Los Angeles -- One of the most important features of the Mitsubishi i, the all-electric car the Japanese conglomerate will bring to the U.S. next fall?

It costs nearly $3,000 less than the Nissan Leaf.

Mitsubishi effectively threw down the gauntlet today at the Los Angeles Auto Show in the contest over who will lead the market for electric cars. The company’s i, a wider version of the all-electric MiEV it released in Japan in 2009 (see test drive), is the first mainstream car maker with a freeway legal car that even gets close in price to the $32,800 Leaf. The Leaf comes out next month and the i won’t arrive until the fall of 2011 so Nissan has plenty of time to slash its prices and undercut Mitsubishi.

But both manufacturers' prices remain well below others. The Chevy Volt, for instance, will sell for $41,000, while Coda Automotive’s sedan will go for $45,000. The MiEV in Japan, in fact, costs around $40,000, so the discount pricing for the i seems to indicate a grab for market share, a need to address American pocketbooks, or both. (All prices are retail and do not include the $7,500 federal tax credit or any state credits.)

(Note the wacky colors in the photo: Mitsubishi will offer personalized paint jobs and styling packages.)

Mitsubishi also intends to ship a lot of cars. Electrics will constitute 20 percent of Mitsubishi’s global shipments by 2020, said Shinichi Kurihara, CEO of Mitsubishi Motors America. By 2015, it wants to have sold 20,000 electrics in the States.  Renault Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has talked about hitting the 10 percent mark with all-electrics by 2020.

To build out its infrastructure, the company will work with Eaton and Best Buy. Eaton will make the charging stations and Best Buy will install them. General Electric and Schneider Electric earlier this year unveiled charging stations: the push of conglomerates into this market could make life extremely difficult for startups like Ecotality.

FDD added that Mitsubishi will also come out with different models of electric cars, as well as plug-in hybrids.

“Today the electric vehicle is suited for local communities,” he said. “It is important to keep in mind that the electric vehicle is not intended to replace the SUV.

Mitsubishi has a long history in electric cars, added Yoshikazu Nakamura, general manager of the company’s electric vehicle group. It came out with an electric car in 1971 in Japan. It didn’t go mainstream, in part, because batteries took up too much room and didn’t have adequate power.

The company also made an electric version of the Mitsubishi Colt in 2004 before deciding in 2005 to take an electric car to mass production. In 2006, work began on the MiEV.

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