Suzuki and Mitsubishi left behind?
With so little in the product pipeline for the next three years, Mitsubishi and Suzuki face a dismal U.S. future
LOS ANGELES -- The all-but-empty product pipelines at Mitsubishi and Suzuki may provide the answer to a frequently asked question: Do the two struggling Japanese small fry -- once tough competitors in this country -- have a future in the United States?
Mitsubishi and Suzuki insist they are here for the long haul. But given their anemic new-product plans, their future looks dim.
While rivals Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen have gobbled up market share with aggressive vehicle launch cadences -- overhauling their lineups in just a few years -- Japan's second-tier automakers have fallen behind.
Subaru and Mazda have held their own in the United States while facing many of the same challenges. For Mitsubishi and Suzuki the situation looks dire.
Sources familiar with Mitsubishi's plans say the company has only two major introductions in place for the United States between now and 2015. And Suzuki has no new or redesigned product launches scheduled before 2015, according to company sources.
Both are focusing on emerging markets as their U.S. sales and market share dwindle. Mitsubishi and Suzuki held a combined 0.6 percent share of the U.S. market through July, down from 0.8 percent for all of 2011 and 1.4 percent in 2007.
In an overall market up 14 percent, Mitsubishi sales are off 29 percent to 37,067 through July. Suzuki sales were down 4 percent to 15,260.
In 2002, Mitsubishi sold 345,111 vehicles in the United States, ahead of Volkswagen and Kia, and within 30,000 units of Hyundai. Suzuki sold more than 100,000 units as recently as 2007.
In an e-mail, Mitsubishi spokesman Roger Yasukawa wrote: "Mitsubishi Motors is going through a transitional period to strengthen our product lineup" in the United States.
Suzuki spokeswoman Melissa Fujimoto said in a statement: "American Suzuki continues to work hard to compete just as many companies do in these very challenging and difficult times of unprecedented uncertainty."
Mitsubishi's 2013 lineup consists of the Outlander mid-sized crossover, Outlander Sport compact crossover, i electric minicar and the Lancer compact, which is sold as a sedan and hatchback.
Suzuki sells the Kizashi sedan, Grand Vitara SUV, Equator pickup, and SX4 subcompact in sedan, hatchback and crossover configurations.
Rethinking the Mirage
With so few new products on the way it is hard to see how the two brands can pull themselves off the floor. The sources say all Mitsubishi has in the works are a restyled Outlander due next summer, and a plug-in hybrid version of the Outlander probably arriving early in 2014.
Mitsubishi launched the Outlander Sport in 2011, but its four U.S.-built nameplates -- the Endeavor crossover, Eclipse coupe, Eclipse Spyder convertible and Galant mid-sized sedan -- have been phased out in the past year.
The Lancer, which went on sale in the United States in 2007, has had no major updates and won't get one until early 2015, according to a source with knowledge of the plans. That's an eternity in a brutal segment with such competitors as the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus.
The Lancer is fading fast. Through July, sales dipped 20 percent to 9,859 units from the same period last year.
Mitsubishi's new global small car, the Mirage, was scheduled to debut in the United States in early 2013. But now Mitsubishi sources are noncommittal.
This month Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko said he questioned whether the car's small footprint would appeal to U.S. consumers. The Mirage is similar in size to the Chevrolet Spark and more than a foot shorter than the Ford Fiesta. Masuko said the company was still evaluating whether the Mirage would be sold here.
Still, one Mitsubishi insider, who requested anonymity, says the company hasn't given up on the United States. He said more product is in the pipeline beyond the 2015 model year.
Mitsubishi's Yasukawa wrote that it is too early to discuss details of the plan beyond 2015, but that the company is still focused on developing vehicles for U.S. consumers.
"You can rest assured that our long-term future product plan will consist of introducing numerous new models in the global marketplace that ... will be perfectly suited for the U.S. marketplace as well," he wrote. "The U.S. is a very important market for Mitsubishi Motors and we will continue to monitor the U.S. market demand and trends to input toward our long range product plan."
At Suzuki, the outlook is even gloomier. On the bright side, freshened versions of the SX4 and the Grand Vitara will arrive this fall. And a heavily camouflaged, new-generation SX4 five-door hatchback has been spotted this summer during European testing.
But sources familiar with American Suzuki's plans say that after this fall the company has no new or redesigned product launches scheduled before the 2015 model year.
Derailed by yen
The company's U.S. plans were derailed by a strong yen and its failed partnership with Volkswagen. For instance, Suzuki explored a number of possibilities for a redesigned Grand Vitara before the partnership unraveled, including a rebadged Volkswagen Tiguan, according to a source with knowledge of the plans.
But that option, as well as the prospect of basing the next Grand Vitara on the Kizashi platform, has been scrapped.
Suzuki also tested turbocharged versions of the Kizashi, but sources say it has no firm plans to introduce one.
Another insider has said engineers and product planners had been working with Suzuki's Wagon R minicar sold in Japan to see if it might fit a niche in the United States. But that project has been dormant for months.
Indeed, the company is saying nothing to reassure its 246 U.S. dealers. Asked about future products in the pipeline, Fujimoto said in July that "there is nothing to announce at this time."
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