When Mitsubishi offered to let me drive their "i" microcar for a few days, I practically salivated like Pavlov's dog. I have a love for all things weird, wonderful and wheeled -- have I ever told you that I once owned a city bus? -- but I was also curious to see what it was like to drive such a small car on the mean streets of Los Angeles.
A quick backgrounder: The i is a "kei" car, a vehicle built to specific dimensions in order to qualify for tax and insurance breaks in Japan. But even by kei standards, the i is unusual. It's packaged like the Smart Fortwo; the engine is in back, under the trunk, which allows for a small nose that still provides adequate crumple space. The wheels are quite literally pushed out to the very corners of the car and the sides are nearly vertical, while the egg-on-wheels shape provides some modicum of aerodynamics.
The result is a surprisingly roomy cabin, at least as far as head- and legroom are concerned. With the front seat adjusted for my 5'6" frame, my older son (who towers over me at 6'2") was able to sit comfortably behind me. But the i is narrow, and I found myself constantly bumping elbows with whoever sat next to me (and fondling their knee when I reached for the shifter). The trunk doesn't look big, but I was amazed at how much we could fit back there.
Kei car rules limit the engine size to a mere 0.66 liter. The i gets a 659 cc 3-cylinder (a smaller version of the engine used in the Smart Fortwo), which is turbocharged and intercooled to provide 65 horsepower. The i gets a four-speed automatic, and my car had -- get this! -- all-wheel-drive. (It's a mini-Evo!)
So how did the car do out on the road? Surprisingly well, actually. It's hardly a muscle car, but the i was able to keep up with speedy Los Angeles freeway drivers, and would cruise happily at 75 MPH. Steep hills required building up a head of steam, though. Because of the low gearing and the fact that the automatic transmission only has four speeds, 3rd gear is unavailable below about 68 MPH, so if I was moving faster than that, I'd have to wait for the car to slow down before the transmission would kick down. As long as I planned ahead a bit, I had no trouble. Unfortunately, working the engine as hard as I did took its toll on gas mileage -- believe it or not, I averaged just 30 MPG in mixed driving.
At the end of the week, I was really sorry to give up the keys. Granted, the novelty was a big part of that -- driving a non-US-market car with the steering wheel on the wrong side is my idea of heaven. That aside, I really think a car like the Mitsubishi i could work in the States, and I would definitely consider buying one.
Now, you might well point out the Smart ForTwo's lack of success in the market, but the Mitsubishi has two key advantages: One, it has a back seat, and two, thanks to its conventional transmission, it doesn't feel as strange to drive.
Fuel economy is an obvious issue; 30 MPG seems pretty ridiculous for a car this small. I'm going to blame this on the setup: This was a Japanese-market car, set up for Japanese roads where the speeds are significantly slower. I'm sure that with a 6-speed transmission geared for the higher speeds we drive in the States -- and a larger engine that didn't have to work so hard all the time -- the i could get significantly better fuel economy.
The good news is that we will get a shot at the i -- Mitsubishi is bringing an all-electric version to North America for the 2012 model year. The battery-powered i offers similar performance to the gas car, with a top speed of 80 MPH and a range of around 60 miles. Mitsubishi has widened the i slightly for this market, which gives additional side-impact protection and a little more elbow room, and added more prominent bumpers to meet Federal front and rear impact standards. The fact that it's an electric car will probably be the biggest factor in its sales success (or lack thereof), but I 'd love to see Mitsubishi bring an Americanized gasoline or (better yet) diesel powered version to the States. The subcompact market is growing rapidly, and we may well be ready for something smaller... and weirder.