Last week at the New York auto show, Mitsubishi tried to turn the page on those dark days with a heavily restyled and re-engineered 2016 Outlander, which introduces a look that will soon spread across Mitsubishi's crossover lineup.
From the racy black-and-chrome "Dynamic Shield" grille to the metallic rails on the door sills and the softer leather seats, it sends a message: Mitsubishi is investing again.
Dealers such as R.C. Hill, owner of R.C. Hill Mitsubishi in DeLand, Fla., are hoping the 2016 Outlander keeps Mitsubishi on an upward track. Hill, a former chairman of Mitsubishi's national dealer council, said he sees the 2016 model as a vast improvement over its "bland" predecessor, with looks that make it seem more expensive than it is.
"We need something with style," Hill said, "and I think Mitsubishi nailed it."
The crossover will arrive in U.S. dealerships in late June and go on sale in mid-July.
A successful launch is critical for Mitsubishi, which is showing green shoots of resurgence in the U.S. The company reported a 20 percent increase in U.S. sales for the first quarter of 2015, and is expected to report a small profit in North America for the fiscal year that ended March 31.
On a global basis, Mitsubishi has chosen to specialize in crossovers and trucks, with their cushy profit margins. But success won't come cheap.
Mazda Motor Corp., another small Japanese automaker cut loose by its U.S. partner, bet the company on a clean-sheet reinvention with its Skyactiv technologies during the recession. Now its CX-5 crossover outsells Mitsubishi's whole lineup in the U.S., with 99,122 sales in 2014.
"We and other distributors have been able to clearly demonstrate that if you don't make these types of changes [to products] to stay competitive in this market," Swearingen said, "they aren't going to sell on their own."
In making those changes, Mitsubishi wagered on the U.S. dollar's continued strength against the yen. Last week, one U.S. dollar traded for about ¥120, roughly 60 percent more than in 2012, when the current Outlander was nearing launch.
This is good news for Japanese exporters that pay their workers and suppliers in yen, and for U.S. buyers, who get more stuff for the same price. Mitsubishi and its dealers hope the extra stuff in the Outlander, such as standard alloy wheels and sound deadening materials for a hushed ride, translates into sales.
"This should give us two good-volume vehicles in our lineup," Hill said, naming the U.S.-made Outlander Sport as the other. "We desperately need that. We don't want to go backwards."