What was the first mass-produced electric vehicle, after the GM EV1?
No, it’s not the Nissan Leaf.
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV was, by many assessments, a pioneer as a dedicated electric vehicle. It was intended to be mass-produced, not a simple conversion, and widely available (at least in some markets). Although first put in test fleets in 2007, it was offered for public purchase in Japan starting in 2009—more than a year before first Nissan Leaf deliveries.
The oddly styled electric minicar hasn’t been sold in the U.S. since the 2017 model year, when sales had essentially coasted to a halt on their own, from an underwhelming U.S. sales peak of just over 1,000 sold in 2013. And according to a report last month from the Japanese newswire Nikkei, Mitsubishi could stop making its little i-MiEV electric car by the end of this Japanese fiscal year—by March 2021.
Although the move hasn't been publicly confirmed, Nikkei quotes an unnamed executive as saying: "We didn't have enough money and personnel to continue investing in EV development."
The i-MiEV wasn’t originally intended to be the vertically integrated global effort that the Leaf was. The Nissan Leaf beat the i-MiEV to the market in the U.S. by more than a year.
2011 Mitsubishi i-Miev EuroNCAP Test
To sell the i-MiEV in the U.S., Mitsubishi essentially re-engineered a Japanese kei-car-based vehicle, widening its track, making the entire vehicle about 8 inches wider, and adding more side-impact protection and side airbags.
That said, it never really fit in Stateside. With a 66-hp permanent-magnet motor in back, the i-MiEV was one of the slowest-accelerating electric cars on the U.S. market for much of the time it was available. But with rear-wheel-drive, staggered tire sizes, and a fairly soft suspension with quick, vivid steering, the i-MiEV was always surprisingly good fun to drive around town.
And driving around town was really all we’d advise. In U.S.-spec, the i-MiEV came with a 16-kwh battery pack that yielded an EPA range rating of just 62 miles. Use the climate control or go much above 50 mph for long, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the range you should count on was about half that.
With its tall, boxy body, low-mounted battery pack, and easy-folding rear seatbacks, the i-MiEV had some excellent interior packaging, too. When GCR last revisited the i-MiEV for a follow-up drive, in 2015, we gave it a shopping-trip advantage over the e-Golf because of its height.
2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Quick Drive
By the time of the i-MiEV’s introduction, Mitsubishi had already sold tens of thousands of i-MiEVs in Japan and Europe, and in the U.S. it planned to follow the i-MiEV a year later with the Outlander PHEV and another EV soon after that—an electrified reboot, essentially. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
To that point, the dealership Mitsubishi arranged as a stopover along the way on its first U.S. drive opportunity for the i-MiEV in 2011—said to be an example of the direction Mitsubishi wanted to go with more technology-centric displays and EV-savvy salespeople—was out of business within a couple years. The Outlander PHEV finally arrived in the U.S. in 2018. And that second EV appears to have been quietly cut along the way.
Pair of Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars parked at work [photo: Jen Danzinger]
Going back decades, Mitsubishi was one of the quirkiest, most tech-savvy, and most innovative of the Japanese automakers. Less than 10 years ago the i-MiEV felt like a promising extension of that. But in retrospect, it was the end of an era.