The case for the worst selling car in America

Ahhh, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. The worst selling car in America.  How bad did it sell you say?  Well, from 2011 until the car was axed from sales in the US with the arrival of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV it sold less than 2500 units in total.  Why did it sell so poorly?  Well, to start off with, the car was brought to the US as a compliance vehicle for states that required an alternative fuel option in order to do business in that state.  Mitsubishi had been selling the i-MiEV since 2009 or so in Japan, and it seems they just modified the vehicle slightly in order to meet NHSTA standards for legal sales in the US.  Check out the subtle differences:

The Japanese Variety
The ‘Murican veriety

As you can see the nose of the ‘Murican one is a bit longer due to necessary clearance according to federal highway standards between the front of the car and the cabin.  The North American version is also a bit wider because ‘Murica that’s why.  Other than that the interior of the vehicle as well as the exterior exactly mirror its Japanese counterpart.  You could argue that this is why no one in America wanted this car.  Not only did Mitsubishi do a dismal job of promoting  it, they also cared absolutely nothing about how an American would perceive this car in terms of quality and value.  This car is made in Japan, and for Japan.  It’s also a variant of it’s gas-powered brother the Mitsubishi i.  This type of car is known as a “Kei Car” in Japan which literally translates to lightweight car, and is built for the Japanese masses.  That means that it focuses on utility over extravagance.  In America, this does not represent the typical demographic that is looking to buy an electric car.  People look at this car (especially the interior) and say “Man this thing feels cheap!”  Well, they’d be right.  It’s supposed to be cheap. It’s the cheapest EV on the marked in the US, and has some of the least compelling specs as far as performance goes.  As you can see there are plenty of reasons to not buy this car, so the real question is why WOULD you buy this car??


Well, to understand why I took the leap and bought this little beauty, I’m going to put down three main reasons and talk about them each individually:

  1. I like Japanese things
  2. I wanted an EV that actually saved me money, not cost me more
  3. I wanted something I could take apart and modify


Let’s talk about number one first:

I love things from Japan.  I don’t just mean things that are Japanese-style, no.  I like things that are actually manufactured in Japan.  I think Japan just kills everyone except the Germans in their ability to produce things of high quality that last a long time.  If you ever come over to our house you’ll see my obsession.  For that reason alone, I decided to go with this EV over all others. Every part of this EV is manufactured in Japan.  The battery pack is made by Panasonic in Japan.  The motor and drive electronics are manufactured in Japan, even the source metal is smelted and stamped in Japan.  You see where I’m going here.  This is not only the most Japanese EV you can buy, but one of the most Japanese cars you can buy in the US period.  I also bought it because it looks so incredibly Japanese and I love it. Come on, it even had a Hello Kitty sponsorship.  If anyone makes these for me I will put them on my car.


Can an EV actually save you money??

The short answer is YES!! There are a few caveats though.  Like any car, I don’t believe in buying it new until I have a net worth of over one million dollars.  I just believe you can’t afford to take the depreciation hit when you drive that brand new car off the lot.  Leases (or fleeces as I call them) are off the books for me no matter the situation because they are the most expensive way to operate a motor vehicle.  That leaves me with the used EV market which is incredibly buyer friendly. My guess is that people who can afford EVs (or think they can) don’t even think about something used because they want the new shiny tech.  Well all I can say is I will gladly take your lease return and pay less than one half the sticker price you did for it new.  Now let’s start by looking at what I bought this car for and the stats on it when it was purchased:

  • Price I paid: $8000
  • Purchase Date: 5/2015
  • Mileage: 8300
  • Model year: 2012
  • Warranty: 10 yr/100,000 miles on drivetrain and battery

By my counts that means that this car is still warranted for another 91700 miles or 7 years (I’m guessing 7 years will come first).  Because I’m going to be completely conservative about my calculation lets say that I have 7 years of usable life on the car left.  That means that I will spend $8000/7 = $1143/year to keep this car.  That’s incredibly inexpensive for any car.  Now let’s look at maintenance.  According to Mitsubishi the only thing that will need to be changed within 100,000 miles are the tires.  Yep that’s it, the tires.  I priced those out and found them to be around $500 for a set of four.  Let just say that I’ll spend $1000 in total maintenance for the remaining 7 years just for fun.  Let’s also assume it costs $150/year to register (it cost less, but it will go up because California).  Insurance for me is around $800/ year for some pretty high coverage, thanks AAA.  Let’s assume I drive around 10,000 miles a year (because that’s what I’ve averaged thus far).  At an average efficiency of 0.3kW/mile (according to EPA) and a fixed electric rate of $0.15/KWh (I have an owned solar system), that means we have a cost of $.045/mile.  multiply that by 10,000 miles/year and we come up with $450 in electricity per year.  Now let’s bring it all together and calculate yearly total cost of ownership:

  • Cost of car depreciating = $1143/year
  • Maintenance = $143/year
  • Insurance = $800/year
  • Registration = $150/year
  • Electricity = $450/year
  • Grand total = $2686/year!!!

To put that in perspective, we use about $2000 in fuel per year on our van alone. This is one of the most inexpensive ways to operate a motor vehicle hands down.  This little beast has saved us immense amounts of money, and I will keep until it doesn’t run anymore.


Let’s modify this cute little thing into an electric beast:

The final reason I picked this car is because as an electrical engineer I like to tinker with things.  In my regular job I work with the things that make this car run on a daily basis.  It’s nothing more than a motor with fixed planetary gear reduction, and a variable frequency motor drive.  On top of that all of the parameters of this drive are accessible via the same CAN interface that is used for vehicle diagnostics (the OBD-II port).  I haven’t done much tinkering because I’m waiting for the warranty to run out, but once it does you best believe I’ll be in there with my high voltage gloves.  Referencing the image below, you can see that everything that’s important is either in the motor room under the rear trunk cover or under the rear seats (the battery pack).  It looks like Mitsubishi also made this very modular and easy to get to.  All cables are connected with standard lug terminals, and the prismatic battery cells are in modules that are removable and replaceable.


The last thing I wanted to talk about range, and range anxiety.  This car has a very small battery pack.  at 16kWh it can propel the car idealy for a range of around 70 miles. The problem with this estimate for the rest of America, is that I live in the ideal EV climate.  I don’t have to use heat or A/C that much, and those things can greatly affect your usable range.  When running the A/C, range drops to around 60 miles.  When running heat it drops to 55 miles.  If you run the defroster with A/C pump it drops to 45 miles.  As you can see, this would make it unusable for a lot of people.  Thankfully we have a lot of EV chargers in southern CA, so you can typically find one without getting yourself stuck. You also have to think about weather.  This car is not made to drive in ice or snow. It’s rear-wheel drive, and the front tires seems like they’re about the same width a most car’s spare donut tire.  Since we don’t really have weather to worry about in southern CA, it’s fine for me, but your results may vary.


In conclusion, I will say this is not the car for everyone.  The 70-mile range (my observed average) is rough.  There have been a couple times that I had to go find a charging station in order to make it home with enough electrons to spare.  This has been slightly frustrating, but what this has done is cause me to modify my habits and plan my driving better.  It is a small node of pain that is worth all of the gain.  I love this little thing, and I standby the purchase 100 percent.


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