TOKYO — The most unnerving thing about driving Mitsubishi's new electric vehicle is flipping the ignition key. There's no cough to life, no satisfying rumble.
I keep twisting the key, waiting for something. Then I notice the tiny green "Ready" light on the instrument panel. I incredulously slip it into gear. And sure enough, we're off — albeit quietly as a mouse.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp. hopes to start selling the i MiEV as early as 2009 in Japan. Mitsubishi also plans to sell it in Europe and the United States but has issued no specifics. The car is the star of the company's alternative-drivetrain program.
One reason automakers are pursuing pure electric cars is that big cities, especially in Europe, someday may restrict carbon-belching conventional cars within their city limits.
The lack of an ignition cue was bewildering. But Masanori Hashimoto, Mitsubishi's general manager of environmental affairs, says a digital chime is being planned for the production model that will signal when the motor is powered up and ready to go.
The i MiEV is based on Mitsubishi's egg-shaped i subcompact, which is sold in Japan. Compared to the gasoline-powered i, the i MiEV has superb pickup, thanks to the powerful low-end torque supplied by the electric motor. The downside: sluggish handling and braking.
The company says the biggest hurdle remains the high cost of the car's lithium-ion batteries, not technical difficulties with lithium ion technology.
The cost will make it tough for Mitsubishi to keep the price of the pint-sized four-seater under a targeted $25,000.
At that price, Mitsubishi expects to sell only 1,000 i MiEVs in the model's first year in Japan.