I like electric cars, they remind me of why I fell in love with cars in the first place…for their potential, for what cars “could be”. That was a long time ago but now, with hindsight, I can see that although sometimes change can happen very quickly the most significant and long-term changes happen over time; this is certainly true for the i-Miev. For a car that was designed just under 10 years ago, from a company that has always lived in the shadows of its bigger brothers, Toyota and Honda, the i has just come into its own, full potential, as the i-Miev. Much like the smart fortwo, the i (the i-Miev before it became electric) was designed for the city, short trips, being efficient and nippy. But the combustion engine technology they both shared went against the logic of their compact design. It is just now, with electric technology that the smart fortwo is really ‘smart’ and that the i is truly ‘intelligent’.
Mitsubishi was really intent on us having the car to test for a full week and now I know why. At first it seems like a straightforward electric car: noiseless, compact, light. Its only after driving it for a while, getting in and out, using it in different contexts, on different road surfaces, that you appreciate just how noise-free it is, just how easy it is to park, and just how effortlessly it speeds away from the lights. So as most of you will never get the chance to test this car for a week before you buy it read on to find out what its like and why this established design icon is worth admiration.
Our i-Miev test car was white with racing stripes down the middle, red-hot leather seats as well as leather trimmed dash and steering wheel. Nothing has changed much from the original design penned (yes pens were still used back then!) by Olivier Boulay’s team during his stint as studio manager at Mitsubishi, in Tokyo, under Daimler’s watchful eye. In fact the project was born from the Mitsubishi-Daimler partnership and developed by Hans Joachim Storck, Toru Hashimoto (now President, Mitsubishi Motor R&D Europe GmbH), and Olivier Boulay, head of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation Design from 2001-2004 (now General Manager Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center of China) in 2003. The intention was to share much of the car with smart but when the partnership came to an end in 2004 the i almost got “killed” by Mercedes product planning. Parallels between the original smart fortwo and the i are often drawn as some of the their characteristics, such the rear view, clearly mimic each other. The i, however, maintains its Japanese manga quirkiness in its cute upturned headlights, the bubbly windscreen that is cleverly enlarged by the black curved antenna panel, and its flattened egg body shape. Curves flow from the grill-less front end to the side oval graphic housed between the mini muscular wheel arches to create its own individual attitude.
The original i design continues to work visually today as it did when it was conceived because it was designed with simple and honest form language. It had to be this way, there was no room on the package for excess or decoration, it was meant to be a four door smart…less was more. The 15” wheels are tiny but due to the short overhangs and narrowness of the profile they work. Short overhangs became fashionable in the automotive design world in the early 90’s for good reason; it made wheel arches look more muscular and wheels seem larger, a car designer's holy grail. By the time the i got to production drawing boards at the beginning of 2000’s engines were getting smaller, packaging was getting more efficient, and space was beginning to become a premium so it was imperative and possible to cut bulk and strip weight back. Once battery technology became more commercial and cost effective it was time to go electric for Mitsubishi, then i became the ideal candidate to be transformed. It’s rectangular flat-floor design lent itself well to this kind of technology, much like the architecture of the VW's Bulli does says its designer Klaus Bischoff.
Although the i was designed in partnership with smart its proportion stem purely from the Japanese kei car segment. What is a kei car? It is short for keijidosha, ‘light automobile’, a special Japanese car category of small cars that must specifically be smaller than 3.4 m long, 1.48m wide, and no taller than 2m. This category was created to fill a gap in transport accessibility after the Second World War in Japan between motorcycle and car to allow most Japanese an affordable means of transport. It has many tax advantages in the country and consequently was used primarily by car makers for delivery vans with Suzuki and Daihatsu taking it a step further and making kei passenger cars popular. It is this unique quality that gives the i-Miev a certain exotic quality; it is so narrow it looks elegant in amongst other more conventionally wider cars.
The interior is conventional and could use a design refresher. Perhaps ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ has been the rule of thumb but the fun exterior would really benefit from a fitting interior. While the Peugeot iOn and Citroen C-Zero are almost identical rebadged i-Mievs on the outside PSA has taken the initiative to add value to their product by concentrating on internal design changes. The most exciting touch in the i-Miev was the black and red trim that was really sharp with red stitching running throughout the dash like a highlight pen accentuating air vents and the IP casing. The IP itself is not going to win any design awards, it is simple to the point that it looks fake. Over-designing these things is easily done and poor practice but there needs to be a balance between distracting and boring so that the driver’s eye will actually be attracted to it to monitor speed and most importantly in an EV, remaining charge.
The i-Miev, more than the smart fortwo electric drive, Tesla Roadster 2.5, Nissan Leaf, and definitely more than the MINI E, is super quiet. It must be a stealth ninja on the outside as well because, unlike any of the aforementioned EVs, it really took pedestrians by surprise. There is a safety argument to be had about whether there should be an annoying warning sound designed into the vehicle, as is the case with the Leaf, or whether the silence is truly a welcomed reduction of noise pollution. I am a purist so I prefer to keep my noise free i-Miev and be a better driver for it.
The i-Miev has 3 driving settings, D – Drive, B – Brake-force enabled regenerative recharging, and C – City, or Eco Reduced Power. Having figured out that regenerative breaking got me through the week on one charge with the MINI E I was usually driving in B. Its awesome to be in control of the charge by being able to add to it, it reduces the anxiety of ‘running dry’. Even after a week of actively doing errands around town, an exuberant photo shoot in the Graffiti Tunnel by Waterloo, and test driving its limits I still returned the car with a couple of bars of power. The only charge I had during the week was a 40 minute blitz of 13 Amps that refueled the car with an extra 3 bar. The spech sheet will tell you that on one charge you will have up to a 93 mile range, a 30 minute quick charge will get you 80% charge, all at a price of £23,900 (that's with the Government ‘plug-in’ grant allowance) and NCAP 4 star rating. Numbers will all vary with the weather, driving speed, steep inclines, and depth of your pockets but what is really special about this car is its functionality. You can actually fit four adults in the car, you can even put bags in the trunk, it can swiftly get away from the lights thanks to permanent torque, and it is so easy to park…ridiculously easy. Its upright stance makes access a synch and the Kenwood entertainment system and smartphone connectivity a real life car with an emissions-free pedigree. I hope that in 10 years I will still be doing this job so I can say that I drove the i-Miev way back when…8 out of 10!
Our i-Miev was shot by our very Olgun Kordal in London's Graffiti Tunnel Waterloo underpass.