Listen carefully and you might detect the slight whir of this car’s motor, a little wind noise and a faint thrum from the tires. Could this be the sound of driving in the future? Will our streets one day be whisper-quiet even as they teem with traffic? Mitsubishi’s electric mini-car, due on the market at the end of next year, points in that direction.

I jumped behind the wheel of the cute electric i MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) prototype at the company’s first on-road drive session in Tokyo. The i MIEV is the latest in a series of electric vehicles that Mitsubishi has exhibited since 2005 — but it is the first one planned for public sale.

Inside, the car is as quiet as an empty church. Even when backing out of the parking lot, you can hear yourself breathe. Apart from its amazing quietness, the i MIEV seems like any current showroom car. Look closer, however, and you notice that the standard four-speed automatic transmission has been replaced by a floor-mounted gear-selector that allows you to choose either Eco mode or D for drive. And where the tachometer normally goes, this i MIEV sports a circular charge meter and battery gauge.

However, the i MIEV’s most critical innovation is that the nickel-hydride batteries, standard in current electric- car prototypes, have been replaced by state-of-the-art lithium-ion ones. Smaller, lighter and generating more power, these energy units are being codeveloped by Mitsubishi Motors, GS Yuasa Ltd and Mitsubishi Trading to offer the best combination of size, weight and output so far in the industry.

With its motor, inverter and charger beneath the rear luggage area, and the batteries artfully spread under its long-wheelbase floor, the car handles better than expected. And, even though the electric version weighs 180 kg more than the 900-kg gasoline-powered i, its low center of gravity allows the i MIEV to corner flatter and smoother, and with less nose dive under braking than other zero-emission vehicles such as Honda’s hydrogen-powered FCV fuel-cell car. In addition, the i MIEV boasts ride comfort levels comparable if not better than the standard car, and it actually feels more planted to the ground than its rivals. The only time you notice its extra weight is under heavy braking — but even then, with the enlarged brake booster, the car still stops on a dime.

Powering the electric i MIEV is a rear-mounted electric motor generating 63 hp. How quick does it go? With its direct drive, and no transmission getting in the way of instant acceleration, try as quick as the current 63-hp gasoline- powered i turbo. That means the electric i MIEV jumps from rest to 100 kph in under 9 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 130 kph. Even with three people aboard, the i MIEV has no problem matching cars with 1-liter-plus engines off the lights. The car never feels slow and its perfectly progressive acceleration was smooth and instant.

But drive like that constantly and your batteries will run out within the hour. That’s where Eco mode helps; flick the gear selector into Eco and power delivery from the motor to the rear-drive wheels drops automatically from 63 hp to 43 hp to prolong driving range and your battery charge. The strange thing was that in Eco mode, not once did it feel underpowered; the i MIEV sprinted away from traffic lights and other annoying mini-cars. If Eco mode saves 10-15 percent of your charge, giving you 15 extra kilometers, then leaving it in Eco seems to be the way to go.

Mitsubishi claims that the i MIEV gets 160 km on a full charge in ideal conditions — which includes “no air conditioning.” In real-world driving, with the temperature just 4 C and the heater on, I managed a little over 100 km before it was back to headquarters for a recharge.

Given that infrastructure supporting electric cars is still in its infancy, Mitsubishi offers a three-way charging system: at-home plug-in recharging using Japan’s 100-volt grid (which takes 14 hours); a 200-volt option (utilizing an extra high-output charger) that slices the time in half; and a special quick-charge system that replenishes 80 percent of the batteries’ total charge in just 30 minutes. If you charge at night, according to Mitsubishi, you can reduce your running costs by 87 percent compared with the gasoline-run model.

Obviously, the electric version produces no emissions in its actual operation, but even if you take into account CO2 emissions at power plants that generate the power needed for charging the car, then it emits only 28 percent of the CO2of a comparable gasoline-powered i.

The i MIEV is expected to go on sale by the end of 2009 for around ¥2.5 million, although government subsidies (in Japan at least) of 50 percent for zero-emission cars will see the price paid fall to half that.

As a preview of future zero-emission cars, the i MIEV is a significant breakthrough. It drives well and it’s comfortable. But, to tell the truth, I was hoping for a car with a range of at least 240 km, allowing a half-day’s driving before a quick lunchtime recharge became necessary. The test showed that while the new lithium-ion batteries provide better performance than current nickel-hydride ones, and with less weight and size, they still only deliver barely acceptable range and battery performance. For electric cars to really make a case for themselves, the next generation of batteries must be half the size and weight of the i MIEV’s lithium-ion ones but deliver twice the range and life. Only then will we all stand up and take notice.

A version of this story was published in British motoring magazine Auto Express.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motoring journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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