In 1942, a French inventor called Paul Arzens created a futuristic egg-shaped vehicle called L'Oeuf. Like Flash Gordon and jetpacks, this mobile sculpture was a product of a time when people believed that fantastical contraptions that fused art and technology would one day become commonplace. The world must have looked pretty oyster-shaped through Arzen's eyes.
Sadly, the world turned out to be more like an omelette. The Gallic inventor's Oeuf was left broken like the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, another casualty - like most dreams - of the harsh realities of profit margins and economies of scale. As time has gone on, the vehicles we drive have become more like commodities than agents of artistic expression. Strip the logo and shiny bits off most modern cars and there's little more than a hi-tech box on wheels.
Not Mitsubishi's new 'i', though. Paul would undoubtedly get a kick out of the new four-door city car. He'd recognise the spirit of innovation, the rounded, egg-like form and the slightly silly name. And he'd applaud the Japanese manufacturer for having the conviction to put such a radical design into production. As should we.
Does that mean we should rush out and buy one, though? After all, nobody likes being left with egg on their face. Before answering that, however, we need to address the question of whether we'll be able to in the first place. The car went on sale in Japan at the beginning of this year, and is, according to a high-placed source within the company, "90 per cent" confirmed for the UK. We're looking at a price of around £9,000, if and when it hits our shores.
So, what can you expect for your £9K, aside from a design that's barely changed since it first appeared on the futuristic 'i' concept at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show? On the strength of a day spent driving this Japanese-spec model in and around the city of Bristol, I believe that you can expect an extremely adept and charming urban runabout.
The 'i' shares a similar mechanical layout to the Smart ForTwo. It has a 660cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine mounted above its rear wheels, which are charged with the task of translating power into forward motion. Seeing as we're talking about 64bhp and 93Nm of torque here, they don't have a great deal of work to do.
Then again, neither does the driver. The 'i' is supremely user-friendly, even by city-car standards. There's no clunky sequential manual gearbox to acclimatise to (as in the Smart) - just a straightforward four-speed auto. It acquits itself very well in the cut and thrust of commutersville, zipping off when you prod the throttle and making the most of the engine's limited torque. The shifts are pretty smooth, too.
What makes the 'i' such a great tool for the city, though, is its waspish waistline and incredibly tight turning circle. You can dive into the smallest of gaps in traffic, and the excellent all-round visibility makes it laughably easy to park. Then, when you're ready to go, you simply twizzle the feather-light steering wheel and drive straight out. None of that multiple-point-turn nonsense for this cheeky little machine.
The three-cylinder engine suits the character of the car to a tee. You have to drive flat out to keep up with the big boys on the motorway - it runs out of puff at 90mph - but who cares when the result is a chesty thrum that sounds like a Porsche 911 with a head cold? Besides, an average fuel consumption of 55mpg soon helps you forget the car's long-range limitations.
It's not too shabby at that whole back-road thing, either. The responsive steering makes the car feel nimble and alert. The ride is a little on the bouncy side, but it's no worse than most city cars. The tenacious way the Mitsubishi clings on to both its own body and the road in bends is also remarkable, given its tall-but-small proportions.
And the 'i' really is small. Only the laughably tiny Ford Ka takes up less road space, and that could never be mistaken for a four-seater. The Mitsubishi doesn't squeeze people into its backside like some kind of reverse enema, as most small cars do. It has four proper, wide-opening doors and enough interior space for two 6ft 2in people to sit behind one another. Which is more than can be said for most executive saloons.
Thank the devilishly clever packaging and a wheelbase that's actually longer than a Colt's for that. With the engine tucked out of harm's way and that domed roofline freeing up headroom, the 'i' feels like a miniature MPV from the inside. If someone was ever crazy enough to stretch a Smart into a four-seater, it would probably turn out a lot like this. That high-set boot is never going to satisfy the antiques presenter David Dickinson's penchant for furniture ferrying, but it's plenty big enough for the weekly shop.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that the interior must be like a cut-price Portaloo. But you'd be mistaken. The dashboard plastics are pretty hard, and you'd never get a fridge magnet to stick to any of that matt-silver stuff on the centre console. But the clamshell-shaped seats are stylish, the switchgear is remarkably pleasant to use and the whole cabin has that modern, technical yet inviting feel that Japanese furniture designers do so well.
So, the Mitsubishi is versatile, fun to drive, cheap to run, simple to park and easy on the eye - if, like Arzen and I, you're into the whole squashed-egg-on-wheels thing. It's also great value. Your initial £9,000 outlay will buy you a car with keyless ignition, 15in alloys, xenon lights, electric windows all round, Isofix mountings and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. A lot of those things aren't even offered as options on many city cars.
Mitsubishi needs to do everything it can to turn that 90 per cent of selling it here into 100 per cent. In a market awash with me-too products, the 'i' stands out as truly individual.Reuse content