Mitsubishi tried to chase Toyota and Nissan with mainstream cars and landed on skid row for it. Now it badly needs a product that causes riots outside its dealerships—a car so unusual and unexpected that it will catch Toyota flat-footed while hurling the three-diamond badge like a ninja’s throwing star back into the public’s consciousness.
Actually, it has been building just such a vehicle since 2006. It’s inexpensive, it returned about 40 mpg during our drive, it’s adorably eccentric, and it looks like a Star Trek shuttle pod. But alas, the ultra-cool, rear-engine Mitsubishi i (yes, lower case “i,” probably because the car is so eensy) is only for Japan. So far, the naysayers within the company deny that the diminutive i can thrive in the land where Lincoln Navigators have held the upper hand.
A Nice, Reliable Kei Car
The i is as Japanese as a lunch of octopus and sea cucumber. Its built to Japan’s unique keijidousha, or “mini vehicle,” rule, which cropped up after World War II as a way to quickly re-motorize the ruined country. It establishes a special class of tiny fuel-sippers, which in modern times receive breaks on registration fees and parking restrictions. Every year, four or five of the top-selling cars in Japan are kei cars. Over there, all vehicles look small to American eyes, but kei cars are easy to spot owing to their license tags being yellow instead of white.
As such a car, the i is limited in length to about 134 inches, to a width of about 60 inches, and an output of no more than 64 hp from an engine that may not exceed 0.66 liter. By comparison, a Toyota Yaris sedan is almost three feet longer, more than six inches wider, and has a 227-percent-larger engine. But, interestingly, the i and Yaris have identical wheelbases, a tribute to Mitsubishi’s brilliant packaging job.
An oddball in a class of mostly conventional front-drivers, the i rides on a sort of rigid-steel shingle, which keeps all the machinery below the floor. The turbocharged 3B20, an aluminum, DOHC, 0.659-liter three-cylinder engine, has variable intake-valve timing and produces 63 hp at 6000 rpm and 69 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. It’s mounted between the rear wheels and canted backwards at a 45-degree angle, keeping the cargo floor at a normal height. Except for a muted growl from the straw-like tailpipe, you’d never know internal combustion is happening back there.
Struts carry the nose, while the rear rides on a de Dion–type sprung rigid beam axle that carries the driveshafts. Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering supplies a 30-foot turning circle, almost three feet tighter than that of a Yaris.
Spacious Yet Intimate
If you’re driving the i solo, it feels spacious, with yards of headroom and even decent legroom and back-seat space, thanks to a particularly long wheelbase for a car in this class. The back seats (the car seats four) recline in 16 two-degree increments—what luxury!—and also split and fold flat, opening up 44 cubic feet if loaded to the ceiling. There are 16 cubes behind the rear seats, more than the trunk of a Honda Accord.
It’s when passengers climb aboard that the i’s slimness makes for unavoidable intimacy. Shower and save your best bottled scents for long drives, because you’ll be cozy with your companions.
Think Urban, Not Autobahn
Otherwise, like all modern kei cars, the 2140-pound i we tested is a fully formed motor vehicle, and a pretty high-spec one at that. Ours had the aforementioned turbo three, a four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, air conditioning, a heated driver’s seat that is standard on AWD models, touch-screen navigation (in Japanese, with maps only of Japan!), power windows and locks, keyless ignition, airbags, and ABS—all for about the U.S. equivalent of $17,500 (base models start at just over $11,000).
In Japan, no vehicle ever moves much faster than 60 mph, especially in the sclerotic cities. Park-ability and alley-threading-aplomb are far more important to Japanese buyers than anti-dive geometry or high-speed stability. So count us shocked that the i takes to the Los Angeles superslab so comfortably. It hums along at 70 mph, happily holding a steady 4000 rpm, well below its 7200-rpm redline. Pavement panel cuts and directional grooving induce the occasional shimmy in the slim, narrowly tracked tires, though; wider rubber would help. The brakes are firm and stop the car from 70 mph in 187 feet, a solid performance given the small tires.
Taking 14.2 seconds to hit 60 mph, the i is decidedly sluggish, but it proved no slower to come up to highway speed than your typical commuting drone afraid to use more than 30 percent of his or her throttle. L.A.’s thundering freeway herd adapts to these casual drivers, and it adapts to the i.
In the urban knot, the kei-car qualities so prized by the Japanese make the i totally endearing. It flits in and out of tight garages and easily threads the needle of narrow side streets lined with parked cars. Off-the-line acceleration is breezy with the relatively low gearing of the four-speed automatic, and the steering is easy and quick.
We’ll Take It
No, we weren’t T-boned by a Navigator, but we weren’t sweating it too much either. With a body structure that liberally employs high-strength steel, the i easily passes Japan’s own stringent front, side, rear, and offset impact tests. The rear-mounted engine makes the front impacts especially easy to manage from an engineering standpoint. Granted, these are not American tests, but we have it on good authority that Godzilla once stepped on an i and the occupants lived.
The i’s usefulness makes the Smart Fortwo look even more stupendously dumb, mainly because the Mitsubishi has a back seat and genuine cargo capacity. The engineering is developed and on the shelf, we’ve heard, to make the i slightly wider and a bit more powerful for the U.S. Best of all, the rest of the i’s development must be largely paid for by now with its four years of Japanese sales. Even if it’s not, Mitsubishi desperately needs this car to prove that it’s still a company of dynamic thinkers capable of building something radical besides high-horsepower Lancer Evos.
All this car needs is for Mitsubishi to push the button. We vote “aye.”