Mitsubishi MiEV Evolution III Track Test
Going Up: Power-Lapping an Electrifyingly Fun Pikes Peak Race Car
In 1893, Bostonian Katharine Lee Bates rode a mule to the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak and was so moved by the sprawling vista that she wrote what became the lyrics for "America the Beautiful." Later she recounted the "sea-like sweep of the plain" before her, which I picture as being tranquil but for the sigh of the breeze and the mules pawing at the dirt.
Had she composed her poetic description on, say, June 29, 2014, though, our second national anthem might have some unusual new words.
"O beautiful for spacious … roar, blat, blat, blat
"For amber waves of … whoosh, chortle-pop, whoosh, chortle -- pop, pop, pop
"For purple mountain, majesties … wEEEo—wEEEo … wEEE—wEEEo…wEEEo—wEEEo."
Wait a minute. What the heck was that one?
It was the piercing car-alarm pedestrian warning of the otherwise-silent all-electric Mitsubishi MiEV Evolution III on its way to the all-time fourth fastest run at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Its 9:08.188 time bagged this year's Electric category win, and came this close (2.4 seconds) to the overall prize.
Alarm aside (speeding EVs on blind curves being a really bad idea), this might be the quietest race since Spencer Penrose widened Bates' old carriage road and concocted a Race to the Clouds to pull in tourists. Its inaugural 1916 running (making it America's second oldest race) was won by Rea Lentz in 20 minutes, 55.66 seconds driving the Romano Demon Special (and what a great car name, eh?). Better-known drivers followed -- the Unsers, the Millens, Andretti, Buffum, Mouton, "Monster" Tajima. And then two years ago, Sebastian Loeb's staggering record of 8 minutes, 13.878 seconds helped by the now fully paved upper portion. Postcard racks for hundreds of miles would soon be filled with snapshots of crazy-winged cars cornering as much backward as forward as they surfed lethal drop-offs with tire-spewed pebble-clouds frozen in the air.
The climb to the clouds is genuinely steep. Imagine that while driving five laps of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval you also climb almost a mile in elevation -- with 156 corners thrown in. By the top, the air thins enough to leave naturally aspirated engines panting at about 70 percent of their starting line horsepower. That's a decisive advantage for turbocharged cars -- and why some have chosen not to breathe at all. There might even be a teensy benefit: fewer of those pesky air molecules to knock out of the way.
The anchor-like downside is battery heft -- a sizable chunk of the car's 3,226-pound curb weight being its next-gen lithium-ion cells -- which, unlike gas tanks, lighten exactly zip as they empty. Worse yet, while you could conceivably crest the peak on your very last flaming hydrocarbon, you can't on your last electron (well, you could, but you'd be moving very, very slowly if you did); the entire battery needs to be oversized by about a third to guarantee continuous power. Hence its 50 kW-hrs capacity is exactly the size it needs to be, and not a kW-hr more. Before a run, the center of the battery is spot-cooled with an air conditioner; nine minutes of continuous energy depletion creates a huge thermal problem.
"Imagine climbing nine-tenths of a mile in five laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
The battery dominates the architecture of the car in a way that should remind us of Archimedes of Syracuse. Remember Archimedes? Dropping to the bottom of his filled bathtub, he realized that the water's rise meant that he himself was denser (then he ran through the streets shouting "Eureka!"). The same logic sculpts the car's peculiar appearance, but in reverse: Its battery (though air-cooled) is denser than the driver and his cockpit environment, so while odd-looking, the lowest overall center-of-gravity solution is achieved by perching the pilot up top.
Keeping with our references to old, dead Greeks, the MiEV Evo III is also rather Euclidian in its geometric order. Attached to the battery's front and rear ends are identical propulsion units, two motors in front, two in back, each wheel twirled by its own 151-hp, production-based MiEV motor via identical-length half shafts. Tires? Dunlop 330/680 R18 slicks all around. Weight distribution? 50/50. (OK, I'm exaggerating; it's 50.09/49.91.) 151-hp, stock-based motors? Some big-time liberties have been taken with these 66-hp units -- modified parts, the generous safety factor tossed out, the voltage raised from 320 to 420. There's 604 total horsepower.
