Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s decision last week to sell its only U.S. assembly plant illustrates an emerging new-world order in car production.
Mitsubishi's Normal, Ill., plant was part of a wave of Asian-brand joint-venture auto plants in North America that opened in the 1980s and 1990s to do whatever was necessary to crack the all-important U.S. retail market.
Mazda, Toyota, Subaru, Isuzu, Suzuki and, briefly, South Korea's Hyundai also opened North American joint-venture production lines in that era.
All have either closed or morphed into other production arrangements.
The new reality: Auto production is increasingly shifting to more cost-efficient global platforms and world supply bases that serve multiple markets.
Mitsubishi now finds itself competing not just against "built for U.S. consumption" auto ventures but against new-world strategies such as that of Mazda Motor Corp. Mazda once relied on a joint-venture with Ford Motor Co. in Flat Rock, Mich., to sustain its U.S. sales, but it now has opened a Mexican car and engine complex that will serve as the global export base for all of its Mazda3 and Mazda2 production while also supplying small cars to Toyota.
Likewise, Daimler AG and Nissan Motor Co. are constructing a $1.3 billion factory in Mexico that will yield six models of a jointly engineered compact premium platform that will be sold around the world.
By comparison, Mitsubishi's Illinois factory, which opened in 1988 as a multimodel 50-50 Chrysler partnership that was capable of producing 240,000 cars a year, has been struggling as a Mitsubishi-only factory, although it built a few Chrysler-badged cars until 2005. Last year, it built just 69,178 vehicles.
Conjecture has swirled for two decades that Mitsubishi would walk away from Normal, which today is the only Asian auto operation in the U.S. with a UAW-represented work force. The union local's contract expires in August.
In a statement to employees and dealers, Mitsubishi said it planned to close the plant in November 2015 if it can't find a buyer. A source said Mitsubishi has several candidates, including possibly some Detroit automakers, for the low-volume plant.