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2014 Mitsubishi MiEV: Bargain basement electric car

Photo Credit: MITSUBISHI MOTORS - Despite it's unconventional looks, the Mitsubishi MiEV is a real car and now the cheapest all-electrric car in America.It's almost hard to write a serious review of a car that looks as silly as the MiEV. With its bulbous cab and skinny tires, Mitsubishi's tiny all-electric car appears to have escaped from a carnival ride. You expect it to come packed with clowns that tumble out when the doors open.

But make no mistake, the MiEV — which stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle — is a real car. A very simple car, but a real car nonetheless. In a week of testing, it did everything required in day-to-day driving, from commuting back and forth to work to running short errands. And it made many of the trips fun, too, thanks to its torquey electric motor, nimble suspension and microcar dimensions, which allows it to be parked practically anywhere.

Yes, I had to make sure to recharge the batteries, plugging it in whenever I was home and especialy overnight. But none of my normal driving routines came close to exceeding its estimated range of approximately 62 miles between full charges. And, of course, I didn't have to buy any gas. The EPA rates the MiEV at the equivalent of 126 miles per gallon in city driving and 99 on the highway.

Photo Credit: MITSUBISHI MOTORS - The spartan interior of the Mitsubishi MiEV reflects its international marketing strategy.But the big news for 2014 is the MiEV's new low price. Mitsubishi has it by a whopping $6,130 since last year, dropping the purchase price to $22,995. The existing federal tax credit of $7,500 for all-electric vehicles brings that down to $15,495, making it the least expensive freeway-legal electric car in America. That's about as much as Mitsubishi's new Mirage, which is the cheapest conventional gas-powered car in the country.

At the same time, Mitsubishi has increased the list of standard features to include many previous options, including driver and front passenger heated seats, rear door speakers, aluminum wheels, and a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. No navigation system or back up camera is available, however.

Despite the price reduction, the MiEV is likely to be a tricky sell, even to those committed to going electric. Its unconventional appearance is a reminder that the MiEV wasn't originally designed for the American market. It is the largest selling electric car in the world. As of July 2014, about 32,000 have been sold worldwide.

Many of those owners are not used to the level of comfort, convenience and accessories we expect in even the simplest cars here, however. The interior of the MiEV is spartan and made largely of cheap plastic. The seats are thin. And the body is composed of steel so thin it sounds like tin when the doors close.

In truth, the construction is not all that different than the wave of small foreign economy cars that arrived in America in the 1980s like the Geo Metro, Subaru Justy and Toyota Starlet. But the MiEV stands out compared to today's much more sophisticated economy cars.

All of the engineering decisions in the MiEV save weight, which is essential for improving the performance of electric vehicles of every kind. The MiEV meets all U.S. safety standards, otherwise it couldn't be sold here. But these compromises are likely to put off many buyers, especially since most other electric cars on the market are based on more refined and better equipped gas-powered cars, like the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500E, the Honda Fit EV, and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. In fact, the MiEV makes the Nissan Leaf, the best selling all-electric car in America, seem like a luxury sedan. But the MiEV at least has four doors and a full back seat, which the Smart ForTwo lacks.

Charging times for the MiEV are longer than most other electric vehicles — 14 hours from a 240 volt outlet and 22 hours from a 120 volt outlet. Hence the desire to plug it in whenever possible. But the 2014 model also comes standard with a DC quick charge port that will recharge from empty to 80 percent in just 30 minutes at a quick charger, which are becoming more common.

My week-long test took place during moderate summer weather, which means I didn't need to use the air conditioning or heater, two things that drain all electric vehicles quicker. The MiEV also comes with a remote control that lets owners pre-cool or pre-heat the car while it's still plugged in, which saves the battery a bit. Some other manufacturers offer similar devices for owners good at planning ahead.

Electric cars aren't for everyone and the MiEV will not appeal to all potential buyers. But if you're willing to take the plunge, you'll find the MiEV can be a practical and even entertaining alternative to gas-powered cars. The bulbous body design results in a surprising roomy interior. Although the suspension is unsophisticated, the steering its responsive, making it fun to drive around town. It's a little jiggly but ultimately stable at freeway speeds, and the motor is powerful enough to make passing even large trucks safe.

And at just $15,495 for 2014, it's hard to find a cheaper car of any kind, let alone one that'll help you save the planet.

2014 Mitsubishi MiEV

Base price: $15,495 ($22,995 minus $7,500 federal tax credit).

Price as tested: $15,495.

Type: 5-door, 4-passenger microcar.

Engine: 47 kW electric motor.

EPA estimated mileage: 112 MPGe.

Overall length: 144.7 inches

Curb weight: 2,579 pounds

Final assembly: Kurashiki, Japan