How I Fixed a Broken $3,500 EV in My Driveway
The era of the home mechanic doesn’t have to end with EVs.
I’m allergic to mechanics. Generally, I try to repair things myself or get the help of another talented non-professional car fixer. Yet, since I became an owner of a well-used Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric hatchback, I’ve been consistently pondering the question, “can people like me continue to repair cars at home in an electrified future?” In short, yes. But working on my broken i-MiEV made me think deeply about the next generation of home mechanics concerning an increasingly electrified future.
When it comes to home EV repair, there’s not much precedence, outside of a few homebrew EV conversion builds. Arguably, the most prolific person that came to mind was YouTuber Rich Rebuilds, or Rich Benoit. He, an electrical engineer in a New England suburb, decided to disassemble and try to repair a broken Tesla at his home to the chagrin of Elon Musk and the adoration of now millions of viewers. I’m just a guy with no clout and no connections working on a car that barely sold 2,000 units. But, before the YouTube fame, I’d like to think maybe Benoit and I were sort of kindred spirits. Curious guys who don’t like being told they can’t work on the things they purchased. Also, we’re both black.
If you’ve been following along at Car Bibles, you’ll know I can’t resist buying broken, weird, and maybe a little bit undesirable cars that are hundreds of miles from my home in Columbus, Ohio. This time, I spent 3,500 smackaroos on one of the rarest cars in the United States, a 2012 i-MiEV. I didn’t realize the car was a little bit broken until after a four-hour drive to Flint, Michigan.
Still, I have fond memories of an annoyed salesman asking me what business I had in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, at a Mitsubishi dealer. I was a weird 18-year-old kid and made a beeline to a purple i-MiEV SE parked in the showroom to test out how roomy the back seat was. With that nostalgia in mind, I jumped into a newfound electric car endeavor (hah, pun) and purchased the slightly broken car anyway. Its range is minimal, so I had it towed back to my home.
Within 68 miles of the i-MiEV electrically zipping around Ohio, the slight issues turned into large issues, and the car became undrivable. The range selector is a common failure point on the i-MiEV, but its prolonged failure had stretched out the entire shifter cable. I couldn't use Drive at all, Park wouldn’t work, and driving in B mode brought a Christmas tree’s worth of error lights on the frog-looking gauge cluster.
With my roommate Garrett, who is experienced in car repair, I attempted to fashion a Band-Aid fix by JB welding the cable back together, but it only lasted 24 hours before snapping completely further up the line. The whole shifter cable needed to be replaced, but it ran between the battery and the car’s floor pan. The shifter cable replacement by itself looked easy with only three or four bolts holding the cable in place, but unfortunately, the car’s large traction battery spans the entire wheelbase and was blocking several bolts needed to remove the cable.
Initially, I wrote a whole piece about how removing the battery was completely out of my depth. I may not have closely read an i-MiEV dealer service manual, and I initially thought that removing the battery could involve drilling out rivets. I-MiEV forum users were told that they’d need a special tool to lower and raise the battery from under the car. That tool would have to be flown in from the home office in Mitsubishi’s Japanese headquarters and obviously couldn’t be operated by any simpleton home mechanic.
It’s hard to find accurate numbers, but the battery pack is reportedly in the 500-pound range. I had joked with fellow writer Chris Rosales that I could just probably “deadlift it out”—I had removed more than a few small car engines from the back of hatchbacks, alone. Really, I was terrified. This car had spent all its life in Michigan, and I knew that there was going to be corrosion galore. Breaking off or rounding out critical bolts was very possible, if not inevitable. The bottom of the car is littered with high-voltage stickers, and given the weight of the battery, I didn’t see any good outcome. I was sure I’d either be electrocuted, or crushed, or some sort of Michigan-related corrosion problem would manifest itself, and I’d be stuck with an egg-shaped paperweight that I can’t repair or get parts for.
But the allure of repairing a car I don’t know anything about was irresistible. After all, that’s why I bought a broken Fiat 500 Abarth. In my mind, electric cars should be mechanically simple devices. At their cores, most EVs are made up of a battery, a motor, and a motor controller. At the behest of the comments section, a few other auto journos, and my roommate’s tendency to foolishly oversimplify things, I said, “We’re going to fix this car ourselves, dammit.”
You don’t know until you try, right?