As the name Evolution III implies, Mitsubishi's mountaineering program has been a three-year campaign of ever-escalating assaults. Evo I held a single 107-hp motor up front and two in back. Evolution II and III are basically the same four-motor cars, though the latter has elevated horsepower, a lightened tube frame, extra downforce, and fatter rubber. Team manager Roger Yaksukawa: "We spent more time in the wind tunnel to add front downforce to reduce understeer. There's also a large rear wing mainplane and rear wickerbill. Last year's car was basically right. It just needed some detail improvements." His point proved, of course, by Greg Tracy's and teammate/technical director Hiroshi Masuoka's one-two finish in the Electric category. "Unfortunately, we got hit by rain last year, so we didn't have the opportunity to showcase what the car's true potential was. We'd have liked to have gone under 9 minutes…"
7 a.m. Streets of Willow Springs.
To explore Yaksukawa's claim further, we're 780 miles west of explorer Zebulon Pike's pink-granite peak in California's Mojave Desert. Might as well be a million. The Streets is 1.55 miles, not 12.42; its elevation change is 64 feet, not 4,700. The psychological gulf between approaching a corner apron that's flat desert gravel versus a blue-nothingness drop is … thousands of feet. Why are we here?
Like sending a rare species of mountain gorilla to the Smithsonian for study, Mitsubishi offered us the unusual chance to bring its MiEV Pikes Peak racer out of its natural mountain habitat and into our hometown laboratories for analysis. In a few minutes, our chief driving scientist, Randy Pobst, would snap on his latex -- er -- driving gloves to begin his examination.
In the pale-green cinder-block garage, the car sits like a dozing WWE wrestler before a match, a brightly colored, muscly shape festooned in costume-like wings. Conversations echo off the painted brick walls. A portable air conditioner blows cool air into the battery. Tools clink against the table. Coffee is sipped. Yaksukawa is talking to engineer Suzuki and driver Tracy, the guy who set that terrific 9:08.188 time (and is also a six-time Pikes Peak winner on two wheels). Everybody's anxious to get the car -- or really, its sensitive battery -- on the track before the heat starts to rise. The morning's shadows are shrinking.
Pobst slithers through the rollcage tubing, cinches the belts, and pulls down his helmet. Pikes Peak racing cars aren't foreign to him (fourth in 1995's Touring Car class in a tuned BMW M5; he returned in 2004 in a 034 Motorsports Audi A4), but this one might as well be. The car shurrrrs away. What happens next is a bit surreal.
On these sorts of test days, I'm usually planted behind my computer screen to make sure all the data capturing is working correctly. But today is both too bizarre, and once-in-a-lifetime-unusual, to miss. I've watched cars roar between these corners a hundred times before -- some faster, some slower -- but the MiEV is a pinball blur through them, its only sounds an occasional brake keen and tire chirp. It's a Keystone Cops silent movie where everything is sped up for comic effect, but without the sepia-tone sky and pipe organ music.
Pobst pulls off his balaclava. "Like a street car, there's a lot of stability control that reduces the driver's control, and I always find that frustrating." It's for good reason; there's not much practice at Pikes Peak, so having anti-catastrophe software (a blend of Lancer Evolution and Outlander PHEV code) makes it likelier to finish. "The electric power steering doesn't keep up with the downforce loads, so the effort sometimes got a little high and gooey." On the other hand, "its acceleration g's seem similar all the way to 100 mph -- that's something I haven't felt in a long, long time."
Its lap time is 1:10.90. Nine seconds -- 10 percent -- quicker than our fastest-ever production car lap, the Nissan GT-R Nismo. Digest that. An EV clobbering a Nismo by 9 seconds is a machine-pitch Little League team toppling the Giants in nine shutout innings. Nuts-crazy. After six laps the heat has caught up with the battery, so the car's photographed and loaded into its carrier to be recharged for tomorrow.
Fourteen hours later associate road test editor Carlos Lago is installed in the MiEV and poised at the threshold of Auto Club California Speedway's quarter-mile. Without warning the car appears to have been smacked from behind by a gigantic, invisible pool cue. In 2.7 seconds it blinks past 60 mph, then the quarter in 10.4, both times identical to our original test of the Bugatti Veyron.
The figure eight. My turn.
