Mitsubishi has electric dreams for the i MiEV

ELECTRIC cars are no longer the futuristic pipe dreams they were just a few years ago. Today you can walk into a showroom and put down a deposit on a viable vehicle that lacks an internal combustion engine. Mitsubishi has set itself up as one of the pioneers in the electric car field and it's i MiEV city car is one of the few electric vehicles sensible people might want to own.

The marque caused quite a stir when it launched its i car. Many thought there had been a mix-up and Mitsubishi had pulled the covers from some flight of fancy concept car rather than its new urban runabout. With its front wheels ahead of its headlights and looking narrow enough to park inside your front door, it is unconventional in the extreme but it also contains some very clever design. In i MiEV form, it's smarter still as the 660cc petrol engine has been replaced by an electric motor and where the fuel tank was is a very big battery pack.

The performance figures for the i MiEV wouldn't be unusual if they applied to a rather sluggish supermini, but this serves as a ringing endorsement of the car's groundbreaking powertrain. The electric motor produces 63bhp and that can get the car from zero to 60mph in 13 seconds before eventually reaching a top speed of 87mph. Less orthodox is the torque of 182Nm which is readily available thanks to the electric motor's on/off operation. That's about what you might expect from a 1.6-litre petrol engine and it means that the i MiEV should be more than capable of tackling steep inclines and travelling fully loaded.

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The gear lever allows the iMiEV to be slotted into Drive or ECO modes. The former gives access to all of the performance on offer and the latter is set up for economical city driving. It reduces the available power and activates a battery recharging function that replenishes power reserves every time your foot is taken off the accelerator. Get over these little idiosyncrasies and the i will feel much like a conventional car.

The i car makes great use of the available space – but there isn't very much of it. Four adults can fit in for typical city journeys and there's even a usable boot, although the i isn't really cut out to be a family car. The rear seat-back splits to allow larger objects to be carried. With the battery occupying the fuel tank's under-floor position and the electric motor taking the place of the engine under the back seats, there are no interior space differences between the conventional i car and the electric i MiEV model.

The egg-shaped profile and wheel-at-each-corner stance of the i MiEV makes it stand out. That's likely to suit buyers who want to drive an environmentally friendly vehicle and would like everyone else to know it. General build quality is reasonably tough but the plastics don't feel very expensive and the interior is less attractive in its design and the outside.

Initially, the i MiEV will be available to lease from Mitsubishi dealers and the manufacturer expects that most of the 200-strong allocation will be taken up by businesses and public-sector organisations. The cost is a rather expensive 750 per month, which could get you quite a lot of Audi A6 or Mercedes E-Class but the appeal of the i MiEV will come from its green credentials. Companies wanting to project the right image might see running a fleet of these as a useful promotional tool.

So we come to the nuts and bolts of whether the i MiEV is a viable proposition in the UK market. For a start, it's an emissions-free vehicle which comes with all kinds of tax advantages. In fact, Mitsubishi estimates that the car costs just 45p to run for 100 miles, which really puts the prices we're paying to run our conventional cars into perspective.

On the downside, it isn't as convenient as a car with an internal-combustion engine. The range on a full charge is said to be between 80 and 100 miles but that is reduced by cold weather and unfavourable driving conditions. That's still a decent range but a charge takes six hours to complete from a normal household socket, which probably means plugging it in overnight for use the next morning. The alternative is the 3,000 Quick Charger which can be bought with the car. It's the size of a wardrobe and can charge the battery to 80 per cent in 30 minutes. If you don't have a garage, the charging process could involve trailing electric cables out of your letterbox, which is less than ideal.

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Mitsubishi has made a bold move in launching its electric-powered i MiEV onto the UK market.

The upfront cost of the i MiEV is the only major hurdle but the hassle involved in recharging might also deter some.

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Electric cars seemed a very long way off just a few years ago but market conditions and a desire to cut emissions have accelerated their arrival. Predicting the future is a dangerous game but with electric cars in showrooms and attitudes changing, it's not too hard to foresee a time when significant numbers of us want to own them.

CAR: Mitsubishi i MiEV

PRICE: 750 per month on lease from Mitsubishi dealers



PERFORMANCE: Max speed 87mph; 0-60mph 13 seconds

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 80-100 mile range from a six-hour charge.