Quirky, unbelievably spacious, ideal for city driving, economical and tax-efficient.
May look too oddball for some, no manual gearbox option, poor audio system.
The four-seater Smart should have made.
The i is a Mitsubishi, built in Japan, but it would be easy to mistake it for a Smart. Not only does it have a very similar snub-nosed front end, upright body and vertical tailgate to the Fortwo, it has the same rear-mid-engined layout - and the same 660cc three-cylinder petrol engine Mitsubishi supplies to Smart.
There is a historical link: Mitsubishi had a now-defunct joint venture with Smart's parent company, DaimlerChrysler, which led to the co-development of the Smart Forfour and Mitsubishi's own Colt superminis (identical under the surface), and had planned a number of further shared models. The i was initially based around Fortwo underpinnings, and was to have a four-seater Smart sister model, but Mitsubishi has since gone solo and further developed the concept on its own.
The Smart connection is a bit of a red herring, really, in understanding what the i is all about. Best think of it as a car specifically designed to meet the demands of the Japanese 'K-class' tax-break sector, and representative of the best-selling small cars in Japan. To meet the K criteria, it is just 3,395mm long and 1,475mm wide, with a 57bhp power output from its tiny but turbocharged engine. Yet despite its miniscule dimensions (it's smaller than a Toyota Aygo, Peugeot 107 or Citroen C1, let alone a Fiat Panda) it's quite incredibly roomy, with a decent amount of luggage space and legroom for rear-seat passengers.
Just one version is on offer in the UK at the moment, with all the necessary equipment. Mitsubishi is planning to sell around 500 initial-run i's in the UK this year and is studying market demand for increased imports, perhaps including a higher-powered version, in the future. It has confirmed the introduction of an all-electric model, the i MiEV, which is currently undergoing testing with a view to production within the next two years. In the meantime, this 660cc model should be very fuel-efficient, low-impact and cost-effective to run, despite a comparatively high price - just over £9,000 - for such a small car.
Mitsubishi generally makes tough, reliable cars and the i has been on sale in Japan since January 2006 with no problems reported among the 37,000-plus already on the road.
The engine and four-speed automatic gearbox are also proving themselves well in the Smart Fortwo, with no glitches reported as yet.
The i isn't exactly sumptuously upholstered, with some cheap-looking plastics, flimsy interior door handles and nylon-like seat fabrics. But it all looks acceptable and well put-together, and the steering wheel and dash area are nicely finished.
An attention-grabber like little else of its type: for such a small car, it makes a big impact, even in plain, low-key silver.
Mitsubishi has no plans whatsoever to bring over the limited-edition pink 'Hello Kitty' models as sold in Japan (shame: there would surely be a few attention-seeking takers) but really, it's cute enough as it is, with enough futuristic city-chic to deter accusations of tweeness.
Mind you, most people will think it's a Smart; it does have a bit of an identity crisis.
The i is most at home in an urban environment, where its tiny turning circle, narrow width and auto gearbox make for quick yet relaxed progress. It can squeeze through gaps and park in spaces few other (if any) four-wheelers can go for and, with its large windscreen, long windows and clearly-defined corners, there's an excellent view all around.
The controls are well laid-out; the Japanese-issue indicator and wiper stalks are the 'wrong' way round but you'd get used to this.
The i copes well on faster roads, too, and although - as with any small-but-tall car - it pays to be wary of crosswinds on the motorway, it leaves you feeling no more vulnerable than in, say, a Panda or 107/Aygo/C1, with its 1,600mm height also giving it reasonable visibility to larger road-users.
It's even amusing on country roads, with well-tuned suspension and steering - much more fun than a Fortwo, if not quite as agile as the more conventionally-configured 107/C1/Aygo. Its balance is good, resisting wallowing and leaning, and it grips well with its 15" wheels and narrow tyres (145/65s up front and 175/55s to the rear). It would take a lot to unsettle it, despite its upright shape, rear-wheel-drive and its rear-biased weight distribution with its engine at the tail end.
The i is no mini hot hatch, but its gutsy little 57bhp/63lb-ft engine is more than adequate for a runaround. The four-speed gearbox is relatively unsophisticated (no sequential-shift facility) but effective and quick to react, and it lurches less than the system in the Smart Fortwo.
Top speed is 84mph and it's not too painful to get there: the i keeps pace well on the motorway, with a little extra speed in reserve for overtaking and hasty manoeuvres. No need to stay stranded in the slow lane.
The i is good for 0-62mph in under 15 seconds, and is certainly sharp enough off the mark for nipping about town and getting away from the traffic lights. It's everything it needs to be.
The aluminium spaceframe structure is lightweight but strong and, like Smart's safety cell design, has been developed to divert forces away from the occupants in the event of an impact. It is undoubtedly safer than the 'quadricycle' microcars currently on the market (G-Wiz, Ligier Ambra and suchlike).
It more than meets Japanese and European safety standards for proper passenger cars (which the quadricycles are exempt from) and should be a tough little 'un. Twin front airbags are standard, four three-point seatbelts and Isofix child seat mounting points; no side airbags, however, nor stability control, which would be reassuring in a tall, upright car like this.
Security-wise, there's an alarm and an immobiliser, but as a result of Mitsubishi having to convert the i to UK spec on the cheap, deactivating the immobiliser has to be done manually by slotting a transponder unit against a sensor in the dash.
The i is not cheap initially, but given its rarity and curiosity value, it should hold its value well - it's already quite a cult car in Japan and may achieve such status here.
With a kerbweight of just 900kg, it returns 54.6mpg, which is a way off the (manual) 107/Aygo/C1's 60mpg-plus, but good for something with an automatic gearbox.
Carbon dioxide emissions are 114g/km, putting it in Band B for tax, and potentially within a new exemption-band for the London congestion charge.
An oil change is needed every 6,000 miles or each year, with major services every 12,000 miles, but Mitsubishi is offering a three-service deal for £150, which more than halves the cost.
It's truly a miracle of packaging; thanks to its long wheelbase with the wheels stretched right to each corner, the short nose and tucking the engine where a spare wheel would normally go, the i is impressively spacious inside. Two adults can sit in the back with sufficient headroom and decent legroom - and get in easily, with the five-door bodystyle - and even though the i is so narrow, there's plenty of elbow room side-to-side.
The positioning of the engine means that the 246-litre boot is shallow, but with the tailgate opening nearly the full width and height of the tail end, it's a large, square space which could easily accommodate a weekend bag or two, or the spoils of a substantial trip to the supermarket. The rear seats split 50:50 and fold flat, too, further increasing the cargo capacity and its possibilities.
There are two cupholders, a two-section glovebox with a handy slot (Mitsubishi suggests using it as a tissue-box holder) and door pockets for useful storage.
The i rides well, coping with city potholes, speed bumps and so forth with relative ease, although it can get a little choppy at higher speeds. Noise levels are low.
The only downside is that the seats are rather flat and unsupportive, especially the flat pads in the back, with short bases and back-rests designed more for petite Japanese people than hefty Europeans.
And, if we're getting picky, the audio's system's weedy, with a poor radio.
Going a long way to merit the £9,000 price, equipment levels are high. The UK-market i packs in climate control, front and rear electric windows, electric/folding door mirrors, a leather steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver's seat, an in-dash CD player with four speakers and remote central locking.