Mitsubishi, Subaru Gear Up for Electric Car Rollouts, Starting in Japan

Mitsubishi and Subaru, two automakers racing to launch some of the earliest plug-in vehicles for consumers, have just announced plans to roll out their first all-electric models next month in Japan. But the two have very different ambitions and roles to play on the road to a mass-market EV. Mitsubishi is gearing up for European and U.S. launches after the Japanese debut of its i-MiEV minicar, unveiled in its final production form for the first time today, and hoping the car will help the company thrive on the global market over the long term. Subaru, meanwhile, revealed plans yesterday to launch a small run of Stella EV minicars, with no plans to sell them outside of Japan.


Mitsubishi plans to begin leasing the i-MiEVs in Japan in late July, mostly to corporate and government fleets (confirming information leaked anonymously to Japanese newspapers yesterday). Some 1,400 of the four-seater i-MiEVs are slated to roll out by March of next year, with a sticker price of 4.59 million yen (about $47,560) and a 99-mile range.

By April 2010, the company plans to begin taking orders from individual consumers and it expects to sell 5,000 vehicles during the fiscal year ending March 2011. Mitsubishi had previously announced plans to roll the car out in Europe in 2010 and in the U.S. on a timeline that will allow it to compete against “Nissan and others,” as Edmunds notes. (Nissan plans to launch an EV here in 2010.)

subaru-stellaEVSubaru isn’t quite so far along — it announced plans yesterday to launch a small 170-unit run of the electric Stella EV minicars by year’s end, starting late next month. The Stella EV (pictured in the concept form revealed last year), set to carry a 4.73 million-yen price tag (about $49,000) and go just 56 miles on a full charge, doesn’t at this point look like much of a threat for the i-MiEV. It has a higher price, more limited range, and a longer road to market — the company has not announced plans to sell the model outside of Japan.

It’s no coincidence that these cars are debuting in Japan; the government has thrown its weight (and considerable cash) behind electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. So-called “clean energy” vehicles can qualify for up to 1.39 million yen, or more than $14,000, in subsidies, as the Wall Street Journal notes this morning.

But the i-MiEV hardly has an easy road ahead. While it may fare well against all-electric vehicles coming out later in 2010 and beyond, the car will also be going against plug-in hybrids from Toyota and Honda. With lower prices more in tune with mid-recession budgets and more range, courtesy of small gasoline “extender” engines and smaller battery packs, plug-in hybrids have fewer hurdles for mass market adoption than all-electric models.

The playing field is different for electric vehicles. Early movers, even if they’re smaller players, stand a better chance against giants like Toyota and Honda because the market is so young and the manufacturing is not as complicated as it is for hybrids. As senior research analyst Chris Richter, with the Hong Kong-based brokerage firm CLSA tells Time:

If you’re third or fourth, you’ll never beat Toyota or Honda head on…But you can beat them if you change the rules of the game.

That’s the bet many China-based automakers are making these days, hoping to “change the rules” by skipping internal combustion engines and plug-in hybrids (widely seen as an interim step and not necessarily a technology for the long term), and going straight to all-electric. Mitsubishi is hoping to ride that wave, with plans to have electric cars making up as much as 20 percent of its total production volume by 2020. As the Associated Press reports, Mitsubishi Motors President Osamu Masuko told reporters at the unveiling today, “With the electric vehicle, we will challenge global players.”

Photos courtesy Mitsubishi and Subaru