A look at Japan's smaller automakers reveals three companies operating in the United States from very different positions.
Subaru is a consistent winner, with profits on the rise and U.S. sales galloping. Mazda, after a rocky start to the year, is beginning to turn the corner with new products and rebounding U.S. sales. And Mitsubishi, now the smallest Japanese automaker in the market -- Suzuki in November said it would cease U.S. auto sales -- is getting even smaller, with 2013 sales through July down 4 percent to 35,699 units (fewer than Subaru sold in July alone).
Those fortunes are reflected in each company's product plans.
Subaru intends to bring more vehicle production stateside by adding the redesigned Impreza compact to its Lafayette, Ind., plant in 2016, but not before burnishing its high-performance credentials with a next-generation WRX/STI sedan scheduled to go on sale early next year. Subaru's bread-and-butter Legacy/Outback lineup also gets redesigned next year for the 2015 model year.
Mazda's product revamp is under way after the redesigned Mazda6 mid-sized sedan's arrival this year. Mazda's perennial best-seller, the Mazda3 compact, goes on sale this fall before the Mazda6 and its CX-5 compact crossover receive new interiors and updated front fascias next year. Like the CX-5, the Mazda6 and Mazda3 ride on a new vehicle platform with powertrain technologies that were, for the first time in decades, exclusively designed by and made for Mazda. For the 2016 model year, a redesigned MX-5 Miata will breathe new life into the automaker's iconic roadster.
Mitsubishi's lineup is decidedly murkier. Its tiny i-MiEV electric car, once a key to its growth strategy, is selling slowly, and no big changes are planned. Mitsubishi's next new vehicle, the Mirage minicar, goes on sale this fall, but it competes in a segment with razor-thin profit margins and intensifying competition. A new Mirage-based sedan and Outlander plug-in hybrid are also expected to be added to the lineup by 2016.
In the meantime, Mitsubishi must make some big decisions about its role in the U.S. auto industry's two highest-volume segments.
No plan exists for a mid-sized sedan to replace the Galant. The Lancer compact is scheduled to get a new design and interior in 2015, but with most competitors recently launching fresh compact cars -- many on new platforms with major improvements in performance and fuel efficiency -- a new look might not be enough to keep Mitsubishi in the hunt in the brutally competitive segment.