TOKYO — CEO Osamu Masuko wants Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to make a V-shaped recovery from the dark days of 2016, when it was laid low by a fuel economy scandal in Japan. And it is rebounding fast with the help of its new alliance partner, Nissan Motor Co.
Last month, Masuko unveiled his first business plan since Nissan took a controlling 34 percent stake in the company. He aims to lift global sales by 40 percent to 1.3 million vehicles by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, and boost revenue more than 30 percent by then.
Masuko, 68, is also stepping up investment into new factories and r&d to keep the product pipeline pumping. Mitsubishi will introduce 11 new or redesigned models over the next three years. Cost savings from synergies with Nissan will help, but the real jump comes after 2020, when Mitsubishi and Nissan begin rolling out shared platforms and powertrains.
Speaking through an interpreter, Masuko spoke Oct. 25 with News Editor Lindsay Chappell, Asia Editor Hans Greimel and Los Angeles Reporter David Undercoffler here about U.S. growth targets, the introduction of electrified vehicles and cooperation with Nissan.
Q: Mitsubishi plans to boost U.S. sales 30 percent by 2020. How will you do that?
A: The biggest market in the world is China. The second-biggest is America. In these two countries, our sales volume has been very small up until now.
If you think about it, if we grow by 30 percent, it's not so difficult to do that.
To grow 30 percent from 300,000 or 500,000, it would be very difficult.
But in China, we sold 70,000 units last year, and this year we aim to sell 110,000. And in 2019, we will try to sell 220,000 vehicles.
In the U.S., we're trying to sell 120,000 units. And the reason I say it's not that difficult is the Eclipse crossover will be introduced as well as the Outlander PHEV.
And the number of dealers will increase, and the performance of the business itself is going to improve. So if we do all these things, then we can hit the target. I think it's possible.
Mitsubishi is heavy on crossovers in the U.S., but do you see a future for sedans?
What we're strong in is SUVs and 4x4s. Concerning r&d, that's where we're going to spend our resources. That hasn't changed. What's different from the past is that last year we became a member of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, and we can make use of their technology assets.
After 2020, the impact of synergies will come to life.
For example, common platforms and powertrains will be utilized. And there are going to be models on these common platforms and powertrains. Synergies will come into effect after 2020.
In that situation, I think there will be opportunities to introduce a Mitsubishi sedan in the U.S.
But we don't have plans to develop a sedan on our own. It wouldn't be just a rebadge. The design will be completely different. We would like to clearly differentiate our models and show the special characteristics of each company.
Is Mitsubishi already planning that vehicle?
There are no concrete plans at the moment.
What about a pickup for the U.S.?
The pickups we make are not so big. But the American market requires big-size pickup trucks.
We are focused on developing pickups for non-U.S. markets such as [Southeast Asia] and the Middle East. So for the U.S., if there is an opportunity, we might get it from Nissan. We would like to consider if there are opportunities from within the Alliance.
We haven't decided on a pickup, but there is a possibility.
What is Mitsubishi's road map for self-driving technologies?
We must watch the development of regulations. For example, the technology is at the level where you don't have to steer the vehicle on the highways. But under Japanese traffic laws, it's a breach to lift your hands off the steering wheel. The rules have to be revised. Technological innovation is fast. But the regulations are not keeping pace. This is a big issue.
The U.S. is very progressive about that.
In Japan, it's not even clear when we are going to change the regulations. The revision of the laws and the advancement of technology have to be synchronized.
How does Mitsubishi plan to reinvigorate its U.S. dealer network?
We didn't really quantify the number of dealers. We are trying to change the dealers qualitatively and quantitatively. We closed the plant [in Normal, Ill.], and among dealers and U.S. customers, I think they lost confidence in Mitsubishi's commitment to the U.S. market. They don't trust us.
By becoming an Alliance member, we are now able to easily establish a high-quality product lineup. We are clearly able to make a commitment to the U.S. market. I think the dealers will think this way: There is no uncertainty in the future of Mitsubishi. The commitment toward the U.S. is clear. So, the dealers would think, "Let's do business with Mitsubishi."
How can Mitsubishi bring down incentives?
You have to sell a certain number of vehicles to keep the utilization rate of the plants up. There tends to be an incentive competition. Incentives are a very difficult issue. When the competition starts and you reduce incentives, it's very hard to sell the car.
How can Mitsubishi increase its brand power to have more leverage over incentives?
How to enhance brand power in the U.S. is the key. I think it lies in PHEV technology. Mitsubishi actually has this PHEV technology, and we are able to produce vehicles that are compatible with the environment. This is going to contribute to the enhancement of the Mitsubishi brand image.
How much potential does Mitsubishi see for cooperating with Nissan in the U.S.?
We have to consider electric vehicles, plug-ins, fuel cell vehicles, artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, connectivity, ride sharing, car sharing. All of these.
One company cannot do it alone. Unless you have strong partners, you can't survive.
The problem is that when a new age comes, automotive companies have to dispose of something. When EVs come, we won't need engine plants.
This is going to be very big damage for us. But Tesla doesn't have anything to dispose of. Dyson too. They don't have anything to get rid of.
The person who doesn't have baggage is in a very powerful position right now.
Product planners from Nissan and Mitsubishi reportedly can't work together in the U.S. right now because of antitrust laws. Can that be resolved or is it a permanent situation?
We're not only thinking about the U.S. when we talk about the Alliance. We're looking at the whole world. Of course, the U.S. is a very important market for us. And China is an important market for us. So, technological development will progress. The required vehicles differ from country to country.
We're not focused just on the U.S. but the entire world.
So that's not a problem?
There will be common platforms and powertrains. And after 2020, these technologies will be introduced in the market.