Mitsubishi Tries to Regain the Initiative in the Coming U.S. Electric-Vehicle Wars

Last Updated Nov 22, 2010 12:11 PM EST

LOS ANGELES -- Mitsubishi needed a U.S. marketing strategy for electric cars, and it rather belatedly has one. The company had its EV out ahead of the pack, but it lost early adopter status while it worked out a plan for North America. It's playing catch-up now with both a revamped battery car that can fast charge and a plug-in hybrid concept.

I have long admired the I-MiEV, a small four-passenger battery EV. I would see them at auto shows, and drove one briefly in the basement of Detroit's Cobo Hall, but was never able to do much more than admire from afar. I wondered why the company wasn't moving faster to move beyond its Japanese home base.

All that's changing, as Mitsubishi is finally gearing up for entry into the all-important American market late next year with a slightly larger car designed "to secure plenty of space for four adults and better meet the expectations of U.S. consumers." At the Los Angeles Auto Show, I not only got an extended drive in an I-MiEV, but I was able to "refuel" it with 480-volt fast charging (the I-MiEV is one of a very few EVs so equipped) and also to sit down with the car's Japanese strategist.

The car I drove was a right-hand drive Japanese version. For the U.S. the car will get 110 millimeters wider. That's good, because although the I-MiEV doesn't feel totally cramped from the driver's seat (legroom is surprisingly good) more interior space is definitely a good idea for potential American customers. The good news is that the I-MiEV feels like a car from a major manufacturer -- it's tight, quiet and comes off the line with an appealing eagerness.

According to Yoshikazu Nakamura, corporate general manager in Mitsubishi's EV business office, the program is still very small. Just 1,600 of the cars were sold internationally in 2009, including 200 in England. But Mitsubishi anticipates very rapid expansion, including sales of 9,000 in fiscal year 2010 and 18,000 for fiscal year 2011 (which will include the first U.S. sales). For 2012, the company has an unofficial internal target of 40,000, which would be really fast growth.

"The EV is important, but it has a weakness in range and price," Nakamura said. "Pricing is a key." Mitsubishi hasn't revealed a price for the U.S. version of the I-MiEV yet, but it might be smart if the company undercuts the $32,780 gauntlet thrown down by Nissan's Leaf. The I-MiEV is smaller and more modestly conceived than the Leaf, and bringing it in at a lower price point would give it a big advantage.

The I-MiEV has a smaller, 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which cuts down on cost and weight but means that cruising range is 85 miles, not the 100 that is standard for many U.S.-market EVs. That's another reason why, as Nakamura said, pricing is so important. Affordability could be a key advantage for EVs with smaller battery packs, especially if people discover that "range anxiety" isn't as big a factor as they'd feared.

Quick charging is another advantage. There are 200 quick chargers installed in Japan now, but very few public ones in the U.S. other than one PG&E has in California. All I-MiEVs are equipped for 480-volt fast charging, which can bring them from depleted to 80 percent full in about 20 minutes (after that, charging slows down to prevent wear and tear on the pack). The cars have two charging ports, one for 220-volt charging using the standard J1772 plug, and a second that hooks into the CHAdeMO protocol developed by the Tokyo Electric Power company.

Here's a look at video look at fast charging the I-MiEV:
Whether the U.S. will embrace the Japanese standard is still unclear, but a company called Real Power out of Indianapolis had set up a mobile, truck-based 480-volt charger in a lot near Los Angeles' convention center, and we were able to drop by and gather in a few extra electrons. The 480-volt handle is bigger than the J1772 plug, but it's not hugely heavy--maybe the fears of fast chargers needing an attendant are unfounded.

There are interlocks that won't allow current to flow until the handle is properly attached. Within five minutes, we'd acquired maybe 20 miles of range, which is an indication that if fast chargers are indeed installed at gas stations (BP is putting some in) then consumers might stop by for a quick top off, not a full charge. Would you want to sit around at a gas station for 20 minutes?

The Japanese government is subsidizing corporate purchase of quick chargers, Nakamura said, and there could be 5,000 of them in Japan by 2020. But Nakamura made a point I've also heard from Tokyo Electric -- it's nice to know that quick chargers are there, but once consumers get over their initial range anxiety they tend not to use them all that much. Home charging at 220 volts (or even 110 house current) is expected to account for at least 80 percent of all charging. "Fast chargers are necessary for the mental security of the user," Nakamura said.

Mitsubishi has done a lot of thinking about EVs, and I was handed a company analysis that claimed that battery EVs produce less CO2 "well to wheels" than any other alternative form, including fuel cells, hybrids and diesels. And Mitsubishi is no newcomer to the field -- it built its first Minica and Minicab EVs in the 1970s. The I-MiEV is in test fleets with power companies all over Japan, covering more than 300,000 miles. A few are being used as taxis in Japan.

Next up for Mitsubishi is an SUV-based plug-in hybrid that would nicely complement the I-MiEV. The PX MiEV claims 118 mpg, with two electric motors (one on each axle). The company also has an interesting battery/ultracapacitor combination that could be a breakthrough in hybrid applications. Ultracaps are just starting to show up in micro-hybrids being introduced in Europe.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli