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Mitsubishi CEO pledges to stay in U.S., wants to quadruple sales

Thu, 23 Sep 2010 00:00:00 -0700

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Osamu Masuko says the company won't pull out of the U.S. market and that his personal mid-range sales target is 200,000 units a year, or roughly four times today's level of 50,000.

Masuko acknowledged that the Japanese carmaker has fallen hard since its U.S. sales peaked at 354,111 vehicles in 2002. But he sees sales reversing their steady decline and expanding this year and next. New products, patience, moderate incentives and sustainable growth will be the key, he says.

“People have been asking me for the past six years whether Mitsubishi's going to withdraw from the market,” Masuko said in a Tuesday interview. “But it never enters my mind. We have never thought about withdrawing from the U.S. market, and we will not do so.”

Mitsubishi's U.S. sales are off about 4 percent to 36,431 units through August in an overall market that is up 8 percent year-to-date.

Gradual growth

Mitsubishi's rapid expansion in the early 2000s was fueled by unprecedented 0 percent financing. A more rapid plunge in sales, spurred by the global financial crisis, has prompted analysts to wonder whether Mitsubishi might be the next Japanese carmaker to quit the U.S. market following Isuzu's pullout in January 2009.

The company needs more disciplined incentives to gradually build sales, Masuko said.

The automaker's average incentives came down roughly $270 per vehicle in the April-June quarter but were still above $3,000 per unit, he said. For the full fiscal year ending March 31, 2011, Masuko said the automaker's average annual incentive should decline to under $3,000.

Mitsubishi will unveil a mid-term business plan, probably in November, and provide a detailed forecast for its U.S. operations. The company will also outline a plan to revive its under-utilized assembly plant in Normal, Ill., Masuko said. It may entail a new model or platform to be built there.

“We're always talking about what the best scale for our sales in the United States would be,” Masuko said. “But my personal opinion is that in the United States, I don't know how many years it would take, but our target could be around 200,000 units.”

For the current fiscal year ending March 31, 2011, Mitsubishi wants U.S. sales of 68,000 units, up from 54,000 last year. Sales should rise again the following year, aided by the introduction of the new Outlander Sport small SUV, Masuko said.

Change coming

Overhauling a U.S. lineup heavy in outdated vehicles such as the Galant sedan, Eclipse sport coupe and Endeavor SUV will be essential to any turnaround.

Masuko said to expect changes.

“I cannot speak about it too concretely, but from what we know at the moment, it is not possible to continue with the models that we have had,” he said.

Long oriented toward SUVs and large sedans, the company now wants to shrink with smaller, fuel efficient cars. Electric vehicles also figure into its future. The i-MiEV electric car will be arriving in the United States next year and will be followed by the PX MiEV plug-in hybrid.

Instead of toiling on cars designed for developed markets, such as the Eclipse, Mitsubishi is pursuing world cars with more universal appeal. Sales trends support the new priorities.

North America is by far the smallest market for Mitsubishi. The region accounted for just 9 percent of the company's global unit sales in the fiscal year ended March 31.

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News