Mitsubishi halts EV production, sales in Japan amid battery problems
TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has suspended production of its Outlander plug-in hybrid crossover and a variant of its i electric car after one lithium ion battery melted at a dealership and another caught fire in an assembly plant.
Mitsubishi also has suspended sales of both vehicles in Japan.
The carmaker is trying to determine whether the battery problems affect i electric vehicles sold in the United States and other markets. Sales will continue there in the meantime.
The Outlander plug-in hybrid, sold only in Japan, is scheduled to arrive in the United States next year. The battery glitch is not expected to delay the U.S. launch, Mitsubishi spokeswoman Namie Koketsu said today.
Mitsubishi has yet to determine the cause of the problem but hopes to restart production within weeks, Koketsu said.
Mitsubishi announced the problems on Wednesday and is determining whether and how to issue a recall.
"We announced this issue before a recall to tell the consumers immediately for their safety," Koketsu said. "We're still trying to determine which cars are affected and the root cause."
The mishaps, which took place March 18 and 21, are a blow to Mitsubishi, which is positioning electrified vehicles at the center of a push to rebrand itself as an eco-car leader. They also are a setback for the Outlander plug-in hybrid, which has brisk sales in Japan and is the first vehicle showcasing Mitsubishi's new hybrid technology.
The Outlander plug-in hybrid went on sale in Japan on Jan. 24 and Mitsubishi has sold 4,000. That is nearly double the total of the standard gasoline-only Outlander, which has sold 2,500 vehicles in Japan since it went on sale here in October.
The battery problems evoke those of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which had its global fleet grounded because of overheating lithium ion batteries. The Boeing and the Mitsubishi battery packs trace their origins to the same supplier.
Mitsubishi's were made by Lithium Energy Japan, a joint venture with Japanese battery maker GS Yuasa Corp. Boeing's batteries were made directly by GS Yuasa. The batteries were made at different plants and have different materials and designs.
Mitsubishi suspects the problem stems from defects in battery manufacturing. Lithium Energy Japan changed its production process in December, Koketsu said. One possibility is foreign material contaminating the battery packs.
The i EV problem occurred March 18, when a battery pack overheated in the battery inspection room of Mitsubishi's Mizushima assembly plant.
It started smoking and eventually caught fire an hour later.
The Outlander problem occurred three days later, when a plug-in at a Yokohama dealership was being brought out for delivery to a customer. The car wouldn't move and employees discovered that part of the battery pack had overheated and melted.
No one was injured in either incident.
All of the 4,000 Outlander plug-in hybrids sold so far could potentially be affected by the problem.
But an exact number of affected vehicles is unavailable because the cause is unknown, Koketsu said.
In the meantime, drivers have been advised not to recharge their Outlander plug-in hybrids through its plug. They should also turn off the electric-only drive mode and disable the function that allows the engine to recharge the battery while driving.
The i and a commercial vehicle variant called the Minicab come in two trim levels. The upper trim, which gets a bigger, more-powerful battery, uses the Lithium Energy Japan power pack. The lower trim uses a less-powerful battery made by Toshiba.
Mitsubishi has halted production of only the vehicles with the Lithium Energy Japan-made batteries.
The Toshiba batteries apparently are fine.
Mitsubishi says 68 of the EV battery packs made after the December production change were installed into EVs that were delivered to fleet customers in Japan.
Another 45 shipped as spare parts to Japan.
Mitsubishi is investigating whether affected batteries were installed in cars shipped overseas, Koketsu said.
Mitsubishi has sold 15,000 i electric cars, since the model's debut in July 2009. About 1,300 were sold in the United States. Mitsubishi has sold an additional 4,000 Minicab EVs, all in Japan.
Through February of this year, Mitsubishi sold 1,210 i EVs, including 600 in the United States, Koketsu said.
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