Pros: City-friendly size, instant acceleration at low speeds, surprisingly capacious with the rear seatbacks folded down, cheapest electric car on the market.

Cons: Limited to an estimated 62 miles per charge, exceptionally slow at medium to high speeds, feels awfully small to be sharing the road with SUVs, still not cheap for what you get, base ES is low on tech features.

Introduction

The 2012 Mitsubishi i is the closest an electric vehicle has come to making financial sense. Just take a look at the other available options. The six-figure, two-seat Tesla Roadster is the most famous example of electric-car excess, but even the Nissan Leaf hatchback typically costs $30,000 or more, and that's after relevant tax credits have been applied. The Mitsubishi i, on the other hand, features effective pricing in the low to mid $20,000s. Compared to other fuel-free cars, it's a downright bargain.

But is it a good value? We're not convinced. The i is a truly small car-so small that it qualifies as a government-recognized microcar (kei car) in Japan. The four-door i is barely five inches longer than the two-door FIAT 500, and it's a whopping 2.5 feet shorter than the Leaf. Maximum cargo capacity is actually quite good, but trunk and passenger space are compromised, and the i just feels tiny when you're driving on American roads with SUVs. Add in the 62-mile maximum range and tortoise-grade acceleration at speed, and the i's appeal seems questionable given the excellent conventional alternatives available at this price point.

Let's not look at the Mitsubishi i as a rival to fossil-fuel cars, though. Let's view it instead as a lifestyle choice. If your daily driving is limited to short trips, and you want to end your personal oil dependence and help the country do the same, the i is by far the cheapest game in town. From this perspective, the 2012 Mitsubishi i makes the most sense of any electric car yet.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Mitsubishi i is offered in two trim levels: ES and SE. The ES comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable heated driver's seat, reclining rear seatbacks, air-conditioning, power accessories and a basic four-speaker audio system that lacks portable device connectivity unless you buy the optional USB jack.

The SE adds fog lights, automatic headlamps, 15-inch alloy wheels, a "premium brown" interior color scheme with silver accents, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and an eight-speaker, 360-watt audio system.

Only the SE is eligible for the Premium package, which adds the FUSE voice-recognition system (including Bluetooth-style hands-free phone calls), a rearview camera and a hard-drive-based navigation system with music storage. The package also features a battery warming system, heated side mirrors and a quick-charging port that allows 80% charging in as few as 30 minutes using compatible (CHAdeMO protocol-Level 3) public chargers. The latter three features are offered in smaller packages on the ES.

Standalone options include a USB music connection, rear parking sensors, and body-side moldings in various patterns, among them a Woody style woodgrain print.

The immediate impression you get inside the Mitsubishi i is one of smallness. The car is exceptionally narrow-that's why there are only two seats in back, more on which is below-and almost everything you can see, from the steering wheel and gauges to the dashboard and its controls, appears not quite drawn to scale. The materials aren't what we'd call "nice," either. Keep in mind that the i is based on a kei car built for budget-minded Japanese consumers, so it's not going to have the cabin quality of a typical car at this price point.

The i's front seats provide just the basics in terms of support, but we appreciate that a height adjustment for the driver's seat comes standard. The steering wheel isn't adjustable, however. Tall drivers will wish it telescoped out. The three vertically stacked climate-control knobs-reminiscent of the layout in the similarly tiny Scion iQ-could hardly be simpler, and the radio controls are almost as user-friendly. The i doesn't need conventional gauges, so instead it simply provides a digital speedometer, a power-use meter that gives you instant feedback on your driving style and an energy-supply meter that tells you how much power you've got left.

The two-passenger back seat will swallow a couple of people in a real pinch, but it's quite cramped. The i is more useful than the two-door iQ in this regard, but not by a lot. As for cargo space, it measures just 13.2 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks-about the size of a compact sedan's trunk, and that's floor to ceiling, folks. But there's an admirable 50.4 cubic feet with those seatbacks folded forward. The latter figure somehow outdoes what almost every other small hatchback can manage.

Technology

We associate electric cars with cutting-edge technology, but the Mitsubishi i ES really has just the basics, including a simple four-speaker CD stereo that's straight out of 1995. You can't even get Bluetooth on the ES, which is almost unheard of in a car costing more than $20,000 these days. In brighter news, the SE is eligible for an options package that includes FUSE, Mitsubishi's answer to Ford's Sync voice-recognition system. FUSE provides Bluetooth-style hands-free phone operation as well as voice-command functionality for music playback (including iPod connectivity) and other features. The SE's available hard-drive-based navigation system with music storage is another strong point. Still, we're left feeling like the best deal going-the base ES-got the short end of the stick on the technology front.

Performance & Fuel Economy

As you might expect, the 2012 Mitsubishi i has an unusual collection of powertrain components. The 49-kilowatt AC synchronous electric motor is mounted in the back-you know, like in a Porsche 911-and its power gets sent to the rear wheels via a single-speed automatic transmission. That makes the i one of two rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive subcompacts for 2012, the other being the Smart ForTwo. The energy source is a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and the electric motor's output translates to 66 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque.

So how's it all work? At low speeds, the i is surprisingly satisfying, thanks to excellent throttle response that uncorks every bit of that torque on demand. Scooting swiftly from traffic light to traffic light is a cinch. But if you want to merge on the highway or pass the car ahead of you, make sure you plan ahead. Way ahead. At anything above urban speeds, the i is one of the slowest cars on the road.

We'll briefly touch on the Mitsubishi i's recharging options. Hooked up to a standard 120V household outlet, the i's depleted battery pack needs 22.5 hours to charge completely, so you shouldn't rely on 120V outlets if you have to go somewhere the next day. Mitsubishi offers a superior solution in the form of a 240V wall-mounted charger that gets installed in your home, cutting the charging time to seven hours, which is about how long the Leaf requires, too.

As noted, the EPA estimates that the Mitsubishi i can travel 62 miles on a full charge in typical driving. For context, the Leaf is EPA-rated at 73 miles of driving range.

Safety

The 2012 Mitsubishi i comes with standard stability control, antilock brakes (front disc, rear drum) and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

No crash tests of the i has been conducted as of this writing.

Driving Impressions

The 2012 Mitsubishi i certainly feels perky when you nail the throttle from rest, but it's less nimble when you order it to change direction. Thanks to slow steering and soft suspension tuning, the i is not much fun on winding roads, even if it's surprisingly civilized around town. We feel a bit silly critiquing the handling, though. The i is a city car-it's all about stoplights and parallel parking. As long as you stick to these intended purposes, you likely won't be disappointed. For better or worse, though, you'll never lose sight of the i's diminutive size.

Other Cars to Consider

Scion iQ - Our choice over the Smart ForTwo among two-door city cars, the iQ drives more like a real car than the Mitsubishi i does. However, the i is much more practical for hauling passengers and cargo.

Toyota Prius c - The new "baby Prius" gets basically the same incredible fuel economy as the regular Prius, and this four-door hatchback starts under $20,000 with a superior back seat, making it a formidable rival to the Mitsubishi.

Volkswagen Golf TDI - Volkswagen's turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel inline-4 is a proven fuel-economy champ, and the Golf TDI combines this engine with excellent driving dynamics, a nice interior and a practical hatchback design with two or four doors.

AutoTrader Recommends

We don't see the point in buying an electric car without getting a full roster of high-tech goodies, so put us down for an i SE with the Premium package. It doesn't come cheap, but we'd want those extra features.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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