LAEM CHABANG, Thailand -- At this gleaming, barely year-old Mitsubishi assembly plant, it's the little things that say you're in Thailand and not Toyota City or Tennessee.
There's the errant sparrow inside the new cafeteria, apparently trying to nest in an air duct. There are the conspicuous loose and wobbly faucets in the new worker washroom.
Don't forget the copious curtains of sparks showering clear across the factory aisles. The dearth of robots. Or the legions of workers swarming the line, especially in quality control.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s newest factory may be a little rough around the edges. But it is doing something never done before. It just started exporting vehicles from this hot, humid, sometimes chaotic Southeast Asian emerging market to the United States.
It may be followed by other rivals, as automakers pump up production capacity here and Thai leaders seek to emulate Japan's export-based growth model of past decades.
Mitsubishi President Osamu Masuko, desperate to cut costs and boost beleaguered U.S. sales, is betting that American customers will like their first taste of Thai-made autos.
The maiden shipment of 1,074 Mitsubishi Mirage subcompact hatchbacks set sail from Laem Chabang port, just south of Bangkok, on Aug. 27. The pint-sized 1.2-liter three-bangers, in a palette of colors such as powder puff magenta and Key lime green, hit U.S. showrooms last month.
Mitsubishi is projecting a scant 7,200 annual U.S. sales for the Mirage. But competitors will be watching the budget-priced hatchback as Thailand blossoms from a regional manufacturing hub into a global auto exporter. Rivals, including Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and even BMW are adding Thai output to tap Southeast Asia's booming economy and to free production capacity elsewhere.
That makes it likely that more Thai-made cars will cross the ocean, especially if the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact eventually opens tariff-free trade between Thailand and other nations, including the United States.
Thailand already exports to Japan and Europe, trading on its low costs, government incentives and liberal trade agreements.
In 1995, the country exported barely 8,800 vehicles. Last year, it shipped just over 1 million.
The Thailand-made Mirage is a revived nameplate that succeeds the Mitsubishi Colt small car, previously made in Japan. Mitsubishi decided to move global production offshore, even for Mirages bound for Japan. Meanwhile, Ford will reportedly shift Fiesta small-car production from Mexico to Thailand in 2016, possibly signaling more Thai-made imports to the United States down the road.
Turning to Thailand carries risks. Chief among them is quality. The 14 auto assemblers in Thailand churned out 2.45 million vehicles last year, making it the ninth-largest producer in the world, just behind Mexico and ahead of Canada. But it's mostly a young industry with a young, inexperienced work force.
Mitsubishi executives, only half-jokingly, say they rescheduled their local factory's daily flag-raising and national-anthem ceremony so that the compulsively patriotic but not so compulsively punctual Thai workers would show up on time.
"Back in 2001, so many workers came late," says plant Senior Vice President Yasuhisa Yamamoto, who previously worked at Mitsubishi's assembly plant in Normal, Ill. "So Japanese members decided to set the exercise time before 8:00. Then at 8:00 the national anthem starts ... It's much better than before."
J.D. Power and Associates' country-by-country Initial Quality Study, which measures problems reported by owners in the first nine months of ownership, suggests Thailand still trails in quality.
In the latest studies, Japan's industry average was 100 problems reported per 100 cars. The Thai average was 116.
J.D. Power said that small cars such as the Mirage fared the worst in Thailand's study, averaging 132 problems per 100 vehicles. Thai respondents complained about noisy brakes, air conditioner problems and transmission concerns. Still, Thailand's clichéd mai pen rai mentality -- a catchphrase encapsulating the local "no worries" way of life -- has taken a back seat as the country rides to prosperity.
Mitsubishi's new plant opened in March 2012, with capacity of 200,000 units a year.
Combined with two existing plants nearby, Mitsubishi's Laem Chabang complex is its biggest manufacturing hub in the world, capable of churning out 510,000 units a year. During the fiscal year ended March 31, it produced 394,000 vehicles, excluding vehicles made for other companies.
Part of the quality equation goes: If the cars are good enough for fickle Japanese, they must be good enough for Americans. As Mitsunori Kitao, COO of Mitsubishi Motors Thailand Co., puts it, Americans "aren't picky; their sense is different."
In a strategy known as "reverse importing," Nissan pioneered the importing of Thai-built cars to Japan -- starting with the March compact in 2010. Mitsubishi followed by shipping Thailand-made Mirages back to Japan in 2012.
But those cars get exceptional attention.
A special "double-check" subline awaits all Japan-bound cars, while those bound for local markets are shuffled off to the lot. Doting workers preen the vehicles headed to Japan, scan for minor imperfections and buff out any problems that squeaked through.
Initially, even that didn't satisfy fussy Japanese dealers.
"Our dealers pointed out, especially with the paint quality at the beginning of production, that there was a quality problem because the paint shop was also new," says Ryujiro Kobashi, U.S. marketing chief for the Mirage. "But after three or four months, there were no complaints. We sent production engineers from Japan to Thailand, and the process was very much improved."
U.S.-bound cars get this velvet treatment, too -- at least for the time being. After six months of working out any kinks, Mitsubishi intends to drop the extra screening for them.
Japan-bound reimports, however, will get vetted indefinitely.
Mitsubishi is banking on its expertise in exporting from Thailand. Indeed, it was the first automaker to do so, in 1988.
The first vehicle was the Lancer Champ, sent to Canada but not the United States. Shipments to North America ended in 1993.
Today, Mitsubishi's Thailand operations send vehicles -- especially pickups -- to about 140 countries.
Automakers are flocking to Thailand.
Since 2010, Toyota, Ford, Suzuki, Nissan and Honda have announced plans to either build new factories or expand existing ones. BMW has started making the Mini Countryman here and China's SAIC Motor Corp. is building an assembly plant to make MG-brand cars for the domestic market and export.
Thai production is skyrocketing. And capacity will grow to just over 3.4 million vehicles a year by 2015, predicts the Thailand Automotive Institute, a government-affiliated foundation that promotes the local industry.
About 40 percent of Thailand's output is exported.
The bias is spurred partly by government policy that aspires toward replicating Japan's export-led economic miracle.
"The Thailand market is very small, and we cannot absorb all the production volume we have," said Tasana Piriyaprut, vice president of the government-affiliated Thailand Automotive Institute. "We are aiming for exports to other countries."
By 2020, Toyota will remain the biggest local producer with projected output of some 884,000 units, according to IHS Automotive. Mitsubishi will be No. 2 with 457,000 units.
But Ford, GM, Honda, Isuzu and Nissan will each be churning out more than 100,000 units. And new entrants from China, including SAIC, Dongfeng and Great Wall, are expected to join the mix.
"We are a global production base, and our auto industry can match any quality standard," said Ajarin Pattanapanchai, a senior executive investment adviser at Thailand's Board of Investment. "The opportunity to grow is still very strong."