Quick Drives: Test-driving an electric trio (or quartet)

Brief test drives affirm that Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and Mini E perform as advertised ... as does the under-development Volvo C30 electric

by James M. Flammang

Like its battery-powered mates, Chevrolet Volt
behaved admirably during brief test-drive.

LOS ANGELES - Battery-powered cars are finally reaching American buyers in significant numbers. Do they perform as promised? Will potential buyers be delighted or disappointed with their performance and refinement?

During the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2010, several makers of currently-available and coming-soon electric cars allowed attending journalists to take brief test-drives in their products. Vehicles driven included the Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and Mini E. All three are either already available or coming during 2011. We also had an opportunity to try a battery-powered version of the Volvo C30, which may or may not arrive in the U.S. market.

Just about every time we've driven an electric car in the past, it's proved to be smooth, quiet, and easy to operate. The main differences lie in the level of refinement - hardly a surprise, since some of those vehicles were still far away from regular-production status. In fact, a few were essentially experimental.

Even more so in Los Angeles, the three pure electrics (i-MiEV, Mini E, Volvo C30) performed just about exactly as expected. Only a few moments should be needed to get used to the idea of electric driving, so long as you don't sit and wait for engine noise and noticeable gear-changes. Step on the accelerator pedal, and each of the battery-powered subcompacts eases into action with no fuss, responding appropriately to a harder push or to letting up on the pedal, whether partially or fully. Acceleration sets no records, of course; but it's not expected to. Even in these mini-sized cars, you feel the immediately-available torque that gets the vehicle moving in a comparative hurry. Before long, though, the energy level does begin to wane - exactly as expected.

Mitsubishi's i-MiEV appeared to be the least refined of the group, but that's no surprise, either. The version that was available in Los Angeles isn't the one that will reach American dealerships later in 2011. Before production of export models begins, Mitsubishi is making changes in the overall design to fit more readily with American tastes in motoring. That includes making the interior a bit more roomy.

BMW's Mini E is the electric that stands apart from the battery-powered pack, because it delivers a considerably more sporty overall feel. When you lift your foot from the accelerator pedal, it slows down not gradually, like the others, but quite abruptly. In fact, it feels like the regenerative braking that characterizes the deceleration period in hybrid cars, but more so. A lot more so, giving the Mini E an entirely different driving characteristic. Some folks doubtless love that difference, though others might find it annoying.

Though not a pure electric, since it contains a gasoline engine to recharge the battery pack, the Chevrolet Volt also behaves impressively, with a high level of smoothness and refinement. Roomier than the others, though seating only four occupants, the Volt comes across as a well-crafted, civilized motorcar - even when its innovative battery-powered powertrain isn't taken into account. Our only significant criticism was a rather garish interior treatment, which we were informed was an option - one that isn't likely to entice everyone.

Because these test-drives were short, there was no opportunity to evaluate the Volt's fuel-economy potential, Depending on the type of driving, that can range anywhere from phenomenally high (if driven only on short trips and charged in between) to markedly less impressive (if taken on long treks, where the gasoline engine has to keep running constantly). After an average of 40 miles (actually, somewhere between 25 and 50), the Volt's gasoline engine starts automatically and remains on as long as it's needed.

January Update: During Detroit's North American International Auto Show, the Chevrolet Volt was named North American Car of the Year.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang