Mitsubishi i
Mitsubishi i in Balboa Park.

First, let’s start with the color.

The good news was that it wasn’t the of the SDCs — standard dull colors — of the 21st century: black, white, silver, silver-bland, gray or any of the boring shades in between.

It was purple. Well, Raspberry on the Mitsubishi color chart.

And the curve of the hood creates a big smile between the big headlight buckets, egg-shaped and curved upward like the eyes in the Moon racing equipment logo. A look that makes you want to break out singing, “I love you, you love me…”

So let’s call the i Barney.

Electric cars are a bit of a lifestyle, but they’re also cars. So, before we condemn Barney for being high maintenance, let’s take a look at the attributes of the 2012 Mitsubishi MiEV, known as the i.

As a small car, the i is tight and fun to drive, like most of the small fry in today’s showrooms. It has 15-inch low-profile, low rolling resistance tires, which means it takes curves nicely but not too fast. The low-resistance tires don’t grip the road as well as conventional rubber, but the car is light and fairly well balanced, so freeway on-ramps and tight, urban corner-taking was fun. While it looks rather tall for its size, I didn’t notice much lean. A quick flick of the wrist and the electric power steering points the wheels in a new direction.

Power was adequate for around town and keeping up with freeway speeds. One of the more challenging hills for cars in San Diego is state Route 163 north from Interstate 8, heading up the side of Mission Valley toward Genesee Avenue. Cars regularly drop below the speed limit due to inadequate power or the reluctance of drivers to make the extra effort to push their right foot further toward the floor.

Barney took it with no problem, with even a few horsepower to spare. No sports car here, but ol’ Barn was well within his limits on the hill. He’s quiet and smooth and silk. A bit of wind noise and sound from outside, but without a buzzy four-cylinder engine under the hood, there’s no roar or vibration. The tires were a bit squirrly on the pavement grooves, but not the worst I’ve experienced.

Seating inside is upright and fine for short trips. The seats reminded me of my 1981 Toyota Tercel: just a bit of bolster to give the bucket seats definition but nothing to make Recaro nervous. And although Barney’s purple exterior makes him stand out in a crowd, the interior was pretty much all mouse gray — seat fabric, fuzzy carpet and plastics. Mitsubishi calls it “basic black” or “premium brown.” The back seat for this four-door is two slabs of foam covered in more gray “basic black.” The seat backs fold down and the hatch opens up, creating enough room for the bounty from a good trip to the warehouse store.

All in all, it was pleasant enough for its purpose, which is to get you to work and back, or to the store for a quart of milk, without firing up that two-ton SUV that shares the garage. And therein lies the rub.

I have a few friends who have the Nissan Leaf, a competing electric. They love ’em. Talk about how their Barney has become part of the family, that they enjoy planning trips that can be completed before the battery goes dead. They’ve sprung for the home chargers (in Mitsubishi’s case, another $1,000, plus installation). Or,  just use the supplied charger, but you should have your electric outlet inspected to make sure it’s 15 amps and can handle the load without catching fire.

Or, just find one of the convenient charging stations and plug in. They’re all over and there’s even an app that uses GPS to guide you to the nearest station, whether it’s in use or out of order. Oh happy days.

Except that my friends all have other vehicles in the garage. It’s like asking owners of classic cars at a car show, “what do you really drive?” Well, there’s the Lexus, the Mercedes, the F-150, the full-size SUV. So the Leaf is sort of like a houseplant sitting in the middle of a coal-fired power plant. A nice thought, but when we really need it, let’s stoke that furnace.

For me, testing Barney was a worrisome week. I live in a condo and share a parking garage, so I wasn’t going to risk burning the building down by plugging it in into the outlet nearby. When delivered, it had 60 miles on the clock, but I quickly found out that this was only an estimate.

My first drive took me from work in University Heights, at the west end of El Cajon Boulevard, down to Mission Valley. I thought I’d check out the charging stations at the east end of Macy*s, spend a little while in the mall and see what the charging did. However, the one charger that was open wouldn’t accept the card from Blink, which has most of the “pumps” in San Diego. The other stations were either filled with Car2Go rentals or with non-electric vehicles (a considerate person in a lifted F-150 selected that spot in a mostly empty lot).

So, on it was up 163 to Kearny Mesa, where I was meeting friends at a local restaurant. The estimated miles were down by this time to 52, and I had driven about three miles when entering 163. Lights on (it was night, after all) and the stereo on (what a luxury), plus a hill at freeway speeds had Barney hitting the juice. By the time I reached my destination, I had driven about eight miles, but according to the gauge, I only had 37 miles before Barney would quit.

After dinner, I thought I’d head for another charging station, near IKEA in Mission Valley. By this time I had downloaded Blink’s app, which said one of the two chargers at IKEA was available. Alas, two Cars to Go, only one charging, the other one just sitting. No good.

Back to Macy*s I went for another stab. The monster truck was gone, but the spots were filled with more Car2Go. So, it was back home and a parking spot for Barney. Earth distance: about 21 miles. Barney distance: 41 miles. I had 19 miles worth of juice left. The hills and freeway driving didn’t help, neither did those pesky headlights or the windshield wipers I had to use on a misty night.

The next day I checked and the charging app said there were Blinks available in the garage of the Hilton Bayfront, a short walk from home. I figured I’d plug in the car, wait awhile, get some lunch at the Fox Sports Grill and get my parking validated, as hotel parking garages can be a bit expensive.

Barney took 4½ hours to feed. The restaurant only validated for three hours and if you went over… bingo, full price, $40 (I found that out when I exited). Barney’s dinner cost more than to fill up my ’91 Miata (Smurf blue), and if I only do freeway driving, I can go more than 300 miles on the ten-gallon tank. But, Barney was charged for a drive a few miles up the road to Balboa Park for my Weekend Driver column.

On Sunday I Barney and I went to Chula Vista to take the folks for a ride. I figured we’d have some lunch at the Chula Vista Mall, where I’d seen a charging station. A 10 minute drive down the freeway took about 15 miles off the clock. Blink-app said the charger was available, but again it wouldn’t take my card. After lunch and a quick town-tour with the folks, Barney was back in the garage, where he stayed for the next couple of days, until my test was done.

So, the moral of the story? If you can handle the infrastructure, an electric car might be for you. Planning trips around charges shouldn’t be a big problem, since we’re all adults here. Have something else in the garage for long trips or a complete freedom day when you don’t have to worry about range anxiety. The Mitsubishi i is a fine small car, right up there with most everything at the low-price end of the market.

Of course, it’s not at the low-price end of the market. It retails for $29,125-$31,125, plus some options (including cool racing stripes!). Mitsubishi says tax credits and other government incentives can bring the price down to about $21,000.

But, if you have the means for the infrastructure, the patience for the care and feeding of Barney, and a few other cars in the garage, go for the green. It’s a bit better than just a transportation appliance and can actually be fun. My friends swear by their Leafs and would probably like the i just as much. “I love you, you love me….”

2 comments

  1. great article, well written and love the Barney reference!! Good point raised about checking your power outlet before hand. Question is… how much higher does the electric bill go up after charging at home?

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