LOS ANGELES -- Quick, name the newest electric vehicle from a mainstream automaker to hit the U.S. market.
If you're scratching your head, you're not alone. Aside from dealers and EV enthusiasts, few are paying attention to the Mitsubishi i, the newest and cheapest U.S. EV from an established automaker.
More than 16,000 consumers in Europe and Japan have bought an i since its 2009 global sales launch. But it's a different story stateside, where the egg-shaped minicar debuted late last year with barely a murmur. Even in green-friendly Los Angeles, one of the first markets to sell the i, the vehicle has been all but invisible, on the streets and in media.
"It's kind of been the invisible launch," said a West Coast Mitsubishi dealer who requested anonymity. "The car is very good, make no mistake about it. But there's very little marketing support. Customers just don't really know about it."
As a result, Mitsubishi has sold just 295 units of the i through April. Sales began in November.
That's far short of the 2,000 that Mitsubishi Motors Corp. officials in Japan had hoped to sell in the United States by now. Mitsubishi has since cut its U.S. sales goal.
Mitsubishi's small size and marketing budget limit what it can do to promote the car.
Dealer margins on i sales are slim, and with a base price of $29,975, before a $7,500 federal tax credit, Mitsubishi loses money on every i sold here. Advertising has been scant, and a beefed-up effort this quarter will shun a big-budget TV campaign for print and digital ads.
Initial sales goals set by the company's global EV business office were "very aggressive," Masatoshi Hasegawa, executive vice president of electric vehicle operations for Mitsubishi Motors North America, said in an interview.
Hasegawa said the company now hopes to sell 2,200 to 2,400 units in its current fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2013. That's down from its original U.S. goal, which Hasegawa declined to disclose.
Slower-than-expected deployment of EV charging infrastructure in most U.S. markets has slowed i sales, Hasegawa said. American consumers have also been slow to adopt alternative powertrain vehicles in general, he said.
"The U.S. market is hesitating on this kind of new technology," Hasegawa said. "Taking these circumstances into account, we need to readjust our speed of deployment in the market."