Mitsubishi Motors Corp. took the wraps off its new i-MiEV electric vehicle Friday, staking its fate on the zero-emission car as its best hope for a “green technology” future.

The egg-shaped, four-seat hatchback is the latest addition to a cadre of environment-friendly cars that have surfaced since Honda Motor Co.’s Insight hybrid and Toyota Motor Corp.’s remodeled Prius hybrid heated up the market for gasoline-electric cars.

The price of the i-MiEV is set at ¥4.6 million, including tax — way above the ¥2.05 million Prius and ¥1.89 million Insight. MMC hopes it will be able to lower the i-MiEV’s price to around ¥3.2 million with help from government subsidies for low-emission cars.

The i-MiEV, which stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle, is based on the No. 4 automaker’s i series of minicars. The 3.395-meter × 1.475-meter car is powered by 88 lithium-ion batteries that run an electric motor installed under the floor. It can go 160 km on a single charge.

The widely watched electric vehicle is the pillar of MMC’s green car strategy.

“We started to develop EVs more than 40 years ago in 1966 and stepped up the research,” MMC President Osamu Masuko told reporters in Tokyo.

“It is the ultimate ‘eco car’ that solves all of the problems — air pollution, global warming and dwindling gasoline supplies,” he said. “We believe it will challenge the new era and the top technology.”

Masuko also pledged that MMC will step up production of EVs to make them more than 20 percent of overall production by 2020 and widen the lineup.

Experts said, however, that the i-MiEV has several hurdles to overcome.

“It has much room to improve in terms of infrastructure and price,” said Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center.

The i-MiEV’s high price comes from its lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and more powerful than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in most hybrids. But lithium-ion cells, commonly found in laptops and cell phones, have a record of overheating, and in some cases even igniting, and must be improved if they are to be used in larger machines.

Another problem is infrastructure — there are only 39 high-speed charging stations available nationwide.

With a high-speed charger, the i-MiEV can be charged in just half an hour. But a 200-volt household charger takes about seven hours, and a 100-volt charger takes 14 hours.

“It will take time, five to six years, for electric vehicles to spread widely throughout the market,” Matsumura said.

“The focus is whether the price will come down during those years. Now the initial cost is too expensive, while the running costs are attractive,” Matsumura said.

Future demand for electric vehicles is projected to be strong. Market research firm Fuji Keizai Co. said in May that the market will grow to 135,000 units globally by 2020.

MMC is also looking at producing an electric minicar for business use and an electric compact for global markets in the latter half of 2011. It will also make a plug-in hybrid for long-distance driving, Masuko said.

The company has been pouring its limited resources into EVs for a long time despite its massive recalls, scandals and lawsuits. Now it is trying to weather a global economic slump that forced it to log its first loss in three years in the business year that ended in March.

MMC plans to produce 1,400 i-MiEVs this year and 5,000 the next. It has already received orders for more than 2,000 units.

In Japan, it will start leasing the i-MiEV mainly to corporate customers at the end of July and to individuals next April.

As for overseas markets, MMC plans to launch i-MiEVs with right-hand steering in Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong and those with left-handed steering in other parts of Europe at the end of 2010. It will sell 250 units this year and 1,000 units the next overseas.

Competition is also expected to rise. Many carmakers see hybrids as a transitional stage toward zero-emission cars. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. said Thursday it will start to deliver its Subaru Plug-in Stella electric car at the end of July, while Nissan Motor Co. is set on launching its own EV in both Japan and the United States in fiscal 2010.

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