles remaining.

While that’s not anywhere close to the 90-or-so miles that we’re quite easily achieving in our long-term Volkswagen e-Golf in those conditions, it’s quite impressive for a vehicle with a 16-kWh battery (as opposed to the more than 24-kWh battery of the VW).

In a relativistic sense—relative to speed and space—it almost seems as if the i-MiEV offers more range than the VW. It’s too easy in the VW to blast up to 70 mph and cruise there. In the i-MiEV, the sense of vulnerability, and the sensations of speed altogether kept my driving more mindful—and likely preserved my range.

Among the lowest-priced EVs... but does it still compute?

2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Quick Drive

2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Quick Drive

Pricing for the i-MiEV went down with its 2014 remake, and now for 2016 it carries over those prices. At a bottom-line price of $23,845 (or $25,845 as we tested it, with the available navigation upgrade), the i-MiEV costs well under the $20k mark if you net out the $7,500 Federal income-tax credit.

We’d skip that $2,000 nav system, by the way. Though it's a new addition, the nav system feels a little behind the times. It’s an old-style, plastic-membrane touch-screen, framed with some essential hard buttons, and while it includes HD Radio capability it’s one of the slowest-reacting tuners we’ve encountered, with laggy responses for nearly everything. It also brings no added EV-information functionality, which is puzzling.

Mitsubishi says that the i-MiEV takes about 7 hours to charge to full on a Level 2 (15A) charging system, yet when we plugged ours into a Blink Level 2 charger for about exactly two hours, we added just over 8 kWh (that’s half of its capacity) and brought the meter from around 1/4 to approximately 3/4.

The i-MiEV excels in the essentials, and where it ends up is in a cost-conscious, quirky corner of the current EV space. But with no real gains over used versions, and various other electric cars being offered at bargain lease rates, it’s an odd one out--and an acquired taste.


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