As a long-term EV hobbyist and card-carrying National Electric Drag Racing Association member, I hesitated to jump on the LEAF bandwagon in 2010/11. The LEAF just didn’t seem like a car that would lend itself to simple modification, and I agreed with published concerns about the battery’s thermal management. Additionally, my wife has a talent for personifying vehicles, and noticing the chrome strip above a LEAF’s front intake, she exclaimed “That’s why the LEAF looks dorky- it’s wearing braces!”. The waste of rear space with that concave-looking hatch wasn’t appealing either.
Now, the i may have a certain cuteness, especially in profile, but it’s definitely not a sexy machine either. (Did Mitsu really have to produce a Hello Kitty version right off the bat!) Having driven a Euro-spec iMiEV at the 2011 Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington in June 2011, I was impressed with the MiEV’s multiple driving modes and much stronger regen.
At 330 Volts, the battery pack and other DC components were in the same range as my 240V nicad-powered conversion, which peaks out at exactly 330V. This was appealing to my tinkering tendencies, as I could see several iMiEV parts that would be an upgrade for my conversion. (I even have aims on being able to shuttle charge between the two vehicles as a form of DIY quick charging, but of course only after the battery warranty expires in eight years ;-).
The iMiEV components are laid out in a very straightforward manner, as discrete components in cast aluminum housings with quick-connect cables rather than hardwired and hidden in a sea of black plastic. That really appealed to the shadetree mechanic in me.
The battery pack is a single string of 50 amp-hr cells, so eventual upgrade or replacement is definitely in my realm, compared to dealing with the thousands of cells in a Tesla pack. The use of large prismatic cells also gave me more confidence in the pack longevity and reduced likelihood of parallel cell balancing issues.
I had put a couple of hundred miles in friends’ LEAFs by the time an i appeared at local dealers in December 2011, but one more test drive put me over the edge. Go-cart handling would say enough. The ride is rougher, louder, and yes, even slower than a LEAF, but my EV Grin is always wider in the i. The torque is metered out gently, but quickly enough to leave all normal traffic behind at red lights, and unlike those online commentators who can’t believe this little car could compare favorably to a hot four cylinder, I think one key is that I can floor the accelerator at will without sounding or looking like a 16 year-old on Red Bull!
I took delivery of a Silver ES model with the cold weather package and interior LEDs on December 29th, just in time for a 2011 tax credit. Rather than wait for the non-portable Mitsu-approved Eaton equipment that Best Buy was not up to speed on yet, I picked up a Level 2 EVSE from a local independent SPX dealer in time for the 30% tax credit on that.
Not holding out for a CHAdeMO-equipped car feels like a mistake, as that $780 option is not offered for dealer installation. The lack of Quick-Charge has cost me a maximum of four hours inconvenience in the past eight months. The parts are available across the parts counter for about $1300 retail and the job looks straightforward, but DIY installation has potential to void one’s battery warranty or worse! I picked up the factory service manual from HELM, and it’s only given greater confidence in Mitsubishi engineering.
We expected the i to serve as our second car and my commuter, but it quickly became the family’s prime mover. With two young children, we fit perfectly and rarely miss that fifth seat. When guests or grandparents are involved, six-person trips are more common for us than five-person excursions, for which we kept the year 2000 model minivan. The car has made many hundred-mile days when I do a round trip commute, run an errand or two and come home, perhaps charging for an hour before my wife heads off on her 52 mile round trip commute for the graveyard shift. She charges on Level 1 overnight at work, and the cycle begins again with our morning handoff.
That brings up the subject of range and alleged anxiety. The 62 mile EPA rating seems fair in my book. We live in a hilly area, and in the wintertime with heater loads and nearly full-time headlights, expected range often showed around 50-52 miles. I did a worst-case winter run on the highway at 65-70 mph with a full load at night, and pulled over for dinner and a recharge at 45 miles, with four miles remaining on the “guessometer”.
The i’s instrumentation is basic, and I’d prefer more numbers, but the 16 bar graph relates nicely to the 16 kwh pack, and the damped analog ammeter that serves as a green-to-blue efficiency indicator is quite intuitive. It doesn’t, however show the full range of regen power.
As measured by JoeS, an engineer-owner on the myimiev.com forum, acceleration maximum power is 154 amps, and regen comes up to a strong 104 amps! I’ve yet to find a downslope that accelerates the car when full regen is engaged.
I personally prefer simplistic gauges, and feel that the whiz-bang graphics on a Volt or Focus will look very dated in a decade or so, and that the LEAF’s display options can be complex to the point of geeked-out distraction (not that I wouldn’t prefer access to the numbers for download).
My main gripe with the i-instruments comes from constantly reaching around the steering wheel to push the selector button and toggle between estimated range remaining and the trip odometer. The conventional ignition switch makes a nice place to hang my keys, because even Tesla drivers will still have key rings for home and office use for the foreseeable future, eh?
