The all-electric Nissan Leaf is about to get some company. This January, Mitsubishi will begin delivery of its new i - an all electric car that's smaller and less expensive than the Leaf.

Mitsubishi invited me to test drive the car in one of the most EV friendly cities in the USA? Portland. As a frustrated Southern Californian, hearing about the aggressive charging infrastructure Portland has gave me some serious city envy.

Designed for the USA

The new i has an intentionally funky design. Mitsubishi believes that some EV owners want their cars to look distinctively different from gas or hybrid vehicles and this bean-shaped iconic car emits an immediate Japanese look and feel.

The size of the car has been increased from its Japanese version by 8 inches in length and 4.3 inches in width. Even with that change, we're talking subcompact sizing, think Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit. This is good to keep in mind when comparing it to the Nissan Leaf. It's less expensive by more than $6,000, and it's much smaller in both size and battery power.

Range and MPGe comparisons

As for how it compares in range, the Mitsubishi I sports a smaller battery - 49kW versus Nissan Leaf's 80kW, which outputs 66 horsepower versus Leaf's 110 hp. So the range on Mitsubishi i based on EPA estimates is 62.3 miles on a full charge versus Leaf's 73 miles combined city and highway. That's a 10-mile difference.

It's the EPA's electric equivalent of miles per gallon where the i comes out a winner. With 112 MPGe in combined city and highway driving, the i is up 13 miles from the Leaf's combined 99 MPGe. The biggest gain comes from the city driving number - 126 MPGe, which is +20 points over Leaf's 106 MPGe in city driving. However, we'd guess most buyers would rather have a little extra range than a big MG

Inside, no extras

As for the interior, the car is extremely low tech. No telematics, no fancy graphics, trees, leaves, or other eco-gimmicks. Mitsubishi says it's because they felt consumers are already intimidated by the technology that powers electric cars and they don't want to add to the confusion.

But driving Mitsubishi's EV may make many Leaf owners realize just how spoiled they are. That smooth glide straight out of a futuristic movie is just not there in the cute little i. It does take off with the same torque rich zip that the Leaf has, but the ride quality isn't nearly as refined.

There are many ways to save money in manufacturing and one is to keep the extras to a minimum. The glaring omission on Mitsu's i is the completely non-adjustable steering wheel. And since the drivers seat doesn't move up or down, holding the steering wheel a the10 and 2 point can be tiring.

Things to like

The thing that makes me happy about the arrival of the Mitsubishi i is that, as EV numbers increase, so will the urgency for building a charging infrastructure to support them.

I'm also pleased that Mitsubishi has found a price point that could make a lot of sense to folks who might see this car as a second or third in the family fleet. It's a true commuter car that is affordable and saves lots of money in gas.

The next-generation US-specification Mitsubishi i is available in either an ES base model or upgrade SE trim package. Mitsubishi's new EV will be available to test drive at dealerships beginning in November 2011 with the first scheduled customer vehicle deliveries set for early 2012.

Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Nissan Leaf.

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Joni Gray is a long-standing member of the automotive industry and has worked on both the corporate and publishing sides of the business. Over the past 20 years, she has managed advertising and marketing programs at Mazda, Hyundai and Honda and has been an editor at both Kelley Blue Book and the Los Angeles Times.

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