Regulator request delays Outlander plug-in launch

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TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Motors Corp. says a new kink is delaying the U.S. launch of its Outlander plug-in hybrid until late 2015 or early 2016, even as it aims to more than double sales elsewhere this year.

The delay is to meet a new U.S. request that Mitsubishi equip the car with a battery-monitoring unit. That comes on top of a bottleneck in battery production that had already pushed a planned U.S. introduction into 2015.

The monitor would conduct onboard diagnosis of the Outlander’s lithium ion battery capacity and output and alert the driver to possible degradation, Mitsubishi product planners said.

California regulators have requested new plug-in hybrids be equipped with the technology, and Mitsubishi is working with them to comply, said Tetsuya Tobe, manager of product planning. “They think that deterioration of the battery might affect emissions,” Tobe said.

Mitsubishi has been aware of the needed change since last year.

Accommodating it will push the U.S. launch of the Outlander hybrid into the last quarter of 2015 or first quarter of 2016, Tobe said.

Sales plans

At the same time, Mitsubishi plans a big sales push for the Outlander plug-in in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, markets that don’t require the battery monitor.

Mitsubishi expects global sales to more than double to 48,000 units in the current fiscal year that began April 1, from 19,700 in the fiscal year that ended March 31.

Volume will get a boost from expanding sales to new markets in Europe, including Russia, and to Australia and New Zealand.

The four-wheel-drive crossover, formally called the Outlander PHEV, got off to a rocky start after its January 2013 debut in Japan. Sales were dented by a battery recall that forced Mitsubishi to stop producing the vehicle from late March until late August.

Since its introduction, worldwide sales of the Outlander PHEV have totaled 35,000 units through March. That compares with sales of 130,000 units for nonhybrid variants of the current-generation Outlander, which first went on sale in Russia in July 2012.

Battery bottleneck

The hybrid variant is a key element of Mitsubishi’s effort to rebrand itself as a leader in electrified drivetrains. Adding sales in the United States will help drive volume and reduce costs while also giving Mitsubishi’s U.S. dealers a badly needed addition to a thin lineup.

The U.S. launch was already pushed off by crimped battery supply. The problem: capacity at its main battery supplier, Lithium Energy Japan, a joint venture between Mitsubishi Motors, Japanese battery maker GS Yuasa Corp. and trading house Mitsubishi Corp.

Until last fall, Mitsubishi was getting only 2,000 batteries a month from LEJ because the supplier was splitting production at one factory between batteries for the Outlander plug-in and batteries for Mitsubishi’s i electric car.

But last fall, Mitsubishi set up a dedicated line for plug-in hybrid battery production at a separate plant, which now yields 4,000 plug-in batteries a month.

More capacity

That extra capacity will be channeled into Outlander PHEVs to supply Europe, Japan and other markets.

Mitsubishi will likely need more capacity before the U.S. launch of the Outlander PHEV. Or it could get batteries from another supplier. Mitsubishi has yet to announce a decision.

“The current battery capacity can cover this year,” said Seiji Fuminashi, senior expert of Mitsubishi EV business development.

Mitsubishi expects plug-in volume of around 63,000 units in the fiscal year ending March 2016, after the U.S. introduction.

This implies U.S. volume up to 15,000 units for the Outlander PHEV, though Mitsubishi has not given a U.S. forecast.

Flexible powertrain

The Outlander PHEV employs a sophisticated three-mode hybrid powertrain. In normal city driving, it runs like an electric vehicle, with electric motors in the front and rear providing permanent four-wheel drive.

When the battery runs low, the engine kicks in to power a generator that recharges the battery pack. In this way, it acts as a series hybrid, much like the Chevrolet Volt.

For sustained high-speed driving, the engine connects mechanically with the axle to drive the front wheels.

There is no transmission -- the engine powers the wheels at a fixed drive ratio for more efficient highway driving.

Even in this engine-drive mode, the rear electric motor continues to power the rear wheels for stability and traction.

Braking adjustment

The PHEV’s regenerative braking can also be adjusted to five settings to deliver strong regeneration, with jerkier braking, or virtually no regeneration, for smoother highway driving.

The 300-volt 12 kWh lithium ion battery has enough juice to power a typical Japanese household for one and half days, Mitsubishi says. In Japan, the crossover is sold with an external power option to provide electricity for emergency or recreational use.

The powertrain mates a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine to two 60-kilowatt motors, one in front, the other in the rear.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter


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