Mitsubishi Launches Electric Car

Looking to gain an early lead in the emission-free vehicle market, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Friday launched a compact, four-door electric car that it will market in Japan to corporate customers starting in late July.

The lithium-ion battery-powered i-MiEV, which can travel 100 miles on a single charge, is the first step into the eco-friendly car market by the small Tokyo-based auto maker better known for its brawny SUVs like the Pajero.

By bringing its electric car to market this year, Mitsubishi is hoping to gain a lead over Nissan Motor Co., Japan's third-largest auto maker by sales units, which plans to sell its own electric vehicle starting in 2010.

But sales volume will be small. Mitsubishi expects to sell 1,400 vehicles in Japan in the fiscal year ending March 2010, raising sales to 5,000 vehicles next fiscal year when it starts individual sales in Japan.

Mitsubishi is testing the car in the U.S. but hasn't announced when it might go on sale there. World-wide, Mitsubishi plans to ship the i-MiEV in limited quantities to the U.K., New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore starting this year. It has also agreed to supply i-MiEVs to French auto maker PSA Peugeot-Citro├źn SA in late 2010 or early 2011.

By 2020, Mitsubishi says it expects electric vehicles will make up 20% of its overall production volume.

For now, Mitsubishi's ambitions are constrained by its production capacity and by the high cost of the vehicles. Mitsubishi plans to produce about 2,000 electric cars in the fiscal year ending March 2010, ramping up to 30,000 vehicles by 2013, as its lithium-ion battery production operations are expanded at Lithium Energy Japan, a joint venture run by Mitsubishi Motors, sister company Mitsubishi Corp. and GS Yuasa Corp.

Nissan is putting the finishing touches on its own lithium-ion battery plant outside Tokyo and plans to roll out 50,000 electric cars in the first year of production.

With a 4.59 million yen ($46,500) price tag, the i-MiEV may also struggle to find buyers during the worst recession to hit Japan since World War II. Mitsubishi is counting on generous government incentives to stimulate the market for the vehicles. The national government is currently offering subsidies of up to 1.39 million yen on "clean energy" vehicles like the i-MiEV. Some local governments are also offering additional subsidies that could bring the price of the i-MiEV down to as low as 2.2 million yen.

In addition to Nissan's electric car, the i-MiEV will likely compete with gas-electric hybrids like Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius and Honda Motor Co.'s Insight, which each sell in Japan for about two million yen. Nissan hasn't announced the price for its electric car.

Still, many auto makers and analysts remain skeptical of the potential for large-scale sales of electric cars because of their limited range and the need to build more recharging stations to support them.

Mitsubishi is selling its electric car to corporate customers in Japan first to allow more time for local governments and businesses to set up recharging stations around the country.

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