Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Driving iMiev

This morning - a cool but sunny Queensland winter's day - I responded to an invite from Mark Whyte, iMiev Account Manager for Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd (MMAL) and went for a test-drive of the first production Electric Vehicle to hit Australian shores: the Mitsubishi iMiev.

Whyte - based in Adelaide but attending in Brisbane for this event - says that maybe Tesla was the first to take orders for an Australian production EV but adds that MMAL is delivering iMiev's ordered now, in August - where as Tesla customers are on year long waiting lists.

The car in its bright RACQ promotional paint job was waiting behind the showroom as I arrived - I'm guessing the RACQ who are one of MMAL's early adopting partners had loaned it for the day.

A couple of EV enthusiasts were waiting on their turn behind the wheel, and we got talking. They both felt that the time for home conversions and retrofits was coming to a close, and that cars like the iMiev would soon be taking what market there was for that. Even at $50,000 the brand new iMiev is a better proposition than a 15 year old car that you've spent $30,000 on converting to an EV, the guys said. But the price for either is a bit rich for most ordinary motorists, without Government incentives and infrastructure benefits.

After trading some general comments about EV's with those guys and the MMAL staffers, it was apparent we were all members of the choir. We know EV's are great, now let's see how this one drives.

The cars first impressions were that its much roomier inside than its quirky bug-like exterior would lead you to believe. By pushing the wheels out to the four corners and putting most of the mechanicals into the floor pan, the cars designers have been able to fill most of it with passenger and cargo space. The rear hatch opens into a sizeable cargo space for a micro car - much bigger for example than that in my current ride, a Fiat 500C. With the rear seats forward it would make a great delivery vehicle for small businesses like a florist or pizza delivery.

The drivers seat had room for my 5' 10" without any problems - but those over six-foot might start getting snug. The MMAL rep who accompanied me in the passenger seat was at arms length and there was plenty of room in the cockpit despite the small overall footprint of the car.

On moving off the cars silence and sure smoothness reminded so much of the Toyota Prius, which typically would be on battery as it first moved away from a stop. To me that was very normal - but what was awesome and spread a big grin on my face was that that experience just kept on, as we gunned around the city streets. There was some hum from the tires, a background whine - something about the ABS according to my passenger. Generally NVH issues (noise, vibration and harshness) in this tiny car were better than many large passenger sedans I had been in, and certainly impressive next to micro cars like the Fiat.

The car went exactly where I pointed it, partly perhaps due to the right-up-front positioning of the drivers position, but also a result of a very nice electrically assisted steering system. The low weight of the batteries gave the car a solid stance on the road and made it much better mannered over choppy side streets than I had expected.

I kept the car in normal drive mode for the whole time virtually and was impressed with the take off speed at lights. Not super fast but very respectable and the zero lag from the electronic throttle combined with the EV power train to make a lively response without any thought on the lights turning to green. The gear shifter will also go into an Eco mode, but I'm too much of a leadfoot to stay with that for long, and if I owned the iMiev knowing I get 100% green power at home I would have no qualms about using it.

Presiding over the iMiev's console display is a large "rev counter" like instrument that shows when charge is being used - ranging from green to white for hard use - or when it is being gained, as in slowing or regenerative braking. Mounted inside that is the speedo - something I didn't like so much as it was an LCD display and could have been more user friendly, perhaps like the Prius one which is brighter and mounted right up by the edge of the windscreen. To either side are a "fuel" gauge and range display. The range is based on your current consumption, so if you start going more gently or use Eco you'll see it jump up slightly. When you amp up the air-con (for example) it goes back down.

The controls including the leather covered steering wheel were all very natural, and normal car styling - away from the instrument panel nothing gave away the fact this was an EV. Mounted in the center of the dash was the Sat-Nav, which also doubled as a in vehicle information system. From my time with the Prius iTech I know how good an integrated sat-nav with a large screen can be. I can never look at those poky little suction cup mounted ones and think of them as real nav's and it would be great to have one again.

Coming back into the MMAL yard the car had in just a short time pretty much gotten me convinced. Mitsubishi has made no mistakes here and come up with a brilliantly practical zero-emissions vehicle that most conventional car motorists will quickly find familiar.

Charging and EV practicalities will be one hurdle. MMAL offers roadside assist for the iMiev, to help out new adopters if they have trouble. Whyte candidly says that they have had a lot of calls for battery issues. But all of them (bar one or two) were for the same problem: folks getting out of the car and leaving it running. Because the iMiev makes no noise leaving it in "idle" state is easy enough to do but of course whilst its sitting there, its using up the accessory battery (a conventional 12v cell under the bonnet). So nothing to do with range or merchant of doom battery problems - but real early adopter issues nonetheless.

Part of the problem here is that these folks were fleet users and not accustomed to EV's making no noise. To address the issue, MMAL have the next bunch of arrivals fitted with a standard "ignition lock" style key which you have to turn to the off position before you can withdraw it. Its a shame because the the keyless entry is a great feature. Maybe EV cognoscenti will be able to arranged to have it retro-fitted given that it won't be used by fleet types.

I asked Whyte about the street bollards and he showed me a few that might be coming our way. It will make a big difference to the attractiveness of EV's if dedicated bays are available, and of course the chance to add some charge is even better. What if local wags decided to unplug you? What about rain and surface water?

In this shot Whyte holds the J1772 charger that comes with the iMiev and you can possibly make out two great features. One is the locking catch which prevents casual interference. Probably good to stop the kids playing with it in the garage too. The second is the breakout box on the cable which servers as an earth-leakage current breaker - in case of shorting it will cut the power, and also the extra sender cables which also cause the cable to go inert if it is withdrawn from the socket on the car. Nice features which will allay the concerns of many motorists worried about high voltage driving.

The question is what will those motorists make of the high price. Well the first thing it say is that its not bad for an EV - the Tesla is 4 times that price. But the second thing is that in my view we need to think about what we value - look at cars you get for $50,000. For example a 2007 HSV Holden Senator. It offers performance and a "conspicuous consumption" profile. Apart from that it just gets you from A to B, the same as any other car. A 2010 BMW 120i - probably economical enough but offers you the BMW name. So what would you like to have: HSV performance, or zero petrol use? BMW name or zero emissions? Seriously - what is cooler, a gas guzzler or a car that runs on electrons?

There are a lot of people who think its just fine to spend $50,000 on a car - it is just that we have to be honest about what it is we think is worth paying for. A name? Zero to sixty in 7 seconds? Or zero foreign oil, no emissions and the convenience of never having to go to a gas station.