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A terrible wreck, but not a total loss

Mitsubishi store shows off safety with crashed vehicle, and sales soar

A wrecked 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport has become a marketing mainstay for White Bear Mitsubishi after the crash survivor made a commercial touting the vehicle's safety.
Mitsubishi outlier
New-car sales at White Bear Mitsubishi in Minnesota were up 87% this year through September and on pace to exceed 1,200 for the full year.
YearSales YearSales
2010135 2013799
2011368 2014*973
2012467   
*Through September

Published in Automotive News Oct. 20, 2014

Most dealerships send totaled cars straight to the junkyard. White Bear Mitsubishi put one on display, and it has been reaping the rewards ever since.

The wrecked 2014 Outlander Sport outside the White Bear Lake, Minn., store's service drive came from a customer named Sarah Dittrich, who survived a June 2013 accident in which the vehicle was bumped across the median and into oncoming traffic. Dittrich slammed into a semi truck at 65 mph, but she walked away with just a bloody nose.

"Thanks, White Bear Mitsubishi," Dittrich says in a commercial for the suburban Twin Cities dealership. "My Outlander Sport saved my life."

Customers responded so well to the ad that the crashed Outlander Sport became a marketing mainstay. It joined the Mitsubishi stand at the Twin Cities Auto Show, helping attendees visualize a new body structure that has helped the brand's vehicles earn good ratings on a new test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Since the campaign began, sales of the Outlander Sport have been scorching hot for White Bear. The dealership, which ranked third among U.S. Mitsubishi dealerships in 2013 for new vehicles sold, now sells about 70 Outlander Sports in an average month -- more than any store in the world, said General Manager Richard Herod III.

"Whenever we run that commercial, we do really well," said Herod, 37, who paid $5,250 to save the totaled Outlander Sport from the scrapyard. "The advertising value of it has far exceeded what I paid."

Much of that value lies in the fact that Dittrich's vehicle performed just as it was designed to.

Wheel wells in older cars could crumple and let crash energy into the cabin, but Mitsubishi designed the Outlander Sport's body structure to better withstand "small overlap" crashes, in which the corner of a vehicle takes the blow.

Both the Outlander Sport and Outlander compact crossovers got a "Top Safety Pick+" rating from the IIHS in 2013. (The Outlander kept that rating for 2014, but the Outlander Sport was named only a "Top Safety Pick" because of changes in methodology.)

Herod: Live and breathe Mitsubishi.

Dominating the market

Some people in Herod's position might worry that displaying a wrecked vehicle would scare customers out of the buying mood. But there is no arguing with the results at White Bear, a former Saturn dealership that was converted into a Mitsubishi-Suzuki store in 2010 after General Motors axed the Saturn brand.

In the dealership's market area, which includes White Bear Lake and St. Paul, Minn., the Outlander Sport had a 23 percent share of new registrations for compact crossovers in 2013, according to R.L. Polk & Co. data provided by the dealership.

That put the crossover ahead of the Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson and Subaru XV Crosstrek, all of which handily outsell the Outlander Sport nationally. The Outlander Sport was 16th among compact crossovers in U.S. sales through September with a 1.3 percent market share, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

It's true that on a national level, "Mitsubishi isn't necessarily the first brand that comes to people's minds when they think of a small SUV," Herod said. "But it's starting to become that in our community."

White Bear Mitsubishi is part of the Rydell Group of Grand Forks, N.D., which in recent years said it had more than 60 affiliated stores with more than $2 billion in annual sales, selling about 80,000 vehicles per year at retail.

The company doesn't provide detailed figures to the Automotive News Data Center, but this would put it among the nation's 20 largest new-car dealership groups.

'Culture of belief'

White Bear's success is a rare bright spot for Mitsubishi Motors, which is fighting to return to profitability in the U.S. after years of dwindling sales. Its North American division lost ¥1.83 billion ($17.6 million) in the quarter ended June 30, at a time when most automakers are enjoying healthy profits in the U.S.

Herod said his strategy from the start been instilling a "culture of belief in the product," such that employees "live, breathe and die Mitsubishi."

When he took over the dealership four years ago, just two employees drove a Mitsubishi. Now, all managers and many rank-and-file employees do.

The store also wins over customers with its feel-good culture. Every car sold gets a stuffed toy of White Bear's polar bear mascot buckled into the back seat. Social media mavens for the dealership ask customers to post vacation photos on sites such as Facebook of their stuffed polar bears in front of famous landmarks.

White Bear's glowing reviews on business-rating websites suggest the strategy is working. So do new-car sales, which were up 87 percent this year through September and on pace to exceed 1,200 vehicles for the full year, up from 135 in 2010.

"You have to build a great brand," Herod said. "And we've built a great brand."

Mitsubishi outlier
New-car sales at White Bear Mitsubishi in Minnesota were up 87% this year through September and on pace to exceed 1,200 for the full year.
YearSales YearSales
2010135 2013799
2011368 2014*973
2012467   
*Through September
You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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