2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV / 1917 Detroit Electric – There and Back Again

My good friend Paul Wasson recently took delivery on the first Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car in Oregon. Having recently done a CC on my neighbor’s 1917 Detroit Electric, I’m struck by an uncanny resemblance between the two. Since they have exactly the same 100 inch wheelbase, they’re shown in matching scale here. They have a surprising amount in common, even look sort of similar in a certain way. A branch of the automotive family tree is picking up where it left off a century ago.

Mitsubishi’s oddly named i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) was originally derived from a Japanese-market gas or electric kei car, but it has grown longer and wider for North American driving. It’s a four-door sedan the length of a Mini Cooper, with two full size front seats and a pretty good back seat, meant to be a daily commuting car with room for the kids. 60 mile range, top speed 81 mph. 0-60 in 13 seconds. (This Detroit Electric’s also has a 60 mile range, but its top speed is thirty. Zero to sixty is never.) Paul just plugs it into 110V in the garage, and hasn’t felt the need to install a 220V charging station. Best part is the Mitsubishi is the cheapest EV on the market now, at $22K after tax rebates in the US.

As with the Detroit Electric a century ago, all the Mitsu’s design choices reflect what electric propulsion makes possible. Unlike the Leaf, Volt, Focus and other EVs adapted from front-drive platforms, both these cars have the rear motor, rear drive layout. 100 inch wheelbase. Wheels out at the corners. The Mitsubishi’s fenders even evoke the separate fenders and running board of the Detroit Electric. Rear motor and rear drive make total sense for an electric, since the motor is small and relatively light, and there’s no need for a transmission. Just mount the motor ahead of the differential, put them at the rear, and keep the front end simple.

Looking under the Mitsubishi’s back end, we find its 145 lb-ft, 66 hp AC synchronous motor mounted transversely, and we can see its battery compartments, placed low under front and rear seats. 16 kWh lithium-ion, 330V, 88 cells. Putting the batteries under the seats results in a “short-tall” layout, raising the driver’s eye-level up with the taller cars and truck station wagons (aka SUVs).

Here’s the Detroit Electric’s brushed DC motor (power unknown), mounted in-line between the frame rails, with a short driveshaft to the live axle. DE placed 84 volts of lead-acid (or optional Edison nickel-iron) batteries up above the frame front and rear.

Peering up under the Mitsu’s rear bumper, we see the entire drivetrain and rear suspension. The motor is plainly visible, with red power cables from its three windings to the controller box directly above. Off the left side of the picture is the differential, driving half-shafts to the rear wheels. Factory specs call this a three-link de Dion rear suspension.

With powertrain down below, all that’s left in front is crush space with small radiators for the electrics and the AC, brake and washer fluids, etc. Leaving the rest of the length for people and their stuff – there’s a pretty good sized space for groceries behind the hatchback. Paul reports it’s got plenty of power for traffic and freeway. Instant throttle response and electric torque usually puts him ahead of others at the green light without really trying.

Finally, besides tires, brake wear (minimal with regen braking), and changing the air filter in the AC every year or so, here is the maintenance schedule. That’s right, every 20 years. Hey, that Detroit Electric is still on the road a century later. With new technology, electrics are picking up where they left off.