Though its overall U.S. market share is less than 1 percent, Mitsubishi Motors was among the first automakers to see consumer tastes shifting from passenger cars to crossovers and adjust its offerings to take advantage of the trend.
Now, much larger U.S. companies, including General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, have done the same.
Mitsubishi’s model lineup features just one passenger car, the gas-sipping Mirage.
“This is definitely not an accident,” Mark Chaffin of Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. told Trucks.com at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Mitsubishi’s planning and engineering teams “had the foresight to identify segments and [that] consumer preferences were changing,” Chaffin, the company’s chief operating officer, said.
Focusing on models like the Eclipse Cross and Outlander plug-in hybrid SUV, named 2019 Green Car Journal’s 2019 Green SUV of the Year on Thursday, has helped Mitsubishi to a seventh straight year of higher sales. It surpassed 100,000 sales in the first 10 months of the year. Its overall sales are up 17.6 percent in a flat market.
“I don’t think it is a temporary shift,” said Nate Berg, Mitsubishi’s head of North America product planning.
It was arguably easier for the importer of Japanese vehicles to pivot than for full-line automakers like GM and Ford. Both have added crossovers and SUVs to their lineups but did not shed passenger cars as fast as consumer interest in them cooled.
Toyota and Honda continue their dominance with loyal sedan buyers. Hyundai and Kia have developed a solid presence because of perceived value for money.
With passenger car sales down 12 percent through October and accounting for just 32 percent of the market, GM earlier this week said it would close three assembly plants and drop five car models. Ford earlier said it would stop making passenger cars, except the Mustang, by 2020.
Though hammered during the Great Recession – sales fell almost 50 percent between 2008 and 2009 – Mitsubishi had the advantage of offering only a few models, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit.
“When they were having problems, they allowed themselves to become a price-point player,” she said. “They just destroyed the residual values on their cars.”
Mitsubishi today has good discipline, Chaffin said.
“We’re doing all the right things,” he said. “I think the growth we’re having is just the start.”
Watching how Mitsubishi benefits from being part of a three-way manufacturing alliance with Nissan and Renault will tell a lot about how much it can grow in the U.S., Brinley said.
The North American debut of its e-Evolution concept crossover at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday is “the visual symbol of Mitsubishi’s future,” said Fred Diaz, Mitsubishi’s chief executive. Diaz joined the company in March after five years at Nissan.
This concept, revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, was in development before Mitsubishi became part of the alliance.
“This is a shell that we’re working with that is a beautiful vehicle,” Diaz told Trucks.com. “We have to decide what kind of alliance technology will go into it to bring a version of this or the design inspiration to the marketplace.”
Mitsubishi will contribute a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and its super all-wheel control technologies.
“Every part of the alliance has some great technology that we all are interested in,” Diaz said.