It was a rude awakening for Mitsubishi Motors Sales of America when its own survey results revealed that fully 56% of American consumers had no idea that Mitsubishi sold cars in America.
This painful dawning drove Mitsubishi to whip up its youth-savvy "wake up and drive" ad campaign to accompany its lineup - especially its U.S. signature car, the 2000 Eclipse sports coupe, which got a slick new redesign, along with the hotter-than-ever Montero Sport.
August was the best month ever for this midsized sport/utility vehicle, up 101%, year-on-year. The Montero Sport stands as the only SUV of Mitsubishi's core products - a fact that Mitsubishi intends to rectify.
The automaker plans to introduce a MY2002 small SUV and is talking about rounding out its lineup with an upscale, Lexus RX300-type incarnation. What's more, Mitsubishi wants to transfer production of its U.S.-designated SUV lineup to its Normal, IL, plant by 2002.
With these moves, the automaker has made an awfully pie-in-the-sky prediction: that in four years, its U.S. sales will jump by 60%, clear to the 300,000 mark.
Despite recent success, it has a tough road ahead if it plans to attempt a 110,000-unit boost.
First, it needs to keep dodging the merger/acquisition game. Mitsubishi has laid out its turnaround strategy and says it plans to remain independent at least until it's back on solid financial ground. Still, it may not have a choice in the matter. Recent tough financial blows include a debt-rating downgrade to junk status by Moody's Investors Services.
Also, Mitsubishi assumes SUV production will return normalcy to Normal. The Illinois plant has battled quality problems, sexual harassment lawsuits, and silly levels of excess capacity - a problem that only will increase when DaimlerChrysler stops Sebring/Avenger production there in 2005. Though SUV production should create a more appropriate product mix and chip away at that capacity chasm, it may not be a cure- all.
Perhaps the largest gamble is the small SUV itself. Mitsubishi is going up against a strong Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, plus an imminent entry from truck/SUV powerhouse Ford. Mitsubishi historically has followed in the footsteps of the Japanese giants, but never quite as well. If this late-entry small ute can dominate, it may be able to boost sales a closer to its lofty goal. That's a mighty big if.