TOKYO - For five years, the norm at Normal was abnormal.
Every Galant and Eclipse built at Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s plant in Normal, Ill., during the model years 1994 to 1999 was defective as well as every Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sebring and Eagle Talon built there during the 1995 to 2000 model years.
So, too, were more than a half million vehicles built in Japan, causing an embarrassed Mitsubishi President Takashi Sonobe last week to announce the recall of 1.53 million cars and light trucks to repair problems that include corroded ball joints and airbags that deploy spontaneously.
The recall's size is indicative of the problems that DaimlerChrysler AG, which last year bought a controlling 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi, faces in turning around the financially troubled Japanese carmaker.
On the other hand, the depth of the problems may make it easier for DaimlerChrysler to force Mitsubishi to accept radical changes.
Other facets of the recall:
For 705,000 of the cars and trucks affected, including 464,000 in the United States, it is the second recall. An attempt to fix the problems late last year was unsuccessful.
The recalls follow revelations that for more than 20 years, Mitsubishi hid from the Japanese government records of consumer complaints that might have led to recalls. The scandal forced Katsuhiko Kawasoe, then Mitsubishi's president, to resign and prompted DaimlerChrysler to send a new COO, Rolf Eckrodt, to Mitsubishi.
Mitsubishi's sales in Japan in 2000 fell 7.1 percent to 543,880, by far the worst showing of any of Japan's top carmakers, because of the negative publicity and the carmaker's cancellation of advertising during the worst of the scandal.
In November, Mitsubishi estimated the cost of its earlier recalls at 11.5 billion, or $100 million at current exchange rates, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2001. The latest recalls will add another $148 million to the tally.
The Mitsubishi portion of the recall in the United States represents 45 percent of the company's total U.S. sales from 1994 through 1999. The 412,711 cars and trucks being recalled in Japan is equal to 76 percent of Mitsubishi's Japan sales last year.
An unrelated product defect in Mitsubishi Pajero sport-utilities in China has led to a ban on imports of those cars into China, and left Mitsubishi a target for China's budding consumer movement.
Normally, a recall this massive would leave an automaker with a three-egg omelet on its face. But the latest recall has not sparked the public outrage that greeted last summer's recall revelations - so far. Instead, the latest recalls are being seen as yet another step toward the remaking of Mitsubishi.
This is 'something Mitsubishi has done in the past and hasn't fully fixed,' said Takaki Nakanishi, auto analyst for Merrill Lynch Japan. 'It's still on a long-term process of transformation, and until that is completed, there's more news to come.'
To be sure, Mitsubishi will face repercussions from the latest recall and will have to tread carefully in carrying it out.
'If anything, this increases the odds that we'll have a very drastic restructuring,' said William Nestuk, Tokyo-based auto analyst for WestLB Securities Pacific Ltd.
Eckrodt and Sonobe are expected to outline the company's restructuring plans on Monday, Feb. 26, in tandem with the release of a restructuring plan for DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler unit.
In the United States, meanwhile, the focus will be on customer reactions.
'Customers are fairly forgiving about recalls, but they'll quickly reach a pain threshold if they get more than a couple recalls on a vehicle,' said Joe Ivers, partner and executive director for quality and customer satisfaction research with J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif.
Said Mike Seidle, vice president of Bill Seidle's multifranchise dealership chain in Miami: 'No two ways about it, it's a lot of cars. But we'll get through it. We'll give the recalls a priority and push the other services aside to get these done.'
Along with the recalls themselves, Sonobe unveiled steps he has begun to take to improve Mitsubishi's quality control and to ensure that complaints are not hidden again. These range from placing higher-ranking executives in charge of quality assurance to mundane steps such as assigning consecutive numbers to product information reports 'to prevent omissions and ensure they are processed properly,' he said last week.
It was during the implementation of Sonobe's reforms that the latest round of problems emerged, prompting the recalls.
In the United States, the recalls were the result of recognition that the earlier recalls were inadequate.
In April 1999, after NHTSA received 62 consumer complaints, Mitsubishi recalled 464,000 vehicles to inspect the protective boots on lower lateral arm ball joints for excessive wear. A torn boot could allow water and dirt to get into the ball joint and corrode it, which could result in a loss of steering control.
Mitsubishi found that 14 percent of inspected vehicles needed the rubber boots or ball joints replaced, said Gael O'Brien, vice president of corporate communications for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.
After the first recall, though, 24 more consumer complaints were filed with NHTSA, including 18 for failures of ball joints that had been OK'd by Mitsubishi service technicians. Mitsubishi engineers discovered that the boot itself may be incorrectly seated over the ball joint. However, they do not know if it was a supplier part that was not in tolerance or if it was a poor vehicle assembly process.
All vehicles in the second recall will be re-inspected, and if the boot is still satisfactory, a sealant will be applied. If the boot is worn, it will be replaced, as might the ball joint.
Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin in Los Angeles contributed to this report