Peugeot has been showing off its new electric car, the iOn, for the first time. Everybody knows it's a Mitsubishi i-MiEV in (light) disguise, but there are some interesting differences between Peugeot's Europeanised version and the batch of adapted Japanese-market vehicles Mitsubishi brought to the UK earlier this year for initial trials.
iOns have a simpler colour scheme than the i-MiEVs seen so far in the UK; the Peugeots I saw were all painted in a single colour, whereas i-MiEVs seen in the UK so far have a dual colour scheme with Smart-style contrasting door panels. This simple change gives the iOn a more orthodox appearance, toning down a little the radical bubble-shaped design of the Mitsubishi i on which the i-MiEV is based.
Another small change was that the charging socket on the left-hand drive iOn I drove was on the right-hand side of the car, i.e. the continental near-side, whereas it is on the left on the original Mitsubishi i-MiEV (the UK and Japan both drive on the left). Inside, too, the iOn has a slightly more European feel; whereas Japanese i-MiEVs have very understated black/grey/silver interiors, iOns seem to have warmer colours – the interior of the car I drove was mid-blue – and slightly fancier trim, such as a shiny "piano black" facing on the central part of the dashboard.
Overall, though, the Europeanised iOn retains all of the basics that make the i-MiEV one of the most interesting and capable of the new generation of electric cars.
The Mitsubishi i on which the i-MiEV is based, is a very space-efficient compact four-door hatchback with a rear seat that is perfectly comfortable for most adults – an example of the benefits of upright packaging. The i's extremely compact petrol engine and transmission is squeezed into a small space between the rear wheels. Whether by accident or design, this makes it very easy to convert the i to electric drive; a combination of the space vacated by the petrol engine and that available under the floor of the passenger compartment is enough to accommodate the i-MiEV/iOn's electric drive-train and batteries without eating into passenger or luggage space at all.
On the road, the i-MiEV and iOn shatter preconceptions, shaped by golf buggies and milk floats, that electric cars provide a miserable driving experience; acceleration, particularly at low speeds, is very brisk indeed, a by-product of the excellent torque generated by electric motors even at low revs. The trade-off is a relatively modest top speed of just over 80mph, but for UK drivers, that won't be a limitation at all, especially on the sort of urban commuter trips for which this car is most likely to be used. And the experience of driving an electric car is one to which it is very easy to adapt. There is no gear changing; power just arrives in a smooth, quiet, steady surge. A low centre of mass and rear-wheel drive help make the iOn a bit of a driver's car as well; a tight turning circle makes it especially easy to manoeuvre in town as well.
One difference between the iOn I drove and the original i-MiEV was that the iOn did not have a separate "Eco" setting on its automatic-style transmission selector, just the standard "D" or "Drive" setting for forward travel. On the i-MiEV, the extremely zingy performance available in D is moderated a little when Eco is selected instead; the trade-off is supposed to be reduced energy consumption. It is very difficult to tell without a back-to-back test, but I thought that the iOn I drove perhaps lacked just the final performance edge that the i-MiEV had in D, and was possibly closer in feel to an i-MiEV driven in Eco mode – although when I drive the i-MiEV I wondered why the Eco setting wasn't the default given that it still provided such good performance, so nothing much to worry about there.
Mitsubish announced its own Europeanised i-MiEV last week. This enjoys a series of modifications, including interior updates, active stability control and lots of airbags, which appear to be substantially the same as the changes incorporated into the iOn, while the iOn I tried, an early example, may not be quite identical to cars that will actually reach customers. If you are serious about getting an i-MiEV or an iOn, it's probably worth scrutinising their respective spec sheets closely in order to tie down exactly what you're getting.
So far, so marvellous. But if the iOn deals convincingly with one fear about electric cars – that of miserable performance – it still struggles a little bit with another; range anxiety. Peugeot says that the iOn should provide better range than the original Japanese version of the car, and I wonder whether my subjective impression that the iOn may have been slightly throttled back – to use an expression that is almost certainly technically incorrect for an electric vehicle, although I can't think of a better one – is connected with this claim.
The company says that its stated range for the iOn of 150km, or a little under a hundred miles, is more realistic than some of the other range claims that have been made for electric vehicles, but concedes that this relates to ideal lightly-trafficked urban conditions, and can, in extreme circumstances, be reduced by as much as a half. Driver behaviour and traffic conditions are heavy influences, while use of the heater can reduce range by between 5 per cent and 45 per cent; air conditioning can dent your range by between 5 per cent and 25 per cent on a hot day.
My own feeling is that many prospective owners can probably be persuaded to accept this limitation for cars such as the iOn and the electric version of the Smart Fortwo, as they are clearly aimed at urban commuter use. Perversely, it's likely to be more of a problem for Nissan's Leaf, which has the advantage over the iOn of being designed from the ground up as an electric car; the Leaf looks like a normal Golf-sized hatchback, a fact that is bound to lead customers to expect it to be capable of a wider range of journeys, which, in the absence of a small range-extender petrol engine such as that fitted to the Chevrolet Volt, it isn't.
Peugeot, like most other car manufacturers, accepts that government support is going to be necessary in order to persuade customers to take to electric cars in large numbers. That applies as much to questions of infrastructure, such as the installation of charging points in office car parks, as the more obvious direct subsidies such as the £5,000 contribution being offered by the British government to buyers of electric cars.
There's no getting around the fact that electric cars are still expensive; the i-MiEV costs well over £20,000, even after the government subsidy and a £10,000 price cut to bring it into line with the Leaf. The pay-off comes in the form of very low running costs; Peugeot suggests that it will cost an average of £2.50 per 120 miles to recharge the iOn's batteries. And the company has come up with a plan to dilute the impact of the unpalatably high initial prices associated with electric cars. Instead of selling the iOn directly to customers, Peugeot will instead provide an "all inclusive mobility offer" priced from £415 (excluding VAT) per month, an amount that provides a four-year, 40,000 mile contract. The package is structured in order to benefit from the UK government subsidy and this is reflected in the monthly rates. Other elements of the service include full warranty cover, servicing and maintenance, and a special version of the Peugeot Connect rescue service, the precise conditions of which are tailored to the characteristics of electric vehicles (including the case of flat batteries).
The Peugeot Connect Electric service will also include PC or smartphone access to information about battery charging locations, and more detailed information about the car's battery charging status, a feature similar to an i-Phone app developed for the Electric Drive version of the Smart ForTwo. This will be available from April next year and will be downloadable to cars sold before that date. In addition, Peugeot's Mu mobility service provides access to alternative vehicles that could be used for, say, one-off trips requiring a longer range than the iOn can provide.
Overall, the iOn is an impressive effort; the Europeanisation programme has provided some useful improvements to the original well thought-out i-MiEV design. Living with even the best electric cars – and the iOn is certainly one of those – requires customers to adapt their thinking and modify their behaviour. Their reward, in the case of the iOn, is a surprisingly enjoyable driving experience, and a design that, for urban use at least, is highly practical.
Price: £415+ (excluding VAT) per month “all-inclusive” mobility package
Top speed: 81 mph
30 to 50km/h: 3.5 seconds
Consumption: average recharging costs a claimed £2.50 per 120 miles
CO2 emissions: zero tailpipe emissions, overall CO2 impact depends on fuel burned at the power station supplying the grid
Also worth considering: Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf