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If you want a full electric car—that's legal on all U.S. highways, complies with passenger-car safety standards, and can do all that a gasoline-engine car can do around town—your options for 2012 are still very limited. If you don't have the nearly $60k to cough up for the Tesla Model S, it's either the Nissan Leaf or the new 2012 Mitsubishi i.
With a starting price of $29,125, not counting the $7,500 federal tax credit, the i is the lowest-priced electric car in the U.S. market. And among electric cars, the new i is also the most efficient one yet, carrying an official EPA rating of 112 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent).
The i's roots are in a Japanese-market minicar (or so-called kei car) of the same name. There the i has a little gasoline engine mounted at the back, under the cargo floor, but in its place here is a 49-kW (66 hp) synchronous permanent magnet motor and 16-kWh lithium-ion battery.
Like more electric cars, the Mitsubishi i is at its best in city driving, where its torquey motor can propel this minicompact away from traffic lights with more gusto than many gasoline vehicles. But highway stints are best kept occasional; while it can reach 81 mph, it feels sluggish above 50 or 55, and driving range drops significantly.
The i can return a respectable 62 miles, officially, on a charge, although gentle driving and liberal use of regenerative braking (which captures some energy lost in braking), can return longer distances, if you're confident about pushing it.
While the i looks diminutive by U.S. standards, its interior is surprisingly spacious, and as comfortable as you would probably ever need given you'll only be spending an hour or two in the vehicle at a time (limited by range). Four six-footers will fit in the i, though in order to get enough cargo space for a typical grocery run you'll need to fold down the rear seatbacks. Ride quality is smooth, and the suspension is tuned soft.
While Mitsubishi doesn't have sales plans quite as grand as those of Nissan or Tesla, the MiEV, as it's also badged, isn't just a limited-edition specialty vehicle, the automaker insists. It hopes to sell about 1,500 in the first model year and about 5,000 for 2013.