“You just gotta get out there and do it,” I said to myself one fateful March day. The i-MiEV had been sitting for a month in the snow and cold. Spring had come early, and I was staring down a week of sunny and warm temperatures. I started by taking the i-MiEV’s drivers seat out.
There’s not a lot holding the i-MiEV’s battery to the bottom of the vehicle, but there are some steps that need to be done before any service is completed. The vehicle’s main drive battery, or traction battery, must be neutralized, lest you want to accidentally become a crispy critter, Daffy Duck style. All electric vehicles have some sort of battery cutoff or service disconnect. This service cutoff plug is basically a big fuse that turns the battery from hot to not hot.
I started by disconnecting the car’s 12-volt battery. This discharges the vehicle’s ancillary functions, like the airbag system, and all the vehicle computers that tell the vehicle what to do.
Underneath the driver’s seat lies a metal portal to the traction battery. It is hidden under the carpet and not directly accessible without removing the driver’s seat entirely. Luckily, the driver’s seat is easy to remove with just a few bolts and clips. Within a few minutes, it was out of the way. Then, I pried back the carpet (there’s a velcro-lined access hole for this) and saw a metal plated circle that kind of looked like an airline toilet block off that said “Do Not Remove, High Voltage.” Who does Mitsubishi think I am, a commoner? I promptly ignored the warning and undid the wingnuts holding the plate on, revealing a big orange plug.
Next, I removed the rear seat pad and finagled the carpet from underneath the plastic trim panels. Thankfully, the i-MiEV’s interior is pretty basic and cheap, so only a few clip-in plastic panels needed to be removed to peel back the carpet to get the shifter cable in full view.
The i-MiEV’s battery is fairly thick. It seems like the gas-powered Mitsubishi i model, which came before the electric version, had its floorpan raised a little closer to the body in the conversion to electric, likely to hide the battery’s depth. The battery doesn’t hang down too far underneath the car’s rocker panels. In other words, it manages not to look too much like a Sketchers Shape Up shoe.
Unfortunately, that means we needed to get the i-MiEV fairly high to get enough clearance to drop the battery low enough to slide it out of the way. If we had a lift, this would be simple. We could undo the battery on the ground, then we’d lift the body away from the battery. But, we were in a driveway in suburban Ohio, so we couldn’t do that.
Dangerously or stupidly, who knows, we got a floor jack underneath one corner and maxed it out as high as it would go. Then, we took a jack stand and stuck it underneath a solid point, namely where the control arm met the body. After tempting fate and buying three super-tall heavy-duty jack stands from Advance Auto Parts, we had the i-MiEV that felt like miles in the air.
It was time for phase two, getting the battery undone.
The i-MiEV’s battery is shielded by a big piece of plastic that no doubt protects the battery, but also probably aids aerodynamics, too. According to Carfax, the battery had been replaced sometime in 2015, but it looks like the previous owner had some work done in early 2020, too. This was definitely a Michigan car, there were no visible rust spots or corrosion, but the salt had taken its toll on most of the bolts that held the plastic to the battery. About a third of the bolts had corroded and broken off, and another third were rusty sheet metal screws that someone had affixed before I got there.
Once the plastic shield is removed, then you can see that 10 large 16mm bolts hold the battery to the car. Before those bolts can be removed, all of the battery’s high-voltage connections must be undone. In theory, it should be simple. There are two high-voltage cables on the passenger side of the vehicle, one high-voltage cable at the front of the vehicle, and three non-high-voltage sensor cables on the drivers’ side.
Removing the front high-voltage cable and the driver’s side sensor cables was easy, but the two high-voltage cables on the passenger side revealed a design flaw. Yet again, the i-MiEV’s Michigan history revealed itself in an ugly way. The plastic shield was insufficient to completely lock away all moisture and salt, and one of the high-voltage cables had fused itself to the battery due to rust.
My roommate figured that it was nothing an air chisel couldn’t get out. Don’t try this at home, kids. We’d already pulled the battery service plug and disconnected the cables inside the battery via an access panel, so there wasn’t any real danger to either of us. Still, maybe use at least a voltmeter and some thick lineman gloves to avoid shocking yourself.
Remarkably, there wasn’t a lot left to do after all the cables were removed. From there, I put a wooden dolly with casters in the center of the battery pack, then raised it with a heavy-duty floor jack, supporting the battery roughly evenly. Then, we removed all 10 of the 16mm bolts and two 13mm bolts that hold the guides in the rear. The battery dropped relatively gracefully from the bottom of the car. I didn’t realize it was a bit rear-heavy, and the dolly might have been a bit too far forwards, so it came off crooked. Oh well, the hard part was over.
