Mitsubishi Motors North America is coming off its best sales year in the U.S. since 2007.
The Japanese automaker that was struggling to crack the six-figure sales mark did so last year when it sold 103,686 vehicles in the U.S., up 7.7 percent from a year earlier.
Last year was the first time Mitsubishi sold more than 100,000 units since 2007.
New product is starting to reach Mitsubishi dealerships with the most visible being the Outlander plug-in hybrid, the first nonluxury plug-in hybrid crossover in the U.S., which launched late last year.
Don Swearingen, COO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, has said the PHEV could be a halo vehicle for the brand.
An all-new vehicle, the Eclipse Cross, joins the lineup in 2018, which is welcome news to Mitsubishi dealers hoping to capitalize on consumers' shift to crossovers.
Mitsubishi expects U.S. sales to increase.
In a three-year plan unveiled in October, the automaker said it's looking to hit 130,000 sales a year in the U.S. by the end of that period, with a lift from the Outlander PHEV and Eclipse Cross.
And in late February, the latest step in the Renualt Nissan Alliance's plan to revive the small automaker came into focus when Mitsubishi named industry veteran Fred Diaz North American president and CEO, succeeding Ryujiro Kobashi. The appointment is effective April 1.
Diaz last year had quietly been assigned to the role of general manager in charge of performance optimization for Mitsubishi's global marketing and sales, after leading Nissan's North American truck strategy. Previously, he was Nissan North America's senior vice president for U.S. sales and marketing. Before joining Nissan in 2013, Diaz was CEO of Ram and CEO of Chrysler de Mexico and Latin America.
Joe Bizzarro, chairman of the Mitsubishi National Advisory Board, has been impressed by the Outlander PHEV's start and believes the Eclipse Cross will bring in conquest buyers once it arrives. Bizzarro, 46, owns Interstate Mitsubishi in Erie, Pa. He spoke with Staff Reporter Jack Walsworth in February.
Q: How was 2017 for Mitsubishi dealers?
A: It was great. I had my biggest new-car year ever. For my store, it had come down to just the longevity. We're penetrating the market more and more. Nationally, I have to believe it's how they're marketing the product now along with new product coming out. Plus, we're getting out there with some excitement of the Outlander plug-in hybrid and the Eclipse Cross. Mitsubishi changed up the advertisement a little bit, too, which I think is more of a foundation. We have one direction that we're heading in instead of switching up our messages.
What areas are growing for Mitsubishi?
New-car sales have grown. Fixed operations is starting to grow, too. There are more vehicles that we put on the road, there are more units in operation and there are more people who need parts and service.
How has the Outlander plug-in hybrid been received by dealers?
I saw the numbers that we did last month, and they're quite impressive to see what we're doing with the vehicle. I received three of them two weeks ago, and I've already sold one and I have another sale in the works now. I can't say that it's going to be a volume vehicle like the Outlander Sport, but we're going to see more sales than I think we're anticipating. If we can get that car in front of the public and market it the right way, that car is going to be a big hit.
How are dealers getting the word out about the Outlander PHEV?
We have a national advertisement and we have a national social media program. Some dealers are probably going to take it among themselves to advertise it. They're probably going to do TV, radio and social media, which is most cost-effective. I think you've got a nice percentage of dealers that are thinking outside the box for it and doing some advertisement in their area.
Does the Outlander PHEV bring a new customer to Mitsubishi?
There's definitely a different market that drives that customer into our showroom. There's a lot of people that heard about it several months ago that have been inquiring about the car. I see that bringing in new customers and I see our customers having something that they can trade their prior Mitsubishis in on to go to a car like this. They know the product. With the PHEV, they see the mpgs and the technology and the great warranty. I think it's going to do both. I think it's going to have people who can stay loyal to the brand and it's going to bring new customers in.
The Eclipse Cross is all new. How important is that vehicle to Mitsubishi dealers?
It's very important to have a car or CUV that's going to be a good competitor to the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Right now, our Outlander Sport sales are awesome. But the Eclipse Cross has a different look, along with the technology, the power and the luxury inside. That's going to bring us customers from other bigger manufacturers who are going to take a look at our car. Once again, we've got to market it right also and get that awareness out there. It's going to be good.
Is the Eclipse Cross something that dealers have been clamoring for?
Yes. We were looking to add something a little bit bigger and a little bit more plush with a little bit more horsepower and technology to our lineup to compete with the bigger brands.