Despite Pobst's comments about low-speed push and heavy-handed stability control, on my fifth lap I turn into the right corner sloppily, the tail banana-peels sideways, the scenery carousels, and everything goes into rapid rewind. The faces of the bystanders I just passed swing back into frame, lowering their jaws. I stop, and the dust catches me and drifts past. Deep breath; damn, that's embarrassing. I've just spun a Pikes Peak racing car. The stability control system is really too aggressive for Randy's taste? Unlike Pobst, my nervous system is ticking too slow; I'm chasing, not driving. Try it again. Think intravenous Red Bull.
Right call. With quicker hands and feet, the car gradually becomes fun -- a 400-percent scale electric racing kart. My goodness, Messrs. Tracy and Masuoka are actually paid to drive this thing? Fast steering and light-switch torque are the perfect one-two punches at low speeds.
It's decided: They're going to have to drag me out of here. Except that in the back of my mind I know -- just know -- that sooner or later I'll screw up again and not miss the curbs this time. My best time was a record: 20.9 seconds while cornering at 1.34 g of lateral grip, humbling even the mighty Porsche 918's recent 22.2. A few minutes later, Lago (whose lighter weight is the least of his natural advantages) climbs in and does a 20.7 with the same lat g's. Nuts. Lagos smiles and nonchalantly muses to our intently listening guests, "That's our fastest time since…"
"Since five minutes ago," I finished his sentence. We laughed. Them, a little longer.
Our testing done, the car is about to be reloaded into the trailer when I'm asked if I want one last acceleration run, just to feel it. Why not, right? So I climb in again, and as I'm face-warping my way down the quarter, I tilt my head back a few degrees to better see the speedo and whoosh, my hat's gone. On the way back I brake to a crawl, carefully scanning the road. It's vanished. Back at the car's trailer, an engineer gets on his hands and knees, sees it lodged in the rear suspension, and we laugh as, smeared with grease, it's extracted and I proudly put it back on.
Sometime later I email the PR manager at Mitsubishi about the chances for a fourth assault on the mountain. His reply: "As of now, those cars have been retired."
I frown; this was a possibility, of course. But I want to be certain. "No next year?" I type, and tap Send.
A minute later I double-click the response: "This puts your test in a different light. You guys might literally have been the last to drive this car in anger."
Not every story ends on the note you'd like. I'll save that hat with some other mementos. And stories I don't want to forget.
To dramatize just how fast the MiEV Evolution III is, here it's compared to the production-car lap record Randy Pobst recently nailed around Streets of Willow in a Nissan GT-R Nismo. Except for a few low-speed corners, the Mitsubishi's graph almost looks like a misprint—displaced upward to a comical degree.
Obviously the Evo III accelerates more fiercely and reaches higher top speeds (almost 8-percent higher on the back straight), but it also brakes dramatically harder—notice the steepness of speed trace into Turns 1 and 8. In these, as well as Turn 4, the Nissan nears the Mitsu's cornering pace; in Turn 14 (the "skidpad") we have the most direct comparison of their low-speed lateral grip.
The two cars share many attributes, including sophisticated all-wheel drive and similar horsepower: 604-hp (Mitsu) versus 600 (Nissan). However, the GT-R's extra 655 pounds leave it struggling 706 feet (more than an eighth of a mile) behind the Evo III by the finish line. It's rare to see a GT-R humbled by anything, let alone an electric car—but of course it's taken a remarkable racing one to do it.
|2014 Mitsubishi MiEV Evolution III|
|PRICE (BASE/AS TESTED)||Undisclosed|
|MOTORS||Two 151-hp/221-lb-ft front and two 151-hp/221-lb-ft rear electric motors, 604 hp/885 lb-ft (comb)|
|BATTERY||50 kW-hr, Lithium-ion|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||5.3 lb/hp|
|SUSPENSION, F/R||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||15.0-in vented; 13.0-in vented|
|WHEELS||13.0 x 18-in, magnesium|
|TIRES||330/680 R18 Dunlop|
|TRACK, F and R||64.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||204.3 x 78.7 x 58.5 in|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,226 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||50/50 %|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1|
|QUARTER MILE||10.4 sec @ 133.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||96 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||1.34 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||20.7 sec @ 1.19 g (avg)|
|1.55-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||70.90 sec|