Mitsubishi plays to its strengths with a new focus on plug-in hybrid wagons. John Carey reports
IN the car business, size really does matter. Just ask Mitsubishi. Smallness is why SUVs will fill the company’s showrooms in the near future, the longrunning Lancer name is headed for extinction, and the next Pajero will have a lot in common with the Nissan Patrol.
The Japanese brand, once big in Australia, these days sells about 1 million vehicles a year globally. This might seem a big number but it means Mitsubishi is only one-tenth the size of the giants, Toyota, Volkswagen and General Motors.
Mitsubishi’s size means it can’t afford the huge costs of developing a full line-up of modern cars and keeping up with rapid advances in technologies.
Even before Nissan bought a controlling 34 per cent share of the company late last year, Mitsubishi planned to turn itself into an SUV specialist. Nissan, through its successful alliance with Renault, is large, though not quite in the same league as the Big Three.
The basic strategy hasn’t changed since long-time Nissan exec Trevor Mann was appointed Mitsubishi Motors chief operating officer in October.
However, the plain-speaking British-born engineer says there will be tighter focus of Mitsubishi’s limited resources on getting the replacements for its biggest sellers, the ASX and Outlander SUVs, just right.
First up will be the smaller and older ASX. The eX Concept show car displayed at several recent motor shows provides a pointer to its likely style, senior executives say.
The next ASX will shrink slightly, according to other sources. This is to create showroom breathing space for the sportier and less practical Eclipse Cross SUV, which is only fractionally larger than the current ASX. Revealed in production form at the Geneva motor show earlier this month, the Eclipse Cross is due in Australia late this year.
Nissan has almost completed its revision of Mitsubishi’s future model plans, according to Mann.
“Before we start the new financial year, we will lock in our next long-range product plan,” he says. March 31 is the last day of the current Japanese financial year.
“Some of the older cars and some of the stronger names might not continue but I don’t think that’s a problem. You shouldn’t necessarily keep banging the same drum just because you had a car that everybody liked once.”
All over the world, he says, tastes are gradually changing and in a way that suits Mitsubishi. “It is going towards the SUV type of vehicle, which is our strength.”
One way for Mitsubishi to get the most out of its limited new-model development budget could be to collaborate with Nissan to create a successor for the big Pajero and Patrol 4WDs.
Heavy-duty off-roaders are coming under pressure to deliver lower CO2 emissions, via dramatically improving fuel efficiency. Working with Nissan to do this makes sense, Mann says. “That is something we will be exploring.”
Weight reduction is one obvious move but Mann says a plug-in hybrid drivetrain also makes sense for a big 4WD of the future. “One of the things you need with a vehicle like that is high torque, and one of the things you get with an electric motor is high torque.”
With a back-up internal combustion engine, he reckons a Pajero PHEV would have a driving range to meet the need of remote area users.
Plug-in hybrid drivetrains are a Mitsubishi specialty. The Outlander PHEV, though it has sold slowly in Australia, has been a big hit in markets where government incentives encourage drivers to buy lowemission vehicles. It has at times topped the new car sales charts in the Netherlands, for example.
Given his engineering background, Mann seems enthusiastic about the potential of Mitsubishi working with Nissan on a new Pajero and Patrol. That enthusiasm appears to evaporate when it came to discussing the future of the Lancer. Originally launched in Australia in the 1970s, the Lancer became one of our favourite small cars. But the current model has been in production for a decade.
That makes it an old-timer compared to the models that are bestsellers in the class.
Just because Mitsubishi has been building Lancers for 40 years or so is not a good enough reason to do another, Mann says. He might also care to run a broom through Mitsubishi’s design department.
The Eclipse Cross is no style rival for obvious competitors such as the recently launched Toyota C-HR.
What’s more, some of Mitsubishi’s recent motor show concepts have been very odd. Unkind? Just take a look at the GC-PHEV, a big SUV show car displayed at Paris last year.
Plug-in: Eclipse Cross compact SUV, due here later this year; inset, the GC-PHEV hints at future large versions