The shifter cable was a dead simple repair, as only a handful of bolts held everything in place. Fifteen minutes with a 10mm socket and the assembly was in place. My roommate helped me adjust it a bit after the battery was reinstalled, but the process that brought me from a notchy shifter that couldn’t enter all drive modes to one that could hit every mark was disappointingly unexciting.
To future-proof the battery and any other potential electrical issues, my roommate insisted that we clean and pack every electrical connector with dielectric grease. The splash guard is quite permeable and corrosion can and will make its way into places where Mitsubishi thought it wouldn’t.
Installation of the battery pack was the reverse of removal. It took a few tries to get the pack lined up, but once aligned, everything slipped into place. We reinstalled the 16-mm bolts and then readded all of the high-voltage leads.
I was proud of myself. Over three days, and with help, I removed an electric car’s battery, replaced its shifter cable, and did some basic future-proofing that should help it last on the road longer. We reinstalled the interior and reestablished all of the high-voltage connections. The car charged fine, and the EV equivalent of a check engine light had disappeared. I had all drive modes, including park. I did it.
Will an era of EVs mean the death of the home mechanic?
The older I get, the more I realize that the middle-class life I thought I had as a kid was a kind of facade. My friends, family, and adults in my orbit sparingly went to auto mechanics, they didn’t have the money or time to pay someone when a trip to Autozone and a Chilton manual could probably get the job done. These folks, armed with a beer or two and a basic handle on how a car works, would perform some arguably pretty complex jobs in the driveways and backyards of suburban America.
So what does that mean for an electric vehicle? There’s no Chilton manual for most EVs (Chilton died, actually), and most EV parts are found only from a dealer. Heck, the service manual I have access to is pirated. It seems like EVs are complete black boxes full of mystery, running on magic intentionally incomprehensible to the average car driver, unable to be serviced by anyone who isn’t an employee of the brand themselves.
My roommate and I thought a lot about the i-MiEV’s longevity. The car’s design is simple, but after 35,000 miles in a rust belt state, the i-MiEV felt like it was a minor inconvenience from being completely thrown away. Luckily, none of the bolts sheared off while removing the battery, but I could understand why any shop or home mechanic would be gun shy. Would the Mitsubishi dealership have chiseled off a high-voltage line? Would they have cleaned off any of the mating surfaces of corrosion? Would they have cleaned every electrical connector and packed them with dielectric grease? Probably not.
Out of curiosity, I stopped by the Mitsubishi dealership to see how much a proper fix would have been from the dealership. They weren’t completely sure; it would have been about $350 in parts but probably about six hours of labor. In all, the repair would have been at least $1,000, probably more, not counting the downtime associated with receiving a battery pack removal tool from Mitsubishi corporate. It may not sound like a lot, but $1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a car that can currently only do 50 miles of driving before it needs to recharge for six hours. I couldn’t help but think that if the i-MiEV didn’t go to someone like me, a weirdo curious about bad cars, it probably would have been thrown away.
That’s a travesty. My i-MiEV only has 35,000 miles, and yet it has an incredibly small value incentive for an owner to keep it in prime shape. No matter what I do, the more I drive the vehicle, the older the car gets, and the more the battery will continue to deteriorate until the vehicle becomes nearly useless. This car was barely used before its lack of home serviceability and value would have sentenced it to a landfill.
Maybe that’s too bleak of an outlook. Mainstream EV adoption is still early in its life. Home mechanics like myself are only starting to tinker with them as prices for older ones have started to enter used hooptie territory. Back in the day, plenty of folks said similar things about hybrids, that batteries would be impossible to rebuild, and within a short amount of time, most hybrids would be in landfills, unable to be serviced or repaired. Now, there are plenty of battery rebuild tutorials, battery cells, and tutorials to keep those cars on the road.
Listen, no matter what you feel about climate change or EV adoption, I feel that being able to repair and service an existing vehicle is more environmentally friendly than just throwing things away and starting new. With a little spit, luck, smarts, safety precautions, and some friends, you too can probably service whatever EV you decide to buy. The spirit of people working and fixing the shit they bought and paid for doesn’t have to be lost in the transition to EVs.