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Electric cars try to find a home in the city

Mitsubishi's new car, like others, sparks a bit of 'range anxiety'
by: JAIME VALDEZ Roger Yasukawa, an account director at Trivalle Communications USA, plugs  the new Mitsubishi electric car into the solar-powered charging station at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Dozens of automotive writers from all over the country traveled to Portland in late September to test drive the newest all-electric car to go on sale - the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which has been renamed i for the American market.

The Japanese company chose Portland for the national debut of its subcompact car because of the region's reputation for sustainability.

'Portlanders are more aware and supportive of anything green than anyplace else in the country,' says Mitsubishi Vice President of Marketing Greg Adams. 'They're interested in anything sustainable and will give it a chance.'

Part of that support is a commitment to electric vehicles. During two days of test drives, the writers experienced this commitment first hand. Among other things, they stopped for lunch at Portland State University, where their cars were recharged on Electric Avenue, a one-block stretch of Southwest Montgomery Avenue lined with a variety of charging stations.

They also traveled to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where the nation's first solar-powered charging station was erected in the east side parking lot.

The writers also heard directly from some of the most dedicated supporters of electric vehicles in the area. They included George Beard, PSU's manager of strategic partnership, who is heading up a research program that includes Electric Avenue.

During a lunch break at the nearby School of Urban Affairs, Beard delivered an impassioned plea for the development and sale of more EVs, saying they are key to the fight against climate change.

'The fate of our planet literally depends on our ability to dramatically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels,' Beard said, striking a tone in marked contrast to the more technical briefing on the car the writers had received from Mitsubishi Product Planning Manager Bryan Arnett.

Nevertheless, work on the public infrastructure to support electric vehicles is proceeding slower than expected. More than 1,100 public charging stations were supposed to be installed in Oregon by the end of this year. Most are to be installed throughout the Willamette Valley by California-based ECOtality, which has received two grants totaling $115 million from the federal government for the work.

As of today, however, ECOtality has only installed a little more than 100 public charging stations at 41 locations in the Portland area and 10 more south of the city.

Two other federally funded programs to install public charging stations in the rest of the state are just getting under way. The stations are intended to ease concerns that drivers could be stranded if their vehicles run out of electricity before they reach their destination.

ECOtality officials give several explanations for the delay, including later-than-expected demand because of interruptions in EV shipments from Japan resulting from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

But Mitsubishi officials say 'range anxiety' should not stop potential buyers from considering EVs. They have already sold around 11,000 i-MiEVs in Japan and Europe, where the vast majority are only driven within their ranges every day.

Besides that, Real Power, an Indiana company, has developed a mobile charging truck to rescue stranded EVs. It was demonstrated in Portland during the test drives.

The company hopes to sell it to AAA and state highway departments.

A good second car

The Mitsubishi i is the second mass-produced all-electric vehicle certified for freeway travel to be sold in this country. The first is the Nissan Leaf, which was introduced in Oregon and a number of other states several months ago. It is for sale at local Nissan dealerships.

The Chevy Volt also runs on electricity, but it also has an onboard gasoline-powered generator that recharges the batteries when they run low. The Volt is just now arriving in Chevy showrooms.

During test drives in and around Portland, the potential and limitations of the i became clear. It offers acceptable gasoline-free motoring, with an EPA estimated range of 62 miles between full charges. Although only about 10 feet long, it offers enough room for five adults, in large part because of its jellybean styling and ultra-thin body panels.

Acceleration is more than adequate around town and on freeways when shifting from the Eco to Drive mode.

But the i is also below the quality standards that Americans have come to expect in other subcompact cars, especially the new and surprisingly upscale Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Elantra. Even though it meets all crash test standards, the i feels insubstantial. The ride is also harsher than normal on broken pavement.

Despite those shortcomings, the writers found the i suitable enough to drive from Portland to Beaverton, Sauvie Island and even the Vista House at Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge. It handled well on all roads and felt stable at freeway speeds.

Although the test cars were recharged at some stops along the way, they would have easily made most of the trips on a single charge, including the run from Portland to Vista House and back.

Most writers agreed the i would make an acceptable second car for daily commuting, with a more conventional vehicle needed for longer trips.

City cars

Perhaps surprisingly, the Mitsubishi officials agreed with that assessment. They believe most electric-vehicle owners will only use them for relatively short commutes, recharging their batteries each night at home. They also believe the Portland area's compact development pattern is ideal for such trips.

Although the media have branded the i and other EVs as 'city cars,' most city residents will never buy one. That's because they require a garage or other secure parking space to be recharged. Electric cords hung out window or run across a sidewalk are too likely to be dislodged by passing pedestrians.

Because of this, the Mitsubishi officials believe EVs are most practical for people who drive into urban and employment centers from outlying residential areas for work. Round trips practically anywhere in the tri-county region would be easily within the range of the i and Leaf.

'The Portland area is geographically ideal for EV commuting,' says Adams.

Convincing Portlanders to buy them is likely to be a challenge, however. For one thing, the cheapest version costs nearly $30,000. It qualifies for a $7,500 federal and $1,500 state tax credit, which reduces the price to around $21,000, making it the most affordable mass-produced EV in the country. But that still seems high for such a simplistic car.

That price does not include the charger. It can take 12 hours to recharge the i from a 120-volt socket. A charger hooked up to a 240-volt socket cuts that time in half. Mitsubishi has partnered with Best Buy to sell an Eaton 240-volt charger for $700. But many if not most garages will have to be rewired to mount the charger in the right location, increasing its cost.

Because of the cost and potential inconvenience, Beard believes the EVs will originally be bought by committed environmentalists and people interested in advanced technologies. He also believes EV vans and trucks make sense for delivery companies that can recharge them in their yards every night.

Although Mitsubishi and other EV manufacturers are committed to producing them now, they are also eagerly awaiting a breakthrough in battery technology that will reduce their cost, trim their weight, decrease their charging time and extend their range.

'We believe that will happen in the foreseeable future,' says Dave Patterson, the chief engineer of regulatory affairs with Mitsubishi Research and Design America.