The square fold-out cupholders are perfect smartphone nests, in addition to putting a nice squeeze on a Big Gulp or accommodating the kid’s juice boxes. There is only one cupholder for the rear seats, a high-capacity round version that I plan to also retask as a receiver for an aftermarket center armrest, which is absent…
When driving solo, I frequently take advantage of the hatchback’s cavernous storage area; 50 cubic feet in a nearly perfect, flat-floored cube with the rear seats folded. The i has hauled many recycling bins, wheels and tires for my racing hobby, and more groceries than will fit behind the rear seats of our Odyssey minivan.
The interior has been criticized for its hard plastic and rough upholstery, but durable and easy to clean are definite assets for a young family. I know LEAFS that are already showing significant interior wear due to soft plastics and softer upholstery (and very light colors).
Like any capable family hauler, the i deserved a trailer hitch, ostensibly for carrying bicycles in a more aero manner than a rooftop rack. Mitsubishi does not rate the car for trailer towing, but it has proven more than capable of light loads up to 800 lb so far. That strong regen is really appreciated when going downhill with a trailer! I was the first i-customer of Torklift Central, who offers their EcoHitch receiver in both 2” and 1 ¼” for the i, the Leaf, the Volt, the Tesla Roadster, Prius models and soon the Model S. The 1 ¼” version did not offer significant weight savings, so I stayed with the greater utility of a 2-incher.
During the first few months, I logged EVery trip, and averaged 47 miles per day of use, including a 32 mile round-trip commute. Charging on Level 1 with the 8 amp stock EVSE at work is sufficient to top off if I need to refill for midday meetings, but I bring along the SPX to add 16 amps at 120V if we’ll need additional range. Though most consider the OEM Level 1 EVSE to be terribly unambitious, another active iMiEVer beat me to 10k miles with this little charger alone! Otherwise, I’m quite pleased with Mitsubishi’s engineering, especially considering that this car is basically a factory conversion of a gasoline Kei class design.
The battery pack is air-conditioned, and our desert southwest members on the very active www.myimiev.com forum report none of the thermal management issues that are wilting the capacity of hot climate LEAFS. The tires are a complimentary set, with super-skinny 145/65R15 up front and 175/60R15 tires on the rear that won’t even fit up front in a pinch. I suppose that the slim front rubbers are intended to induce understeer and reduce a somewhat tippy feeling in the original, nonfat World Version of the car (North American cars are 4.3 inches wider and 11.2 inches longer than the original).
A bit more on the handling characteristics. My car apparently arrived with excessive toe-in from the factory, which caused premature wear on the front tires, reduced range, and additional scrubbing in hard corners. The dealer corrected the toe-in at no charge when I noticed the wear issues before 5000 miles, but I expect to push a tire warranty claim. The corrected alignment has eliminated those feathers in the second 5000 miles.
The car certainly scrubs in hard corners, and the suspension is stiff enough that combined with strong regen, an off-camber tight downhill turn that I regularly travel allows the right rear wheel to unload enough to lose traction even in dry conditions. When that happens, the Automatic Stability Control cuts back the regen and kicks in a caliper or two to correct the situation in a fraction of a second. Only the sound is disconcerting, the car does not feel tippy, though I haven’t tried that maneuver with a full house.
I also took the i out in terribly icy snow conditions this past winter on barely broken-in tires, and found the car to be certifiably idiot-proof. No matter what stunts I pulled in the nearby dormant housing development, the car’s safeties would not let me slide very far. (And for you alignment hawks, there was no contact with any curbstones!) Turning off the traction control does enable donuts and snowy rooster tails, however… the rooster tails also appear at low speeds in the rain, and a lack of mudflaps (or tire spats) both front and rear mean that lot of grime gets deposited on not just the car behind, but also the tailgate, the front doors, and the doorsill/running board, which protrudes enough to require attention when exiting the vehicle, lest you wipe it clean with a trouser leg.
The solid rear 3-link DeDion suspension does not soak up speed bumps, and I’d like to see an engineering presentation behind that choice. I think that an IRS setup might have felt smoother with less weight, but there must be some good reasons.
All-in-all, after eight months and ten thousand miles, I’m quite pleased with our purchase and expect to hand it over as a very reliable and safe first car for my daughter in ten years when she turns sixteen. That is, unless I’ve modified it too much by then. The AWD front axle from a JDM gasser could turn nicely with a series-wound motor and Zilla controller, and it would be narrow enough to allow some meat up front. Software already exists to pump up the stock drivetrain from 49 kw to 80 kw, as evidenced by the iMiev Evolution that placed second-in-class on Pike’s Peak this year. There’s room in the rear for a supplemental battery pack, and having a beefy trailer hitch only inches from the rear axle is just begging for pusher trailer propulsion on long highway adventures……
Stay Tuned For More
Jay Donnaway is a conservation consultant living in the shadow of Mt Rainier with his wife, two young children, and six vehicles that span six decades and six body types. Jay also is a member of the Tacoma and Seattle EV Associations