Mitsubishi Motors is a fading presence in the European automotive landscape and could soon be consigned to history. DTW remembers better times for the marque and surveys its current state.
Since the turn of the millennium, Mitsubishi Motors’ European sales have been in slow, if erratic, long-term decline. The high point was reached in 1999, when Mitsubishi sold a total of 205,009(1) vehicles and achieved a market share of 1.34%. In 2019, the comparative figures were 144,670 and 0.92%. The decline would have been more precipitous had it not been for the L200 pick-up truck, which has since 1978 been the bedrock of the company’s sales, and the 2012 Outlander PHEV, which carved a distinctive niche for itself as the first plug-in hybrid SUV.
Over the past two decades, the company has been rocked by two major scandals. The first broke in 2004, when it was revealed that Mitsubishi had been covering up vehicle defects including failing clutches and brakes and leaking fuel lines, refusing to issue recalls for these systemic problems. The company was forced to recall and rectify over 160,000 vehicles, forcing Mitsubishi group companies to provide ¥540 billion ($4.9 billion) in emergency funding and a ¥50 billion ($455 million) recapitalisation.
The second scandal broke in early 2016 when Nissan, having contracted with Mitsubishi to develop a new Kei(2) car, discovered irregularities in the latter’s official fuel-economy data. It transpired that Mitsubishi had been falsifying data for twenty-five years. The scandal led to the resignation of the company’s president, Tetsuro Aikawa. Nissan seized the opportunity the crisis presented and acquired a 34% stake and effective control of its beleaguered competitor. Mitsubishi became a junior partner in the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, no longer in control of its own destiny.
In July 2020, Mitsubishi announced that it would no longer develop new models for the European market. Sales of existing vehicles would continue until they reached the end of their production life, but no replacements would be forthcoming. Mitsubishi would instead concentrate on the South-East Asian market that in 2019 accounted for over 83% of the company’s global operating profits. There appears to be some confusion regarding Mitsubishi’s commitment to the US but, with a market share flatlining around 0.7%, the outlook is not propitious.
This pessimistic situation is a long way removed from the closing decades of the last millennium, when Mitsubishi was a flourishing and distinctive (if somewhat left-field and niche) marque with a loyal band of devotees.
Mitsubishi was one of the first manufacturers to recognise the opportunity presented by the growing demand for more civilised 4×4 SUVs. The 1982 Shogun(3) predated the Land-Rover Discovery by seven years and was a huge success. Available in three-door SWB and five-door LWB models, they were highly practical and robust vehicles that combined excellent off-road abilities with adequate on-road comfort and refinement. The Shogun was improved and updated regularly, and each of the first three generations was replaced within a decade.
At its peak, demand in the UK for the Shogun was sufficiently high for a flourishing market to develop in JDM(4) grey imports, recognisable by unusual colour and trim combinations and, of course, the Pajero badges. The fourth-generation model has, however, been on the market since 2006 and is increasingly outdated. It was discontinued in Europe in 2018 and Japan in 2019 without a direct replacement, although it remains on sale in Australia, the Middle East and South America, where arduous driving conditions keeps it in demand.
Mitsubishi’s other landmark car was the Evolution high-performance four-wheel-drive version of the otherwise mundane Lancer saloon, produced in ten generations between 1992 and 2016. The Evo, as it became commonly known, was a successful rally car and had a cult following similar to that of the Subaru Impreza WRX, and cared for examples are highly prized today.
Mitsubishi was always a minor player in export markets and something of a left-field choice. That said, they were well engineered and beautifully built cars. There was a brief period around the turn of the millennium when the company’s Galant large saloon was spoken of in similar terms to the BMW 5 Series, and with justification.
The 1996 to 2006 seventh-generation Galant was a smooth, handsome and understated design, with a slim, reverse-rake front end and even a hint of Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. The top-line VR4 version was powered by a 2.5 litre twin-turbo V6 engine producing 276bhp and driving all four wheels via a five-speed manual or four-speed semi-automatic transmission. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was achieved in 5.2 seconds and the car’s top speed was over 150mph (242km/h). It even came in a handsome and practical estate version. It was a perfect car for those who wanted to travel quickly in comfort and, at the same time, anonymously.
Sadly, not many would overlook the appeal of the premium German marques in favour of a little known and poorly appreciated Japanese challenger. The Galant was withdrawn from the UK market in 2003 and not replaced.
Mitsubishi’s UK range today is, to say the least, aged and threadbare. Excluding the evergreen L200 pick-up, it comprises five distinct models. At the bottom of the range is the Mirage, a five-door supermini hatchback that has been on the market since 2012 with barely anyone noticing, so poor have been its sales. Auto Express magazine tested the Mirage in October 2017 and rated it at two stars (out of five) citing its poor ride, handling and refinement as serious deficiencies.
Next is the ASX, a small crossover launched in 2010. It is a conventional and not unpleasant looking example of the genre, although disfigured by a facelift in 2017. Autocar rated it a creditable 3½ stars, describing it as “practical, safe, easy to drive, well equipped and affordable to run. It’s comfortable, too, with a ride quality that’s well-judged for British roads.” The magazine criticised its “bland interior, excessive engine noise and lack of glamour” and acknowledged that it was unlikely to win many potential buyers over as it was “all too forgettable”.
The Eclipse Cross is the next model in Mitsubishi’s range and was launched in 2017. It shares the same 2,670mm (105”) wheelbase as the ASX and is only 110mm (4½”) longer overall, which positions it oddly close to the ASX in such a limited range of vehicles. Moreover, it appears to share many of the older model’s demerits. Autocar rated it at just three stars and forecast that it would have only minority appeal.
The large Outlander SUV is most notable for its once unique PHEV drivetrain that made it highly attractive to company car drivers. Mitsubishi sold 47,381 Outlanders in Europe in 2019, which was almost a third of the company’s total sales in the region. However, now that newer PHEV competitors have arrived, the ageing Mitsubishi may find it harder to retain its appeal.
The final model in the UK range, nominally at least, is the Shogun Sport. I say nominally because Mitsubishi sold a grand total of 641 across Europe in 2019. This is a large SUV based on the ladder chassis of the L200 pick-up. When launched in April 2018, Mitsubishi forecast annual UK sales of between 3,000 and 3,500, targeting those who needed the towing capacity of a pick-up married to the flexibility of its seven-seat passenger capacity. Apparently, most did not.
Where does that leave Mitsubishi Motors in Europe today? Back in 2016, there were hopes that membership of the Renault-Nissan alliance would bring new investment and new Mitsubishi models on stream. The alliance’s well publicised problems in the intervening years appear to have extinguished any hopes for a reinvigoration of Mitsubishi as a global player. With an aged model line-up and shrinking market share, it surely cannot be long before the shutters come down permanently in Europe(5), and possibly also in the US.
(1) All sales and market share data from http://www.carsalesbase.com.
(2) Kei cars are JDM city cars limited by regulations specifying overall size and engine capacity.
(3) Pajero in its home market.
(4) Japanese Domestic Market.
(5) On 15th December 2020 it was revealed that talks between Bassadone Automotive Group, owner of the UK importer of Ssangyong vehicles, and Mitsubishi Motors about taking over the Mitsubishi UK franchise had ended without agreement, allegedly because the two parties could not agree a valuation for the business. Mitsubishi will continue to provide servicing and spares after new vehicle sales cease.