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Mitsubishi set to test electric cars in Europe

  Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors said on Wednesday it will begin testing its electric cars in Europe next month as it aims to beat rivals to the uncharted market and promote itself as the pioneer of the zero-emission vehicles.

 

Competitors such as General Motors Corp and the Renault-Nissan alliance have been winning the publicity game with promises to be the first mass producers of electric cars, but Mitsubishi Motors has the advantage of being the only mass-production carmaker with a working model being tested on the road today: the bubbly, four-seater i-MiEV hatchback. While best known for its 4X4s and sports cars, Mitsubishi Motors is already testing a fleet of more than 40 i-MiEVs in Japan, with similar plans afoot in California from around 2010.

Offering test drives to journalists in Europe for the first time during this week’s Paris auto show, Mitsubishi Motors said it hoped to use the test fleet to fuel discussions with European governments and power companies to help electric cars proliferate after the industry’s failed attempts in the past. “We want to be first to the market, but more importantly, we need the infrastructure and standards to help electric cars enter the mainstream,” Shinichi Kurihara, corporate general manager in charge of Mitsubishi’s product strategy, told Reuters.

With 200 kg worth of lithium-ion battery packs tucked under the floor for stability and the electric motor in the rear, i-MiEV offers a zippy ride, navigating easily through the crowded streets of Paris. Acceleration is also superior to an internal combustion engine thanks to a high-performance motor that generates high torque from a low speed. “The most important thing we want to demonstrate is that electric cars are an easy transition from a gasoline car,” Mitsubishi spokesman Daniel Nacass said during a test drive through the heart of the French capital. The i-MiEV, based on Mitsubishi’s “I” gasoline-engine minicar sold only in Japan, has a cruising distance of 144 km (89.5 miles) measured by European standards on a full battery and a top speed of 130 km (80 miles) an hour. Charging takes about seven hours using a 200-Volt outlet, but with quick-charger stations that could be reduced to less than an hour.

Running purely on electricity, electric cars have no tailpipe emissions. Even accounting for the carbon dioxide produced at power plants, the i-MiEV emits just one-quarter of a similarly sized gasoline car and half of a hybrid vehicle in Japan, where about 30% of electricity is sourced from nuclear power.

Electric cars are also easy on the wallet, with one-tenth the running cost of a gasoline car in Japan if charged at night, when electricity is cheaper. Kurihara said France is also an ideal market for electric cars since more than 80% of its electricity is generated from less-polluting nuclear power. But Mitsubishi Motors faces tough competition against local heavyweight Renault SA.

 

Speaking at the Reuters Auto Summit on the same day in Paris, Renault Executive Vice President Patrick Pelata said CEO Carlos Ghosn had met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy a day earlier to discuss the future of electric cars and a possible factory in France. Pelata also said Renault aimed to sell as many as 40,000 electric cars in its first year in 2011, with an electric version of a new sedan to be called Fluence -- far more than Mitsubishi Motors’ planned first-year sales of 2,000 i-MiEVs from 2009. Renault aims to lift its sales beyond 100,000 in 2012 with the addition of a dedicated electric compact car, Pelata said.

Renault’s local rival PSA Peugeot Citroen has taken note. Earlier this year, Mitsubishi Motors agreed to work with France’s top carmaker to develop an electric vehicle power train and consider co-production of electric cars down the line. But demand would depend largely on the car’s price, which consists mostly of next-generation lithium-ion batteries. Kurihara said the i-MiEV would cost consumers no more than ¥3 million after government-backed incentives. Nissan Motor, Renault and GM have not said how much their electric vehicles would cost. “At first, it will be more about the environment than about profits,” Kurihara said. (Reuters)