I drove an electric car… and I liked it

Robert Leitch

Mitsubishi i-Miev

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

The whispers had gone beyond audibility, to a constant rumble of anticipation. My dear employers had purchased a fleet of electric cars, soon to be rolled out in a blaze of corporate publicity. Already charging points were appearing around our rambling ‘multi-node’ campus, but a veil of secrecy remained.

Unexpectedly, this morning, I became involved in the peripheries of the project and seized the opportunity to find out more. In full ‘wily old fox’ mode, I engineered a reason to see a car in the metal and plastic and very soon was introduced to a shedload – literally – of new white Mitsubishi i-MiEVs. I didn’t even have to ask for a drive – just by showing enthusiasm and knowledge, the offer was made.

The Mitsubishi i car is a rare sight here in tghe UK so there is no commonplace point of comparison. The Smart ForTwo, with which the i shares mechanical DNA, is closest. The formula is much the same – and, unlike anything else, except possibly the Tata Nano, a sort of ‘Poundland’ i.  Up front are the customary MacPherson struts and electric powered rack and pinion steering. At the rear – the driven end – a 66bhp motor sits just in front of a De Dion axle. The lithium-ion battery pack, cleverly shaped to minimise intrusion, sits below the passenger compartment

The first impression from the driver’s seat is that Mitsubishi have made every effort to make the experience as conventional and un-daunting as possible. There’s an orthodox transmission selector, like a CVT, there is no automatic ‘creep’, and the accelerator is required for any forward motion. To remind us that the underlying technology does not come cheap, this £24,000 car has interior quality and equipment levels which would just pass muster in an £8000 Korean sub-supermini.

Out on the road, expectations were not high, but my cynicism was confounded. The fully-charged car was impressively lively. Lately, I’ve been doing most of my driving in a 55bhp one ton supermini, which needs to be driven hard constantly to maintain decent progress. The i-MiEV, 10% heavier, was effortless. It doesn’t quite have steam train torque, but it’s unlike any 66bhp petrol engine I’ve driven.

Electric idiosyncracies are notable by their absence. The regenerative system built into the drivetrain gives better “engine braking” than most automatics, so the rather sudden, typically Japanese, brakes are rarely called on. The chassis impressed, feeling well tied down, with scarcely any roll. A low centre of gravity, with the major masses placed at floorpan level must surely be the secret. I wasn’t going to find out for the readers’ benefit, but Smart-sized tyres – 145/65R15 at the front, 175/55R15 at the rear – suggest roadholding limits would not be high. Ride is excellent, helped by all that weight, and a ‘wheel at each corner’ which Issigonis would have admired. Another delight is the i-MiEV’s narrowness – it is a true kei-car, only 1450mm wide, and I found myself wondering why European superminis need to be a foot wider.

My passenger, who has been evaluating the i-MiEVs for some time, counselled that I should take particular care when pedestrians are around. Many of the county’s residents cross roads by ear, reserving their visual faculties for their smartphones. They should be very afraid – the Silent Death is about to take to the streets.

The 80 mile range has been verified, though charging well before is recommended. It’s not impressive compared with later EVs – the Tata Vista EV claims 150 miles.  Equally the £24,000 list price – after the Government’s £5000 subsidy – will limit the market. I made discreet enquiries as to the price paid for our fleet and was astonished. Suffice to say, either that hefty list price has plenty of room to drop or else Mitsubishi are buying “visibility”.

I left impressed with the experience and am looking forward to my next acquaintance with the i-MiEV. I’m not personally in the market for one, but can understand how it could be a formidably effective medium-distance corporate transport tool where a charging network is available.

Plenty of reservations still remain. According to Jesse Crosse in this month’s Boring Boring CAR, the CO2 output of a typical EV running on UK-generated electricity is 75g/km. Internal combustion diesels and even petrol cars are rapidly approaching this level. That said, in its defence, the EV generates the emissions at the power station, not the tailpipe. However – and I have no plans to be AROnline’s George Monbiot – to the best of my eco-simpleton’s understanding, CO2 produced in the middle of nowhere does just as much harm as that produced in a city centre.

Fiscal considerations cloud the water further. How does one compare a vehicle running on energy taxed at 5% with one using fuel taxed at 175%?  Long term, this cannot be sustained. Rascally Governments will manipulate our choices, but they won’t put up with missing out on revenue. Don’t bury internal combustion any time soon – it always finds a new trick to play. However, if you have the chance to try an EV, jump at it – motoring life’s nothing without variety.

Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

26 Comments on "I drove an electric car… and I liked it"

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  1. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    That’s an interesting point about emissions – is the level generated at the power station lower than that generated by a conventional engine? If not, what’s the point?

  2. Simon Woodward says:

    @Jonathan Carling
    I agree with that – the idea of an electric car feels like a case of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ when it comes down to it.

    I was following – well, trying to follow – an Ariel Atom along the M11 yesterday and I was shocked by its rapid acceleration. The extremely strong and light construction coupled with a highly efficient Honda Type R engine gives it excellent performance.

    Why, then, not make a small, light and strong 2+2 town car along the same lines as the Atom but with a BlueMotion diesel engine? Keep it simple with no gadgets or gizmos and I bet it would sell like hot cakes.

  3. KeithB says:

    The point about emissions is a very interesting one. I think it is more about reducing pollution levels in crowded cities than a net reduction in a country’s CO2 output.

    It is along similar lines to the Victorian idea of building higher chimneys to push the soot cloud further away from crowded populations resulting in slightly dirty air for “everyone” rather than choking smog for those closest to the source.

    I would agree that, if electric motion does take a firm hold, then we can expect to see increased taxation.

    My concern is with the control of power generation which currently resides with non-UK domiciled corporations. The UK also imports a huge amount of natural gas to generate electricity and will fall prey to whim of Russian politicians one day.

  4. Robert Leitch says:

    Simon Woodward :
    @Jonathan Carling
    Why, then, not make a small, light and strong 2+2 town car along the same lines as the Atom but with a BlueMotion diesel engine? Keep it simple with no gadgets or gizmos and I bet it would sell like hot cakes.

    I’m still sufficiently prejudiced against diesel cars to think that any diesel in a (very) open sports car would be retrograde step. The Atom is also enormously wide, which limits its potential as fast town transport. There is a far better alternative for those who have no fear of death and can be bothered to sit another driving test.

    It did occur to me that reviving the Smart Roadster on the i-MiEV platform could take the EV to a hitherto untapped market as a sort of poor man’s Tesla.

  5. Simon Woodward says:

    @KeithB
    The really sad thing is that we could produce clean, green electricity with wave machine technology. The Severn Estuary is perfect for this and could produce enough free electricity for most of South Wales and South West England.

    Engineers from this country have already developed the technology for the Portuguese Government and their system supplies about 30% of their electricity needs. Imagine if we had several systems throughout the UK in places like the Humber, the Thames or the River Rea here in Birmingham…

    The argument against the Severn tidal machine is cost yet we are happy to waste billions on a high speed rail link between London and Manchester so that some self-important twit can get to Manchester 20 minutes quicker than on a normal train.

  6. 406v6 406V6 says:

    I saw one of the Citroen badge-engineered clones of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV on the road a few weeks ago and it was very quiet as it passed.

  7. Simon Woodward says:

    @Robert Leitch
    Actually, now I think about it, the Atom was very wide from the rear – something you don’t notice from the front due to the pointed nose cone and exposed running gear.

    I was thinking more of a combined chassis and bodywork like the Atom but in a Moke-sized vehicle with very few frills and an ultra-efficient diesel engine – a combination of the two would make a great city car.

  8. John says:

    I think that electric vehicle development is a blind alley. What happened to the hydrogen fuel cell?

  9. LeonUSA says:

    I guess that what many people may have to do is to have a hybrid or pure electric car if 90% of their trips are local employment commuting or shopping and own or rent a larger, non-hybrid/non-pure electric car for the other 10% of longer journeys as needed.

  10. Kev Davis says:

    Planning trips ahead would be the biggest bugbear. I mean, when fuel is getting low we simply fill up and carry on with our journey, but what if you’ve only got 10 minutes of charge left? You’re stuffed for at least half a day whilst it charges. Furthermore, what if you want the lights, wipers, radio and heater on?

