Something about electric cars brings emotion to the fore in the car pages. Reasoned evaluations give way to gut reactions, negative in most cases.
Electric vehicles are too expensive; they'll fry Toronto's grid if they ever sell in great numbers (which they won't); they won't go fast enough or far enough.
But driving the Mitsubishi i-MiEV renders those reactions as silly as my great-grandfather refusing to buy a car with an electric starter, fearing imminent fire (except at the spark plugs).
Overheating critics weary me. They're the same people who gush over Lamborghinis without ever criticizing their ludicrous fuel consumption, celebrate Bentleys without an ahem on depreciation, mention only in passing the lack of rear-seat room in an Aston-Martin.
Such quibbles are beside the point because the people who buy Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Aston-Martins only care about what makes them special. The same applies with early purchasers of electric cars: they know their shortcomings and don't need to hear about them ad nauseam, but are excited by what electric cars can do better than the same old, same old.
For this driver, plugging in at home rather than holding a hose at a gasoline station in the cold or heat is appealing, to say the least. There, I said it. Electrifying cars do fascinate me. Perfection would be an electric Smart for daily city driving, leaving my 34-year-old Porsche 911 SC polluter for weekend fun and a personal connection with the past.
The i-MiEV arrives for evaluation on a flat-bed truck. Why? Because the test vehicle depot in Mississauga is 70 km away and the i-MiEV'S range is said to be 155 km in ideal conditions; Mitsubishi doesn't want me draining the battery merely coming and going.
My approach is to not read the owner's manual, not seek out any information on the web, but to drive as I would any car and discover how it differs. Although I am given a walk-around intro and told my own extension cord will burn out if I try using it for overnight charging – I should just use the cord provided in the trunk – I begin pretty much as a novice.
Turn the key and ‘Ready' appears in the instrument cluster. Select ‘D' or ‘R' and go. There's not a sound at a standstill and only a faint whine under way.
I'm almost instantly besotted. My emotional response draws me to note the positives – ample room for four, a tight turning circle for easy parking, a nice ride – and discount what's wrong. The back seat may be roomy but it's as hard as a park bench. Hard is also the word for the plastic surfaces lining the interior.
The i-MiEV is not luxurious even in the Premium form that commands $35,978. The base model is $32,998. Buyers must apply for an incentive from the Ontario government for $8,230; the grant isn't automatically deducted from the price.
The i-MiEV thrives in city traffic. In fact, it'll go further in stop-and-go than on the highway, as we discover soon enough. Shifting into ‘B' rather than ‘D' causes the electric motor to slow the vehicle each time you ease off the accelerator, effectively braking without using the brakes and simultaneously generating electricity that increases your range. Cool. It also reduces wear on your brake pads. A third motive option is ‘Eco' – said to be the best choice at highway speeds, reducing power and consumption.
A readout indicates range. It's 87 km following our first outings after the car comes off the truck. After being plugged in overnight, 100 km. It's becoming obvious that the i-MiEV is the ideal commuter only within certain limits.
Another night's charging yields enough power for 107 km. For a full charge of a depleted battery you need 22 hours – or seven hours with a 240-volt system – and it's been plugged into our garage outlet for 16 hours.
My wife, Ms I'm Not Really Into Driving, likes this car. It's the first time she's ever been questioned by the police with no unpleasant consequences. On her way home from Pilates, an officer lowers his window to ask if it can be plugged into any outlet (yes) and what happens if you run out (how would we know?).
After her 40-km Pilates run, the indicator shows 73 km of ‘fuel' in my ‘tank' – just enough to return the i-MiEV from home on the edge of Pickering to the depot in Mississauga. Passing The Globe and Mail, I note it's 39 km; a commute to the office would be a cinch. What bliss. What comfort. What discomfort, suddenly, when the range indicator begins flashing a stylized plug-in icon and Mississauga is still so far away it might as well be the Middle East.
Zero km remaining announces itself at the Dixie Road exit from the Queen Elizabeth Way, two exits from my goal, Hurontario. And still the iMiEV soldiers on. It covers another 10.9 km before, finally, inevitably, coming to a silent conclusion at the final traffic lights before Integrated Automotive Group.
Cue the flatbed. The i-MiEV has totalled 103.9 km this day and fallen 700 metres short. A parade of gasoline-powered drivers steer around the marooned Mitsubishi, casting doubting gazes my way as I phone for help.
My emotional reaction is disappointment – with myself rather than the car. Had I read Mitsubishi's FAQs on the web that point out how highway speeds and air-conditioning shorten range, I'd have known better. I'd have taken the Dixie exit and made my way to Hurontario in stop-and-go traffic to generate power. I'd have turned the AC off.
Mitsubishi's John Armone also thought I should have done some more planning. “Your range situation was unusual and really fell outside what an i-MiEV owner would experience. It's bewildering – I mean would a gas-powered car owner drive cross-town (eastern edge of the GTA to west Mississauga) with insufficient fuel? I think not. Part of the EV lifestyle includes planning and preparation.”
In a perfect world, more powerful batteries will extend range. Ontario's incentives will reduce plug-in vehicles' prices automatically. Green licence plates facilitating access to high-occupancy lanes, even when driving alone, will be fitted to vehicles at the dealerships instead of being left to buyers. It's early days for EVs. They've arrived, though, they're going to get better – and they're already viable for those who understand their limits as well as their undeniable charm.
2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV Sedan
Type: Four-door hatchback
Base price: $32,998; as tested, $35,978
Horsepower/torque: 66 hp/145 lb-ft
Transmission: Single gear
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): litres-equivalent of 1.9 city, 2.4 highway
Alternatives: Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, electric Smart (coming in fourth quarter this year)