When you're bringing a new vehicle to market, such as the Eclipse Cross, what goes into that launch effort?
They have an awesome launch for the car. With the total eclipse we had back in the summer, Mitsubishi took the car to three to four different locations and shot different footage and still shots of the Eclipse Cross in front of the eclipse as the background with actual live footage. It's going to be a pretty cool marketing strategy.
People will get to see that it's not the same Eclipse that everyone's used to. Once they hear Eclipse Cross and see that, they'll understand it. I think the whole market is really shifting over to the small, four-wheel-drive crossover. I have a Nissan store, too, and we just came out with the Rogue Sport, which is smaller, like the Honda HR-V. It looks to me that the industry, at least imports, is shying away from sedans. Especially up here in the Northeast, a lot of people are really shifting over to that. For the cost and the mpg, people in this area are moving up to crossovers.
When does the Eclipse Cross begin to reach dealerships?
March and into early April.
What product is missing from Mitsubishi's lineup?
I think if we can add a truck back because we do kind of have a short lineup. Once we have the PHEV, the Outlander, the Outlander Sport, the new Eclipse Cross and we have the Mirage, that's going to give us a little more variety. But I think if we add a truck, there's a truck market. If we could add a truck, you would see a lot of dealers happy. Our product lineup is a little short but if we had a truck, I think that's going to keep us going in the right direction. Everything else seems to be falling in place. A lot more dealers' sales have grown in 2017. Everything's moving forward. I think what one of the holdbacks is, if you ask me or most of the dealers, they're probably going to say a pickup truck.
At this point, what is Mitsubishi's brand identity in the U.S.?
Crossovers. I think their identity is getting into the crossovers, their great warranty, their great mpgs. And we have a safe product, too. One thing that they do, they build a good product. Price has always been a big point and there's safety.
Has Mitsubishi's involvement with dealership operations increased or decreased over the last year?
They've really been getting involved more with the dealers on how we can expand our sales. Our field reps have been coming in and we share numbers and see what other dealers are doing. Mitsubishi is really standing behind us as dealers. And they're getting creative in California at the main headquarters.
How is Mitsubishi's service business? Are Mitsubishi service departments just as busy as those industrywide?
We're feeling the same effect. We're seeing a lot more traffic driven through our service center, more units in operation and marketing to our customers better. We're facing the same thing. With my service department right now, I have six bays. I just put on an 8,500-square-foot service bay that's going to facilitate 12 lifts and three wash bays for our customers. Right now, I'm out three to four weeks for my customers and I want to get them in a lot quicker because we can lose them to other places.
Are there any concerns when it comes to inventory?
We're going to look nationally to see how we can have more inventory available for dealers if they have a great month. With how our ordering system works, we're three months out on cars. We're going to see if we can get some inventory built sitting somewhere for dealers to pull out of. I don't think we have an inventory issue, but we want to think ahead for dealers. We're coming to the good time of the year with the new product and a lot more marketing.
What was the best thing that Mitsubishi did for dealers in 2017?
They shared their direction that they're moving in with all the dealers and introduced all the new product. And they committed to all the dealers with, "Here's our plan. Here's what we're going to do."
Were there any setbacks for Mitsubishi in 2017?
None that I have known of. You always have some of your dealers that some things don't quite sit with them but with what I've seen and what we've done, most of the dealers that I know have not complained. We're just continuing to grow sales month after month.
What can Mitsubishi dealers expect with Mitsubishi joining the Renault-Nissan Alliance?
I think there's definitely going to be more product coming out with Nissan on board. I think we're going to see more advertisement due to the advertising Nissan does now. I'm sure we're going to have some sort of spinoff of Mitsubishi getting a lot more awareness out there, too.
What accomplishment as chairman of the Mitsubishi National Advisory Board are you most proud of?
There's a lot of things I'm proud of. I got to see a few changes on how Mitsubishi is marketing the cars. I get to see Nissan coming on board and the direction we're going with them. One thing that I like, that I've noticed, is that all the dealer body when we have a national meeting or a regional meeting, everybody is just all positive and they're all excited with the direction that we're going especially with Nissan on board. Everybody is all revved up about it.
We're on the front lines. We work with everything on a day-to-day basis. So we've really got to take that to Mitsubishi headquarters and let them know what we're facing. I, along with a lot of the board members, have done this over the past year and Mitsubishi listens. And if it makes sense, they change up things. They want us to succeed as much they want to succeed.