With Fisker Failing, Who is the Next Automaker to Exit the US? My Money is on Mitsubishi
The news that Henrik Fisker was leaving the hybrid car manufacturer that bears his name led me to wonder what other marques may leave the US market in the next few years. Smaller auto manufacturers have always needed to create a niche in which they can operate sustainably. The American subsidiaries of Volvo, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Suzuki have all struggled over the past few years to develop a competitive advantage in that can justify their existences in the States. Volvo is always hanging by a thread, but Geely, the Chinese auto manufacturer who purchased the brand from Ford in 2010, has at least begun to refresh its lineup with the competitive S60 sport sedan (and maybe even a 508hp Polestar variant), while an updated version of the XC90 large SUV will begin production late next year. Volvo has always relied on a strong brand perception of unparalleled occupant safety and uncommon Swedish design sensibilities to sell their cars. Until recently, Subaru, another niche automaker, featured a lineup whose powertrains were exclusively available with all-wheel drive; in fact, the Subaru Impreza has the distinction of being the least expensive AWD car available in the US market. Although the mid-sized Kizashi was well-received, Suzuki’s car division was unable to capitalize on the reputation of its motorcycles, and last year announced it would cease selling cars in the US. Mitsubishi has only two strengths: the cult dedication to the rally-bred Lancer Evolution, and the deep pockets of its parent company.
The major obstacle in Mitsubishi’s path is a complete lack of interesting or even competitive cars. Honda and Toyota have both been resting on their laurels for the past few years, allowing the Hyundai and Kia brands to ditch their economy car roots and offer cars of similar or superior quality while still maintaining a lower price than their Japanese counterparts. Both brands also spent an incredible amount of time and money developing every car in their stable into something that would challenge the public’s preconceived notions of the companies. The Korean brands understood that to unseat the champions, they had to create and demonstrate better value. In contrast, the midsize Mitsubishi Galant that debuted in 2004underwent absolutely no significant changes (save for a facelift in 2007) between the time it was introduced and the time it was finally put out of its misery in 2011, along with the Eclipse and Endeavor. All three of these cars, which made up half of Mitsubishi’s product offerings, were initially created in the early- to mid-2000s and axed all at the same time. A lack of interest in the cars by the public and Mitsubishi alike left the models on life support for the last half of their existences.
I had the extreme displeasure of driving an Endeavor from Los Angeles to Reno and back in 2011; I was amazed back then that a car as new as the rental SUV I was driving could look and feel so old. The spartan interior and rubbery steering wheel made me hate every moment I suffered in that car, which would amount to about 16 hours by the time the trip was over. The combination of a 225hp V6 and 4-speed automatic gave me nightmares from which I still have not fully recovered. The only other experience I’ve had in a Mitsubishi was the Lancer I drove on my first day of Driver’s Training. Mercifully, I remember very little about the car itself because of the myriad new distractions I experienced as a brand new driver.
Mitsubishi Endeavor interior: the bane of my existence. From carmax.com
Today, the Endeavor is thankfully no more, along with the unloved Galant and the Eclipse, which was the ultimate poseur “sports car” in its later years. The Eclipse, which was once available as a turbocharged, AWD coupe popular with tuners, evolved into a bulbous, strictly FWD cruiser with terrible acceleration and a (this is not a misprint) 4-speed automatic.
Mitsubishi now makes only one sedan, a crossover, and a full-size SUV, most of which are outclassed by competitors that have the chops to justify their purchase. The Lancer is a good looking but extremely flawed compact sedan whose heavy weight, slow acceleration, stiff suspension, and cheap interior usually place it near the back in comparison tests. The Lancer Sportback is a hideous 5-door version, and makes me sympathize with the majority of Americans who hate hatchbacks. The Lancer Evolution X is the halo car for Mitsubishi, and it’s a great one at that. It’s a little more understated than its only rival, the Subaru WRX STI, although aggressive diffusers, hood vents, and boy-racer rear wing aren’t understated compared to anything else on the road. Well, maybe a Lamborghini Veneno.
More important to Mitsubishi, but less interesting to us, are the Outlander SUV and its baby brother, the Outlander Sport; like the Range Rover line, “Sport” here simply means less car for less money. These are the cars that will keep Mitsubishi afloat, at least for a little while. Money isn’t made in the compact segment, so these are the breadwinners for Mitsubishi, and they actually run pretty mid-pack when compared to the competitors, although the general consensus is that interior fit and finish is, like the Lancer, pretty shoddy. There is a new Outlander coming for 2014, but without a more substantial effort from Mitsubishi Marketing, its release will fall on deaf ears.
Mitsubishi’s business plan of releasing new, updated cars every eight years is not working. Now, more than ever, auto manufacturers need to adapt to the car-buying public and deliver what customers demand. Toyota and Honda didn’t do that for the last few years, allowing the more agile Koreans to slip into the marketplace unopposed. Even American automakers understand the need for competitive compact cars and CUVs as the majority of Americans continue to downsize; the Ford Focus in 2013 is light years ahead of the reskinned 2008 version, and the Dodge Caliber can’t hold a candle to the Dart. Mitsubishi needs to overhaul their entire lineup or suffer a slow, painful demise. Judging by Mitsubishi’s past, however, I don’t see any relief in their future.
Sales numbers, niche and rising brands. Source.