OKAZAKI, Japan – If the ’12 Mitsubishi “i” electric vehicle represents the future, we’ll be stepping gingerly into the next era of personal transportation.

An early drive of pre-production models tailored to U.S. tastes here provides the standard EV experience: pleasantly quiet operation, quick off-the-line performance and the familiar lightness-of-being in knowing the car could help solve some of the world’s most vexing problems.

But the “i”, a nameplate truncated from i-MIEV for the U.S., also reveals how far EV development must travel before it seriously threatens old-fashioned, internal-combustion propulsion.

The i arrives in coming weeks to markets in the Western U.S., specifically California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Pricing starts at $20,490, including a $7,500 income-tax credit.

Turn over the ignition on the 4-passenger hatchback, and the only hints that you are ready to roll are a few mechanical ticks and instrumentation lights waking.

Depress the accelerator and silently, but eagerly, the i pulls away from a standstill onto the proving ground’s swatch of blacktop. A rear-mounted, 49-kW (66-hp) synchronous electric motor drives the rear wheels, pleasantly imparting the feel of a longitudinal powertrain.

And without the gears of a transmission to step through, the vehicle whooshes up to speed smoothly, probably not unlike Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder.

Any comparison would end there, though, as the bubble-topped sedan leans heavily into the first turn of a makeshift road course. Weaving through the cones of a slalom section, the understeer gets uglier, with our inputs far exceeding the desired output. Perhaps Mitsubishi needs to retune the speed-sensitive electronic power steering system.

Out on the oval test track, the i’s silky acceleration seduces us again. But when the hood of the driver’s IP starts shaking at 70 mph (112 km/h), our confidence gets sucked out the window into Central Japan’s summer swelter.

Banking into the final turn, a traction-control light blinks its disapproval, and we back off the throttle altogether.

Japanese and Euro-spec models, on sale here for more than a year, exhibit fewer shakes and rattles at highway speeds, suggesting homologation work for the North American version remains unfinished.

And in fairness, Mitsubishi did make some wholesale changes inside the i to accommodate American tastes.

For example, climate controls are rotated vertically from their horizontal placement on i models sold in other regions to slim up the base of the center stack. It works, too, as our knees do not knock against the stack in U.S.-oriented testers.

Elbow room increases on U.S. cars, too, whereas two adults feel cozy in other models.

However, we do not consider the i an econobox in the traditional sense. Its sneaky-big inside with its tall, bowed greenhouse and relatively long wheelbase provides satisfactory legroom for every passenger.

Interior styling, overall, emphasizes economy, practicality and modesty. As such, cabin amenities are few. Examples: three cup holders up front and none in the rear, and manual seat adjusters. Only the driver gets a bun-warmer.

To save weight and, hence, preserve driving range, plastic abounds through the interior and wafer-thin carpet covers the floor. The highlight is the beefy, somewhat sporty 3-spoke steering wheel we’ve come to expect from Mitsubishi.

’12 Mitsubishi i
Vehicle type Rear-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Engine 49 kW (66 hp) AC synchronous motor
Battery 16 kWh Lithium-ion
Torque 145 lb.-ft. (197 Nm)
Wheelbase 100.4 in. (255 cm)
Overall length 144.8 in. (367.8 cm)
Overall width 62.4 in. (158.5 cm)
Overall height 63.6 in. (161.5 cm)
Curb weight 2,595 lbs. (1,130 kg)
Base price $27,990
Fuel range 62 miles (100 km)
Competition Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt
Pros Cons
Silky acceleration 62-mile range
Cheerful styling Interminable charge time
Green feels good Green means roughin’ it

A 50/50 split for the second row opens up an otherwise-tight cargo area, which has a pair of child-safety-seat tether anchors attached to the floor.

Buyers who plunk down an extra $2,790 on the upper-trim-level SE models receive a navigation system with rear camera, voice-activated phone and media controls with a USB port, redundant steering-wheel controls and a second CHAdeMo-style DC port for quick-charging.

Quirky best describes the exterior, which adds bigger bumpers to meet U.S. crash standards. The grinning lower-front intake and wide-eyed headlamps lend a cheerful appearance.

Although the i targets the Nissan Leaf as its key competitor, that car casts a long shadow over the i. The Chevy Volt extended-range EV is a luxury land barge by comparison.

That means no blocking and tackling for this player. It’s no oasis from the everyday grind, either. Heading to the Hamptons for the weekend? Forget it. Home Depot run? Not hardly. Out for a few groceries? You’re getting warmer.

That said, the thrifty i probably is the smartest home for an EV system at this point, given the range limitations affecting every entry in the segment.

The i musters 62 miles (100 km) of combined-cycle range from a 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack tucked under the floor.

In today’s world, that’s a pretty good number from such a small battery. The i also features an “Eco” mode to maximize range and a “B” driving mode where the system provides normal power, but cranks up the regenerative braking and coasting bias to recapture even more energy.

It still would be wise not to stray too far from home. And bring a good book if you do. Recharging the i takes up to 22.5 hours on a standard 120V outlet. A 240V carves the time to six hours.

Using the Level 3 CHAdeMO port Mitsubishi is helping promote as the global EV quick-charging standard, it takes 30 minutes for the battery to reach 80% capacity – but good luck finding one. The handful that exist in the U.S. are on the West Coast.

Moreover, U.S. regulators prefer other quick-charging connections, and many EV users think Level 2 will merge as the dominant method.

It’s also unclear how the i might perform in cold-climate regions, such as the Midwest and Northeast, where winter weather will test the sprightly EV’s snow-going fortitude.

The auto maker already strongly recommends a $150 cold-weather package for those climates, which includes a warmer for the battery pack.

Such drawbacks are not lost on Mitsubishi, though. Company officials outwardly view the i as the second or third vehicle in a household, serving as a “stepping stone” for families moving toward more sustainable living.

The i also represents a stepping stone of sorts for Mitsubishi, which wants to shed its performance-oriented reputation of recent years and become known as the global leader in pure-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The auto maker deserves recognition for bringing the most affordable EV to market, and the gamble of forgoing a profit on the car in return for achieving volume sales more quickly.

We just hope everyone’s ready for the stark realities of an electrically propelled future.

jamend@wardsauto.com