There's a gasp in the room: Mitsubishi's Outlander PHEV electric vehicle will be here mid-year and the company's talking seriously about an entry level model for around $60,000.
That pricing would be a breakthrough. The small, far less capable Mitsubishi i-MiEV costs from $59,000. Holden's much publicised Volt, whose petrol-electric configuration is broadly similar to the PHEV's, starts at $85,000. The top conventional Outlander, the diesel VRX, lists at $56,990.
Mitsubishi announced its price surprise at this week's launch of new petrol and diesel Outlanders. Marketing head Daniel Cook says the company would not lose money with a price of around $60,000. He cautioned that the price is still a target, but a realistic one.
It's touted as a vehicle to bring electric technology into the mainstream. Mitsi says the electric Outlander has the abilities of a regular SUV, including off-roading where the instant full torque from its electric motors could be a significant advantage. It can tow up to 1600kg, braked.
A roomy five-seater, the PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) can be run as a straight electric vehicle with of range of around 60km. That's considered satisfactory for most people's daily commute. Its lithium-ion battery pack under the floor can be plugged-in and recharged at home. The batteries drive two 60kW motors, one driving the front wheels, the other the rear wheels.
If the range isn't enough, the two-litre petrol engine from the outgoing Outlander can be used as an electricity generator, eliminating the "range anxiety" of electric vehicle drivers whose cars lack on-board assistance. The older engine was chosen because it's said to have better torque characteristics for working the 70kW generator.
The engine will always kick-in at speeds of more than 80km/h but can be used at any time with the battery pack. There's no conventional mechanical driveline. Nor is there a gearbox. The engine's job is simply to keep the battery pack charged.
When the engine's in use, Mitsubishi says the PHEV's overall fuel economy is rated at 1.6 litres per 100km. The engine is said to cut in and out seamlessly and Outlander occupants will be unaware when it's running. One Mitsubishi senior staffer who tried a development model in Japan called the engine's unobtrusiveness "uncanny" even though project engineers said it was at that stage only 85 per cent developed.
The hybrid was unveiled at the recent Paris Motor Show and New Zealand and Australia will be among the first countries to get it, before the USA and Europe.
Mitsubishi figures that the PHEV could account for 20 per cent of Outlander sales, predicted to be around 150 a month, even though it's likely that a lavishly specified version, similar to the company's VRX range, could cost around $75,000.By Phil Hanson Email Phil