Test Drive: Mitsubishi’s New MiEV, the Most Affordable EV?

Over the past year, the success of mass market electric cars has been judged on just two products; the  Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt – and of these, only the LEAF is truly fully electric.

Year-to-date sales figures through the end of October, reveal that 8,048 LEAFs versus 5,003 Volts have been sold in the USA, with the LEAF on target to exceed sales of 10,000 units by year’s end. These numbers suggest that electric cars have moved beyond the curiosity stage, and now have a viable, permanent marketplace in this country.

This view is apparently shared by other car makers. Next year, American EV customers will get even more choice, in the form of Ford’s new electric Focus and Mitsubishi’s MiEV. Both of these cars are scheduled to go on sale in the spring, while customers with deeper pockets can look forward to the much anticipated Tesla Model S – a vehicle aiming at a higher end of the market.

I was able to drive a pre-market MiEV last week, which Mitsubishi claims will slot in as the most affordable EV available on the market. Going in as a price leader will make it an interesting car to watch. So, how does it compare?

In terms of the competition, the MiEV inevitably compares more directly with the LEAF,  than the Volt, since it’s also 100% electric, and consequently subject to the same laws of battery capacity and range. Whether or not range-anxiety is overblown, limited range, nonetheless, leads many people to consider today’s electric cars to be most suitable as a second or third family vehicle. And if you buy in to that notion, then Mitsubishi’s strategy to price the car for affordability may prove to be a smart one.

After tax credits, the MiEV starts at $21,625, significantly cheaper than the LEAF at $27,700. And this difference might just be the hook. Buyers may decide that if their EV isn’t going to be their only car, something closer to $20,000 – as opposed to $30,000 – may be the way to go.

That is, as long as you don’t want to go too far afield, as the MiEV is undoubtedly a city car; it’s small size allows owners to squeeze into parking places few others could consider. But while it’s small on the outside, interior cabin space is impressive – seeming to stretch to all four corners of the car. There will be no problem transporting four adults around town with plenty of leg and head room in the front and back.

I drove the higher spec “SE” version, and found it to be pleasantly feature rich. Nice touches such as a leather wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, satellite radio/navigation and a rear-view backup camera made the car feel much more than a basic “econo-box.” Another cool feature is that drivers can remotely pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin before they are ready to un-plug and drive away, helping cut down on battery power use.

Speaking of batteries, the MiEV hosts a 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack – which compared with the LEAF’s 24 kWh battery is pretty small. This is no doubt where much of the vehicle’s cost is saved, as lithium-ion batteries are notoriously expensive and a key reason why EVs are comparatively more expensive than gasoline powered cars.

To manage range, the car has 3 different modes – Drive, Eco-mode or B-mode; the latter offering maximum motor and braking regeneration. To be honest, the fun factor really only kicks in when you get out of eco-mode, thereby making the car’s full power available. In “Drive” mode, I was impressed with the Mitsubishi’s acceleration; it inspired confidence that I’d easily be able to keep pace with other road users. This sense was augmented by a high seating position giving the impression of driving a much larger vehicle. The total lack of engine noise or vibration, as with any EV, makes the driving experience seem incredibly refined.

So far, so good. Now for the big question – what’s the range? The EPA rates the vehicle at just 62 miles, and this is probably what will make prospective buyers stop and think the most, before making a commitment to the MiEV.

The LEAF’s EPA-evaluated range is 100 miles [Ed. Note please see the comment section for clarification on the LEAF’s range], but drivers I have spoken to report real-world driving delivers more like 80 miles. Owners of the LEAF can let me know if this is consistent with their own experience. But, I would venture to say that the MiEV will almost certainly fall short of its full 62 mile range too – especially if the driver spends much time outside of eco-mode. If you factor in a similar 20 percent range error as for the LEAF –  a cost paid for running things like A/C and other auxiliary features – perhaps drivers will find it wise to limit themselves to a 50 mile round-trip to be safe. Then again, if you go for the level 3, public quick charging port – an option – drivers can allay any anxiety by getting an 80 percent recharge in just 30 minutes.

But frankly, if this range covers your average daily driving needs, then the MiEV will fit the bill very well, and you’ll be able to enjoy best-in-class 112 mpg equivalent fuel economy, which Mitsubishi estimates will cost you just $3.60 to run per 100 miles. It’s true, of course,  that you can buy a much cheaper economical gasoline powered car, but over time, cheap running costs and minimal service needs for the MiEV, will make a big dent in the price premium you pay for buying an electric car at the outset. And you might just be driving a bit of the future.

Photo taken by author

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on electric vehicles and sustainable business matters in general. Twitter: @PhilCovBlog