One of the many ways OEMs and electric car evangelists promote battery-powered vehicles is with a suggestion that they require far less maintenance compared to gas cars and are easy to fix when they do break. About 65 miles into Mitsubishi i-MiEV ownership, I have not found that to be the case. The tiny car already broke down on me, but it might be my fault. Maybe.
When I purchased the i-MiEV, it had a flashing PRNDL (or, rather PRNDEB) panel, paired with a shift lever that was hard to use. When the gearstick was in the “B” detent, the car would flash the “E” mode. If you put the car in drive, the i-MiEV would light up like an Operation board game and couldn’t travel faster than 30 miles per hour. As somebody who often buys used cars, I’m used to these types of issues, but it’s turned into a bigger problem.
These two problems are interconnected and easily fixed. The shift linkage gets sticky or corrodes with age, and it can’t correctly put the electronic shift position (also known as a range selector) in its correct notch. Thus, the shift lever remains only partially in the correct position, causing all sorts of issues for the computer. Most Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Citroen Zero, and Peugeot iON owners simply lubricate the tips of the linkage, work the shifter back and forth a few times, and the car is good as new. The car drove perfectly fine in E mode or could be manhandled into B mode, so the previous owner continued to drive it like that for longer than a year. The error hadn’t bothered the previous owner, and the Mitsubishi dealer didn’t seem to care or diagnose the problem when it was last serviced either.
I want all my things to work correctly, so I budgeted to replace the i-MiEV’s range selector. I knew the lubrication fix was probably not going to work, and sure enough, lubricating did absolutely nothing. I still had a gearshift that wouldn’t display the correct gear, wouldn’t function correctly in D, and caused the display to flash PRNDEB. My research showed about half of the cars with this issue needed another range selector. The range selector is the electronic switch on the transmission that informs the car what gear the vehicle is physically in. There’s one switch on the shifter and another on the transmission. If those two values disagree, the EV equivalent to a check engine light will illuminate.
Age sometimes causes the plastic casing on the range selector to crack, and then the internal mechanism that tells the car’s computer what gear it’s in will seize up and corrode. Still, replacing a range selector shouldn’t be a massive task. It’s held to the side of the i-MiEV’s single-speed transmission with three bolts, and it was only $140 for a new OEM replacement. I thought it was an easy-peasy repair that wouldn’t take more than an hour.
I got my 14-mm socket, laid on the ground, and gazed upward at the 66-horsepower electric motor and its transmission. The transmission, about the size of a hemorrhoid donut, is to the left of the tiny, drive motor. My roommate and I theorized that the drive motor itself came from one of Mitsubishi’s commercial enterprises, and really is a generic forklift motor repurposed for a car, but we couldn’t find anything on the internet that supported our theory. I put the socket on the nut and tried in vain to turn to the left. Those years of Michigan salt had corroded the nut beyond all belief, and it was frozen to the stud.
“Hey, can you help me out with this?” I called out to my roommate, who is way better at unsticking rusty bolts than I. We pried at it for a while, tried penetrating oil and a breaker bar, and still, no luck. “Well, it’s time to bring out the hot shit,” he said, grabbing an acetylene torch.
We superheated the rusty bolt until it expanded on the stud. Finally, the nut would turn, and after 15 minutes of heating, spraying, and turning, the main nut that held the range selector to the transmission was off. Success!
The next step was to unhook the shift cable, but I ended up shouting obscenities instead. The plastic shift cable end snapped. Now, there was no way to hold the shifter cable to the range selector itself. The shifter cable appeared to be one piece, leading from the transmission to God knows where else into the i-MiEV’s body. The plastic end wasn’t serviceable. Shit.
Down, but not out, I sprinted to my local hardware store, grabbed some plastic epoxy, and tried to glue the two sides of the shifter cable end together. Did it work? Nope. The epoxy was advertised as quick-setting within 15 minutes, but the nine-degree outside temperature didn’t care to validate that claim. My hands went numb, and the plastic refused to bond with the epoxy.
Luckily, my quick-thinking roommate came up with a plan. He took a piece of metal hose, filled it with epoxy, and stuck the broken end in one side. The other side was attached to the remaining shifter linkage, and then the whole assembly was sort of mocked up in place, while the epoxy was allowed to set over 24 hours.
Miraculously, that worked. The new range selector worked, all the gear detents showed the correct position, the PRNDEB wasn’t flashing, and drive worked again. Unfortunately, the shifter linkage was still binding, and this time the shifter had issues going into park. The shifter said “P” on the PRNDL, but the i-MiEV would roll away if the parking brake wasn’t engaged. The shift linkage wasn’t fully engaging the parking pawl.
At first, I thought that our homebrew repair just wasn’t sufficient because we had screwed up the length of the cable. In an attempt to be as cheap as possible, my roommate insisted that the cable probably just needed adjustment, and then we’d be in the clear. Back under the car he went.
Five minutes later, he sent me a video of the shifter linkage. It had broken again, but at a different point further away from and completely unrelated to our epoxy repair. Our theory is that the previous owner had driven around with a binding shifter linkage. His manhandling the shifter into B and Eco modes had stretched out the cable. Now, nothing was the right length, and I needed to replace the whole thing.
I wasn’t even sure I could do that, so I found the i-MiEV’s shifter diagram. In theory, it shouldn’t be a complicated replacement because it didn’t look like the battery would need to be removed. I followed the shifter linkage over the top of the i-MiEV’s 16-kWh battery, and that’s when the entire project fell off of a cliff.
Sigh. See that bolt there? The head of that bolt is are facing the wrong way. I can’t access the head without removing the huge underfloor battery.
Removing the underfloor battery doesn’t appear to be overly complicated, barring the risk of electric shock, but the traction battery is heavy. The battery, including its case, weighs in at a whopping 520 pounds. It’s basically impossible to remove it without a lift and something to support the battery from the bottom, all out of my depth as a homebrew gearhead wrenching in a suburban Ohio driveway. I have no choice. The repair’s scale is out of my depth, so off to the mechanic it goes. I’m scared for my pocketbook.
Hopefully, my mechanic takes it easy on me, but I can’t ignore the sinking feeling this is about to be the start of a huge mess.
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