The world quickly turned sour this year for Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc.
The auto maker, which was selling tons of its cars and trucks to the much-coveted Generation Y demographic, watched sales suddenly plummet, despite a steady stream of new models. What's more, marketing decisions backfired when its “no payments for a year” offer translated to burdensome repossession costs.
The replacement of Pierre Gagnon with former Hyundai Motor America executive Finbarr O'Neill in the top North American post was one important move meant to symbolize the auto maker means business in correcting its past indulgences.
But just as important to Mitsubishi is the all-new '04 Galant midsize sedan: It must solidify Mitsubishi's position in the heart of the market — where consumers are a little older, a little wiser and a lot more financially stable.
It means, says one executive, Mitsubishi is growing up as a brand — yet not completely eschewing its hipster past. Mitsubishi hopes Galant will attract consumers who want a less-conservative, more progressive alternative to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord — and for whatever the reason don't like what they see from Nissan's edgy new Altima.
The comparisons begin with the exterior design. The swooping roofline with strongly arching C-pillar clearly is derivative of the Altima/VW Passat archetype. Galant also shares a “high-style” message, with a high, bold beltline and athletic stance.
While it is the fifth generation of Galants to make it to the U.S., officials say it is the first designed specifically for the U.S. market. The '04 iteration rides on Mitsubishi's Project America front-drive platform shared with the Endeavor cross/utility vehicle, delivering a hefty midsizer that has grown in all directions, with a length of 190.6 ins. (484 cm) and a wheelbase of 108.3 ins. (275 cm).
Besides sporting the widest track in the segment, it also has the longest interior cabin, making for plenty of legroom and cargo space. Passengers can notice the difference, especially in the ample shoulder room for the front seats.
The interior shares many components with the Endeavor, including the high-tech, metallic-finish dash panel. The steering wheel, which drew styling raves from Ward's editors when testing the Endeavor, still is a marvel, but feels oversized in the Galant.
Officials say Mitsubishi targeted an upscale feel with interior materials, adding: “Once you get into the vehicle, you'll see a huge difference in the interior between our vehicle and the Altima.”
Galant sports two improved engines, both of which got their start in CUVs. The 4-cyl. is a lighter weight 2.4L that originally bowed in the Outlander. It incorporates variable valve timing and proffers numbers comparable with Camry's: 160 hp (a 20-hp boost over the last Galant's 2.4L) and 157 lb.-ft. (213 Nm) of torque.
The optional 6-cyl., at 3.8L, is the biggest in its class. Stats are reasonably impressive: 230 hp at 5,250 rpm, 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of torque. Although the class leaders get more horses with less displacement, the torque output does better V-6 Camrys and Accords — and even the Altima's powerful 3.5L V-6.
Each engine is mated to a different version of a 4-speed automatic transmission.
Mitsubishi says the Project America platform delivers 100% more torsional rigidity and 140% more bending rigidity than the previous car. The chassis and suspension make for a ride that's competent but can't hold a candle to Camry's smoothness or Accord's body control.
The auto maker aims to price each of the four trim levels to sell, ranging from a DE at about $18,000 to the V-6 GTS at around $26,000.
Mitsubishi projects sales of about 100,000 units annually — and says it knows Galant is a make-or-break vehicle.
Whether the new Galant has the goods to set once high-flying Mitsubishi back on course remains to be seen.