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Boucherville, Que., Mayor Jean Martel (in passenger seat) drove a Mitshubishi i-MiEv throuygh the Quebec winter. (Luc Lavergne/City of Boucherville)
Boucherville, Que., Mayor Jean Martel (in passenger seat) drove a Mitshubishi i-MiEv throuygh the Quebec winter. (Luc Lavergne/City of Boucherville)

The Green Highway

Mitsu's zero is a hero in the cold Add to ...

When Mitsubishi told me it was sending a few of its battery-powered electric cars to Quebec for the winter, I thought it was asking for trouble. Batteries don't like the cold and put out less juice and deliver less range as a result.

I figured this might be good news for the local tow truck business but probably pretty risky for Mitsu. But now spring is at hand and it seems that the strangely named i-MiEVs are still running without incident.

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Five of these electric buggies went down to Boucherville, Que., a small municipality of Montreal's South Shore. One went to Quebec Hydro, three went to government employees and one went to Boucherville's Mayor Jean Martel.

Martel saw it not only as a way to get the free use of a car but also to do some political messaging. "I'd say 90 per cent of the people in Boucherville are proud that this is a zero-emission car and proud that it uses electricity that is produced in Quebec instead of oil from Saudi Arabia."

He had a charging station installed in his garage at home and faithfully plugged in the car every night. He paid for the electricity, he pointed out. There were also two charging stations installed at the town hall as part of the deal.

Martel quickly figured out how to get the most distance from a single charge. "You adjust the way you drive. You use the heater less. You use the fan less. You don't accelerate too quickly and you use the brakes (which generate electricity) for a longer distance. It's amazing the improvement in economy you can get."

The longest trip he felt comfortable in taking was from his suburban home to downtown Montreal, generally about a half-hour drive. He had only one close call.

"I took my daughter to the Montreal boat show. The traffic was heavy over the bridge and it was snowing and the battery wasn't fully charged. I called my wife and asked her to check that there really was a charging station at a hotel near the show. It was working and it fully charged the battery in the three hours we were at the show. There was no problem getting home."

Mitsubishi is the first to put an all-electric car in the hands of Canadian drivers. There are some plug-in Prius hybrids out there, but of course they have a gasoline engine for when the juice runs out. The all-electric Nissan Leaf is on the way.

Martel says he drove the i-MiEV on days when it was 30 below and was careful not to run the battery down by using the heater too much. "In a 30-minute drive you don't feel the cold. I once had an air-cooled Volkswagen Westphalia. That was cold."

Mitsu will continue to put a few dozen I-MiEVs into test fleets this year, but when it comes time to actually attempt to sell all-electric vehicles, it plans to change the car and give it a new name.

The car it comes to market with will be slightly longer and wider with more interior room. I don't know what it's going to be called. Eye-Meev is some sort of shorthand for Mitsubishi electric vehicle but few people could figure out how to pronounce it.

Mitsu is rethinking a lot of things at the moment. It has been back in Canada for seven years now after departing once before because of weak sales. In its current incarnation, the company has been been pushing its sporty high-powered cars after winning a bunch of world rally championships in the not-too-distant past. It hasn't worked out too well as last year the company lost 32 billion yen in North America ($390-million). A couple of years ago, the company closed its California Design Studio that specialized in hot rods and now it appears it is about to drop the high-performance Lancer Evolution sedan from the lineup altogether.

Mitsu wants to transform itself into a leader in electric vehicles by launching eight electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles globally by 2015. Monster rally cars don't fit the new image.

At the Geneva auto show we saw the Mitsu E-Compact concept, its new Global Small Car. It's a mild hybrid with regenerative braking and automatic start-stop powered by a three-cylinder gas engine. The Global Small Car (another catchy name) hasn't been announced for North America yet, but with the direction of gas prices, you never know.

Mitsubishi has a gone through a lot of struggle as it determines what kind of car company it wants to be. The fact that people like Boucherville's mayor can make it through a cold Quebec winter in one of its early electric cars should give the company a little confidence in its new direction.

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