Friday, July 23, 2010

Living For A Week With An Electric Car


Published: July 23, 2010
Updated: 5:52 p.m.

Living for a week with an electric car


This past week I had the chance to drive the way a growing number of us will in the not-too-distant future. That is, I had the chance to be propelled around Orange County via electricity, not petroleum.

Doing the propelling was Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle, a tiny four-door, four-passenger car that has been on sale for a year in Mitsubishi’s home country of Japan, but doesn’t hit U.S. shores until fall of 2011.

Mitsubishi, whose North American division is based in Cypress, lent me a Japanese-spec version of the car not so much for a formal review of its driving merits, but to get a taste of what it’s like living with and using a micro car propelled entirely by electrons.

When the i-MiEV does arrive in the U.S., it will likely be a bit bigger than my version, whose overall length was 133.7 inches, about two feet longer than a Smart car. The U.S. model likely will be powered by the same mid-chassis electric drive-train that puts out 63 horsepower and 133 lb.-ft. of torque to the rear wheels, and will have better crash protection for passengers. And the steering wheel will be on the left, not the right.

More broadly, though, the U.S. version of the i-MiEV will be one of several cars relying on electricity stored in batteries that in turn operate an electric motor to ultimately spin the wheels.

Others include the all-electric Nissan Leaf, electrified versions of Ford’s Focus and Transit Connect, and plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt (on the lower end of the spectrum) and the Fisker Karma (think around $90,000) on the higher end, with those latter two employing a small, supplementary gasoline engine that can generate extra power once the batteries are drained, thus extending their range to hundreds of miles.

Of course, electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries is just one form of alternative fuel out there for an industry and public still debating how best to power the cars of tomorrow.

Hydrogen, natural gas and even diesel fuel – another petroleum derivative – are among other options on the table as automakers strive to meet higher mileage mandates and drivers the world over grapple with unstable gasoline prices. (I’ll leave any references to peak oil to those who relish debating such polarizing topics.)

One of the biggest concerns with purely electric vehicles is “range anxiety,” a term meant to portray drivers’ fear of running out of electricity and becoming stranded in their cars.

While automakers incorporating gasoline engines and batteries in their hybrid cars – think Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Chevy Volt – give consumers the ability to travel hundreds of miles before plugging into either an electrical outlet or gasoline pump, cars using solely battery power at the present time are limited to maybe 100 miles at best before they must be recharged. Thus, these cars are not meant to long hauls just yet.

“We don’t position this as a replacement for your gasoline vehicle,” Mitsubishi product spokesman Moe Durand said of the i-MiEV. “As this technology evolves, it will be a one-to-one replacement."

So you only get 100 miles at best in these things and have to remember to plug them in regularly if you want to drive them the next day. Does that mean an electric car like the i-MiEV will only beckon a small niche of today’s drivers willing to put for the extra effort? Not necessarily.

In fact, after driving this car for a week, I became convinced that electric vehicles could have a sizable place even in today’s market, and could appeal to those early adopters willing to spend the money and energy (energy, get it?) required to own one of these cars. How much money and energy is that?

Those are among the questions I was asked as I drove this funky, right-hand drive car around O.C. Below are some answers to the most burning questions I was asked.

Q: How do you charge this thing?

A: One of the best things about the i-MiEV is that along with a 220-volt input, it also can be charged via ordinary 110. It will take about 12 hours to charge a completely drained battery that way, but the great thing is, anywhere there’s an outlet, it’s like having your personal refueling station. The vehicle will also have the ability to accept high-voltage input at special charging stations that can bring it to 80 percent charge in around 20 minutes.

Q: How long will it go?

A: Mitsubishi rates the range of the i-MiEV “concept” – the one likely to show up on U.S. shores — as 80 to 100 miles.

Q: How fast will it go?

A: I got it up to 130 the other day. Of course, that was kilometers per hour. Converted to mph, that would equal Mitsubishi’s stated top speed of about 81 mph for this vehicle. In a very informal count from 0-60 mph, I ticked off around 9 or 10 seconds, not exactly brisk, but not terrible, either.Q: How much does it cost?

A: Mitsubishi has not made it official, but Durand tells me it will be “under $30,000” when the car arrives in the U.S. And keep in mind, there will likely be tax incentives to bring down that end cost.

Q: Do you feel safe in it?A: Not any more or less than I do my Miata.

Q: How do you change the oil?

A: You don’t, because there isn’t any to change. One of the benefits of an electric car such as this is the lack of moving parts and lack of fluids. This translates to less maintenance down the road on traditional services such as oil changes, timing belt replacement, etc.

Q: Does it make any noise?

A: Not much. One of the first things you notice about the i-MiEV is actually it’s lack of noise at any speed. Aside from the beeping when it backs up an a tendency to whine at high speeds under acceleration, the ride is surprisingly quiet.

Q: What happens if you run out of electricity?

A: You call a friend or taxi for a lift, or push the thing to the nearest electrical outlet. When driving an electric car such as this, it’s vital have a plan of where you’re going and to keep an eye on how much remaining power you have. If you use the air conditioning or, even more so, the heater, expect power to be drained even more quickly. It’s also vital to just get into the habit of plugging the thing in when you’re not driving it.

Q: What do you think of it overall?

A: I think it’s a hoot to have and drive around town, kind of like a street legal, freeway capable golf cart that can also accommodate four adults. I wouldn’t care to drive extensively at high speeds until the U.S.-spec version arrives with better capabilities for that. But for people who have a routine route under 50 miles a day and hope to shave both fuel costs and emit zero emissions, an all-electric car like the i-MiEV could be a welcome second vehicle for tooling around town.


Post a Comment