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Alternative fuels are still stuck inside the chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. No one wants to commit to building an alternate fueling infrastructure (the egg) before there’s a critical mass of vehicles (the chicken) out there to use it. And vice versa.

Frustrating as that logic loop is to be caught in, there are indications that there are ways out of it. One ray of sunshine (literally) is the quick charger station for electric vehicles in Vacaville, Calif.

Mitsubishi, which is planning to send a version of its i-Miev electric car here next year, seized upon the Vacaville charging station as a solid excuse for a press event touting both its vehicle and the potential infrastructure represented by the quick charger.

The plan was straightforward: A group of journalists would travel in five Japanese-market i-Mievs from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and then northeast up I-80 to Vacaville. That’s a total of just about 54 miles; within the i-Miev’s range as long as the air conditioning wasn’t turned on and the drivers were careful.

In Vacaville, the journalists would all be fed while each i-Miev would be hooked to the quick charger. After 20 minutes each on the charger all the i-Mievs would be juiced to about 80-percent of battery capacity. Another 34 miles on the I-80 would then have the electric cars cruising into California’s capital, Sacramento. It was like the days of stagecoaches­—San Francisco to Sacramento with just one stop in Vacaville to change horses. Here’s what we learned.

The i-Miev
The production, on-sale-now, Japanese-market i-Miev has its steering wheel on the wrong side, but it drives just fine. It’s also a familiar face around here, since PM’s Ben Stewart drove it back during the 2008 New York Auto Show.

The i-Miev is a creature built for urban mobility. At only 133.7-inches long overall, it’s almost a full foot shorter than a Mini Cooper and it rides on super-narrow 145/65R15 front and 175/55R15 rear tires. But with its 47-kilowatt engine driving the rear wheels and 330-volt li-ion battery pack mounted low in the chassis, it’s stable and nimble. The motor’s instantaneous torque means there’s seemingly always thrust available, and the 63.4-inch tall i-Miev can squirt through traffic holes that behemoths like the Honda Civic or Mazda3 wouldn’t even dare. Forget issues of range and charging time for a moment—it’s hard to think of any vehicle better suited for pounding across the cityscape than the i-Miev, no matter what the drivetrain.

At just 58.1-inches wide, however, the i-Miev is too narrow for full-size American hips. The driver always has one knee digging into the right front door panel and the left knee slapping against the center console and shifter (calling it a “gear shifter” would be somewhat inaccurate). The dashboard is a study in minimalism and gray plastic, but the graphic display is informative enough. And its sort of nice to see a single-DIN audio unit again—it’s very 1989.

The i-Miev is about the furthest thing from a luxury car imaginable. In fact, the thin seats and unpretentious decoration are probably too Spartan for American buyers, particularly in light of a projected price of around $30,000 (before any government kickbacks, incentives, tax breaks, subventions and bribes). And sentencing any adult to prolonged confinement in the rear seat would be in violation of numerous international treaties against the mistreatment of prisoners of war.

Mitsubishi promises that the i-Miev that comes to America will be wider, “sassier” and more accommodating of this market’s tastes and body types than the Japanese market version. Here’s hoping that the extra measure of comfort doesn’t come at the expense of nimbleness.

In normal driving—normal for an electric car with regenerative braking and driven with light throttle application and the air conditioning, lights and wipers off—Mitsubishi has the i-Miev going about 85 miles on a full charge. Fully charging the battery using a 220-volt should take 7 hours, and a 110-volt system should need about twice that.

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