    Oh, and yes, how sweet of the Government not to charge road tax for now but, if everyone goes down this road, how will the Government fund the public highways? They will find a way to tax it.

    Sorry, electric cars have a LONG way to go before they can be taken seriously.

  11. Steve says:

    Simon Woodward :
    @Jonathan Carling
    I agree with that – the idea of an electric car feels like a case of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ when it comes down to it.

    I was following – well, trying to follow – an Ariel Atom along the M11 yesterday and I was shocked by its rapid acceleration. The extremely strong and light construction coupled with a highly efficient Honda Type R engine gives it excellent performance.

    Why, then, not make a small, light and strong 2+2 town car along the same lines as the Atom but with a BlueMotion diesel engine? Keep it simple with no gadgets or gizmos and I bet it would sell like hot cakes.

    …or a very small light three seater with a small efficient engine, like Gordon Murray Design Limited’s T25 (or T27 in electric form).

  12. Darren says:

    Electric cars? Thanks, but no thanks…

  13. Dave says:

    Well, if the CO2 is that close, it seems to me that a British driver would be best served by a regular petrol or diesel supermini with CNG conversion. I know that road tax is still supposed to be paid, but at least the range and quick fueling of a petrol car remain.

    I wish that such things would catch on more here in the US as natural gas is very cheap compared to petrol. However, until someone makes an electric car which will go 300 miles, stop for 10 minutes and then do 300 more (nearly impossible to even fathom), ICE will remain the most viable.

  14. Mike Goy says:

    Surely it’s a case of the Emperor’s Clothes? I understand that the energy consumed in the production of a car is more than it will consume during its lifetime…

    Hence, if you have a car already – of any size and with any motive power – keep it and use it. You will be saving so much more of the Earth’s precious resources…

  15. Tim Collis says:

    @Mike Goy
    Ah, but surely over time as new cars become more and more fuel efficient, producers become greener in their production methods and your old car starts to deteriorate thereby requiring more and more maintenance to keep it on the road, there will be a time when your point ceases to apply. I admit, though, that it might be a long way off.

  16. ChrisK says:

    I believe that, if people had started researching alternatives to the internal cobustion engine with the degree of commitment required twenty years ago, then we would be far more advanced than we are now.

    After all, fuel cell technology has been around for a long time (used in the Apollo space programme of the 1960s)and battery technology has only recently improved with the need for long life, rechargeable cells in mobile phones etc.

    Additionally, as mentioned above, there is also the issue of the loss to the Government of revenue from fuel duty through the use of alternative and cheaper fuel sources. I suppose they could change the pricing structure for electric charging points or force the electricity companies to install special meters in homes that record units provided to electric vehicles at a premium tariff and claim it back from the electricity suppliers.

    Anyway, to sum up, the way forward is unclear – we obviously cannot continue to deplete a finite source indefinately and more research and development is required into the alternatives. The general public will only vote with their wallets when the costs are acceptable to them…

  17. Guzzibasher says:

    @Kev Davis
    “Oh, and yes, how sweet of the Government not to charge road tax for now but, if everyone goes down this road, how will the Government fund the public highways?”

    Road tax (Road Fund) was abolished in the 1930s! We pay Vehicle Excise Duty which is part of general taxation and is not reserved for roads but goes into the general Treasury pot.

  18. Eric van Spelde says:

    KeithB :
    The point about emissions is a very interesting one. I think it is more about reducing pollution levels in crowded cities than a net reduction in a country’s CO2 output.

    It is along similar lines to the Victorian idea of building higher chimneys to push the soot cloud further away from crowded populations resulting in slightly dirty air for “everyone” rather than choking smog for those closest to the source.

    That would make sense if ICE-powered passenger cars were the biggest source of pollution in urban areas – as it is, given the very tight emission standards compared to everything else that burns fossil fuels, the air is bound to escape modern, petrol-fuelled cars cleaner than when it went in…

  19. KeithB says:

    @Simon Woodward
    I live near the coast and see wind turbines lying idle waiting for the right conditions whilst the tide goes in and out twice a day. We are missing something!

  20. KeithB says:

    @ChrisK
    If you installed “unique” charging points for cars, how long would it take for someone to bypass them? Would we have “red” electricity for farmers? Would HMRC/VOSA have roadside checks for the wrong electricity?

  21. Dominic Roberts says:

    Sorry, but where do the milk crates go?

    Seriously, though, as a town car, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV seems quite appealing although the ‘silent death’ aspect worries me a little. Stop, look and listen very hard!

  22. Engineer says:

    Dave :
    Well, if the CO2 is that close, it seems to me that a British driver would be best served by a regular petrol or diesel supermini with CNG conversion. I know that road tax is still supposed to be paid, but at least the range and quick fueling of a petrol car remain.

    I wish that such things would catch on more here in the US as natural gas is very cheap compared to petrol. However, until someone makes an electric car which will go 300 miles, stop for 10 minutes and then do 300 more (nearly impossible to even fathom), ICE will remain the most viable.

    CNG (or LPG) isn’t cleaner… I work in a VCA-approved vehicle emission test facility and know from all the tests we have completed that CNG is not cleaner than petrol.

    The true enemy is weight – we all want cars with air bags, air con, anti-lock, electric windows etc, etc, but these all add weight. The current VW Golf is nearly twice the weight of the original from 1975. Lighter cars use less fuel.

  23. Dave says:

    @Engineer
    That’s what I was getting at – if the pollution ICE vs electric is about the same, then save money by going CNG and forget about electric for now.

    That’s the cheapest point A to point B solution – at least until technology catches up on hydrogen. I believe that, until the production and storage of H2 are simplified, ICE just works better for how we use cars.

  24. Simon Woodward says:

    @KeithB
    Wasn’t there a scandal not so long ago about one of the much hyped coastal wind turbines not even being connected to the grid because the cable had snapped 12 months previously and no one could be bothered to repair it.

    It’s all about headlines for politicians, regardless of which colours they nail to the mast. Global warming is a long-term, never-ending problem not a quick fix for the duration of a 5 year Parliament. I have yet to see a viable green plan, just endless ‘Green Taxes’ collected and then spent on useless headline grabbing projects such as wind farms.

    There are still, for example, big questions over why China is still building fossil-fuelled power stations at the rate of one a week. Harnessing the energy of the earth makes perfect sense to me but it has to be done in the most efficient way possible.

    Wind is not the answer – just ask a sailor what the ‘Doldrums’ means – basically when the wind stops so does the electricity. Wave machines never stop and are relatively inoffensive to look at whereas wind farms are noisy, ineffective and a huge eyesore for anyone who lives near one.

    There are still lots of engineering solutions to explore and lots of commonsense solutions that could be explored. Traffic congestion is one, to me all Traffic Calming projects produce is traffic jams and a car stuck in a traffic jam is not an efficient one. Cars are getting fatter and fatter and more complex by the day.

    I reckon it’s time for some commonsense ideas not posturing, self-publicising tittle tattle from misguided politicians. They say they want a ‘Big Society’? Well, starting listening then!

  25. Old Fashioned Gentleman says:

    I think the idea is that single large steam turbine power stations are more energy efficient than a lot of small car engines – not least because a power station doesn’t have to be designed so it can move along!

    Speaking of rail lines – I think that’s a better way forward for electric propulsion as trains can draw power from a contact line so don’t have to recharge.

    Incidentally, has anyone noticed how many milk deliveries are done using noisy, smelly diesel vans instead of the traditional milkfloats? Meanwhile, we’re all going to be made to drive electric cars which are less suitable for their job.

    People will either get their milk delivered by a diesel-engined van or go out in their electric car and buy it at Tesco. Swings and roundabouts…

  26. BobM BobM says:

    Interesting, but electric cars are far from an ideal “solution” – there are plenty of reasons above as to why not!

    What has happened to the hydrogen fuel cell idea? I recall that, on Top Gear years back, Clarkson & Co. looked at a Japanese car and claimed the fuel cell could “power the street” when not powering the car…

    Anyway, for me, banger motoring is my way of being green. 🙂 My car is 17 years old and costs buttons to run – what I’ve spent keeping it going over the last couple of years is less than friends have spent on one service of their modern bruisers!

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