Checking out July 2006 foreign car sales in the United States, now that the ﬁgures have been out for a few days, it’s clear that (most of) the best improvers are those with brands that are very “in” at the moment. Toyota has a 10·8 per cent increase in sales, year to date, compared with the same period to July 2005. Honda is up 9·5 per cent, and Suzuki, with its Grand Vitara, is up a creditable 32·3 per cent.
It’s not all good news for the Japanese automakers. Mitsubishi is down 9·5 per cent, Nissan is down 7·1, and Renault–Nissan unit Inﬁniti is down 14·3 per cent. Isuzu, which hardly sells Isuzus in the US any more, is down 35·7 per cent, and may as well be a dead brand there—despite celebrating 75 years of production in Japan next year.
Nissan’s fall is a surprise to me, though the company says with new product in the pipeline for the next few months, we should see a rise. The Altima, Maxima, Versa and Sentra should come on stream.
However, Mitsubishi’s fall isn’t, and it reminds me of how the brand can affect one’s perception—even when product planners do the same thing.
In 1988, Mitsubishi New Zealand replaced its successful Sigma—the car sold as the Galant Sigma in Japan—with a new-shape model. It was on the same platform, but with rounded edges, it looked smaller than its predecessor. Print advertising campaigns stressed that the car was on the same platform and was ‘big’, while the TV campaign, starring Gordon Jackson from The Professionals, emphasized the Galant’s safety and strength.
Knowing that there would be a perception that the new car was smaller, the New Zealand management convinced Japan to continue sending kits of the old model, but equipped it with the company’s three-litre V6. It would be Mitsubishi’s effort in challenging the six-cylinder market dominated by the Australians.
Rebadging the old Sigma as the V3000, a badge rather than a model range name in Japan, Mitsubishi managed to score, and even the Ministry of Transport—our then-highway patrol to our American friends—bought them for its ﬂeet of cop cars.
Although the V3000 was in fact a smaller car than the Galant, and was dimensionally mid-size, Mitsubishi made a decent dent in the full-size, six-cylinder market. When its successor was launched in 1992, based on the larger Australian-made Verada, Mitsubishi reused the V3000 moniker.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and Mitsubishi does something similar. It takes the 2003-launched Galant from the US market and gets its Australian arm to do some tweaking (spending A$600 million doing so), resulting in a car that looks basically the same, sold with an essentially identical 3·8-litre V6. With Galant being associated with mid-sized cars, and Mitsubishi wanting to tackle big Australian cars, it uses the 380 name. Yet the car has not reached sales’ expectations, and is now on to a ‘Series II’ version—in less than a year. Six grand was chopped off the base price in Australia.
In fact, I even went and criticized Mitsubishi for being so foolish, selling an older-shape mid-sized car and pretending it was a new, full-size one. This was at odds with my own position back in the late 1980s.
I can only assume the brand is tarnished. Never mind what Mitsubishi did in World War II—there’s a useful Mitsubishi Sucks web site that covers that—the company has been less than clear about what it stands for.
In the 1980s, it was a style leader, coming out with new directions in design that suggested that Japan knew the way forward when it came to cars. Mitsubishi had begun carving that direction with the 1978 Mirage and its Silent Shaft engines. It was the ﬁrst automaker in Australia to ﬁt a factory turbocharger—and Todd, the New Zealand importer, the ﬁrst in New Zealand to assemble a turbocharged car. Even in the 1990s, Mitsubishi could depend partly on its sporty, technological image.
But by the turn of the century, Mitsubishi was so mixed in its offerings it could never sustain the same economies of scale it once enjoyed.
The Lancer Cedia was launched in some markets in 2000, while others made do with a previous-generation model that Mitsubishi kept on the market for four more years. By the time the Cedia launched in New Zealand, it was already a whole model cycle in age, based on Mitsubishi’s earlier four-year model changes. Similar things happened with the Galant until the 380 was launched.
While it was in disarray, there was little for the company to get excited about. It could hardly reinforce its brand and claim any superiority against other Japanese marques. Toyota and Honda were streets ahead.
And while it won rallies with its Lancer Evolutions, they did not look like the older model that was still in the showrooms. So why participate in motor sport anyway? Wasn’t the whole idea of having a factory team to encourage showroom trafﬁc and people buying a car that resembled what was on the sports’ news?
Instead, Lancers seemingly went to older drivers looking for a sensible car. The people who bought Austin 1300s and Volvo 340s once upon a time. The Galant was junk. And the Diamante, despite a makeover from Frenchman Olivier Boulay, looked like a bloated pig—enough for it to be rapidly withdrawn from the US market soon after.
While the Airtrek—Outlander in some countries—and Pajero were decent entries, Mitsubishi could not rest on niche vehicles alone to uphold its image.
The brand went from innovative to pensionable in a very short time, selling old-tech Japanese. Toyota may be able to do that with its ﬁrst-generation Avalon, till recently still made Down Under, but at least it has the “old faithful” image to rest on. Mitsubishi always played second, or even third, ﬁddle to the more experienced Japanese exporters.
Today, Mitsubishi’s New Zealand range is more cohesive than it has been in a while, with current-generation Colt, Lancer and 380 as its main passenger cars, but I still do not know what it stands for. The ancient, previous-generation Galant, according to its web site, is still on sale: this car was obsolete in 2003 in the US. A new truck is en route, and it could help liven things up—at least it looks the business.
But for now, advertising for the vehicles lack emotion, other than a commercial that shows the cars—minus the embarrassing Galant—accompanied by a rock soundtrack. If Mitsubishi means performance once more, as the full-range TVC shows a Pajero rocketing through the desert, then I can hardly notice it on the showroom ﬂoor. Nor can I really see it on the web site, which has very little to entice younger buyers.
It should not be hard to rediscover the glory days, if Mitsubishi had the will. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was by offering a competitive range that appeared more modern than Toyota’s and Nissan’s. Now, it is just pushing product, and, in some sectors, not very good product at that. Posted by Jack Yan, 08:38
Mitsubishi has gone through many identity crises in N. America too. Just today, the website "The Car Connection" did a similar article to yours.
They have had some advanced engineering along the way and there was a series of hip commercials that got them some sales but that all has faded here. I'm surprised they're still selling vehicles here.
P.S. How did you get such a keen interest in the automotive industry? Those are great posts for me to read.
Mitsi have a strange mix of image, full on passion for the Evo's vs apathy for the dull production models.
The Mitsi advert "You get what you give" summed up the brand for me. From the short exposure in the ad it seemed like a great song but when I heard the full version it was boring - bit like the cars.
It's a little similar for Honda who, despite engineering excellence, still have that "Granny drives a Honda" association for many. How many Jenson Button wins will it take to change that...
Atul, I have always loved cars—inexplicably so. There was a Fiat dealership round from where I lived as a kid, and going there was the big treat of the day. (I also have a toy car collection that is pretty large.)
I remember the heyday of Mitsubishi and it saddens me a little that so much has been thrown away.
Robin, your summary is spot on. And Honda does deserve better. But not selling us the Civic hatches (on the grounds of cost), and only having the granny sedan (ex-Thailand) on the market, won’t help. Notice how they have chromed up the Accord Euro—probably for older buyers.
Honda's pricing policy is great for private buyers, perhaps that's attracting older buyers concerned about retaining value?Post a Comment
The Civic sedan only strategy is strange, maybe more appropriate for fleet/rental but Honda are not targeting them with the pricing policy. The Euro hatch attempt to add excitement is the right move but would probably scare off the pensioners.
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