DETROIT (Reuters) -- Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (MMC) on Monday said it would begin exporting the Galant sedan from the United States to Eastern Europe and the Middle East in 2006 to help increase production at its under-utilized Normal, Illinois, plant.
"There's a definite interest in Eastern Europe and the Gulf states," said Rich Gilligan, who took over as chief executive of the Japanese automaker's North American operations after his predecessor Finbarr O'Neill's sudden resignation last week.
Gilligan, who spoke to reporters at the North American International Auto Show, gave no volume targets.
Hit by plunging sales, MMC last year cut output capacity at its sole U.S. plant by 22 percent to 140,000 units a year, slashing 1,200 jobs as it moved to one-shift production. The plant has maximum capacity to build 270,000 vehicles.
MMC, Japan's only loss-making car manufacturer, badly needs to repair its North American operations, which plunged deep into the red after easy loans extended to car buyers with poor credit histories over the years went sour.
Last year, its U.S. sales dropped 37 percent to 161,600 units -- the lowest in 15 years and less than half what it sold just two years before. Its U.S. market share fell one half a percentage point to 1.0 percent.
But Gilligan said he expected sales to improve this year. He blamed the drop in 2004 on an intentional pullback of low-margin sales to fleet customers and the end of the easy-credit sales strategy.
"We've got three new products (this fiscal year) and there should be a lift in 2005 sales versus 2004," he said.
MMC launched its new Eclipse sports car at the Detroit show. The auto maker is also set to launch a new pickup truck and a convertible by March 2006.
Gilligan declined to comment on media reports that MMC may begin building vehicles for France's Peugeot on an original manufacturing equipment basis.
But he said MMC would be "excited" to build products for any automaker to fill the Normal plant's capacity.
Acknowledging that the United States remained a "very tough market" for any automaker, Gilligan reiterated MMC's target of returning to profitability in the region by the end of 2006.