It's time for another trip outside of the mainstream, and today we'll be tripping in the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback'”provided to me with a full tank of gas by the friendly folks at Mitsubishi. It was good timing, too, because after enduring much speculation about whether it would have to drop out of the U.S. market, Mitsubishi is on a bit of a tear so far this year.
The company finished 2010 with a modest 12 percent sales gain in December'”selling all of 4,874 units'”and that was just enough to propel an annual improvement of 4 percent. That would be a disaster for most of the mainstream automakers, but for Mitsubishi it was the first annual sales increase since 2007. And then something odd happened: In January of 2011, Mitsubishi sales jumped up by an impressive 37 percent, the fourth-highest gain in the entire industry, trailing only Jeep, Jaguar and Cadillac. Monthly Mitsu sales next accelerated to a 71.5 percent increase in February before regressing a bit to a 39 percent bump in March (which was still the fifth-best performance in the industry).
Then, last month, the automaker recorded a 105.5 percent increase in customers over April 2010, representing sales of 8,081 units'”the most in one month for Mitsubishi since August 2008. That made the company the fastest-growing brand in the industry in April (well, except for Saab, which hardly counts anymore) as well as for the first four months of the year.
The Lancer Comes into Focus
Now, the Lancer hasn't exactly been the vehicle driving these gains, but it did garner plenty of attention'”and a 40 percent sales improvement'”last month, and it's easy to see why. When one of my friends got his first glance at the Lancer Sportback, he mistook it for a new Ford Focus. And the comparison is unexpectedly apt. Like the Focus, the Lancer Sportback GTS is a stylish five-door hatch with a fair amount of premium content, including its own voice-activated interface for controlling audio and phone functionality. The cabin was very well done, with an interesting use of glossy, patterned plastic trim that looked way better than it sounds.
It's a bit peppier than the Focus as well, thanks to a bit of extra horsepower (168 hp for the Lancer vs. 160 for the Focus) and a more significant torque advantage (167 lb.-ft. in the Lancer vs. 146 lb.-ft. in the Focus). Of course, the Mitsu's bigger engine and older transmission leave it well off the Focus' marks with the EPA. The Lancer Sportback is rated at 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined, while the Focus SFE will showcase a line of 28/40/33.
On the other hand, the Lancer Sportback does offer a notable price advantage over the Focus: As I mentioned, I had the car in the up-level GTS trim, with an MSRP of $19,895, and that compares to a base price of $18,200 for the Focus SE hatch. But the Lancer Sportback already has features like its FUSE hands-free link system already baked in; for a more comparable vehicle from Ford, you have to look at the Focus SEL five-door, and that opens at $21,100. Plus, Mitsubishi also offers the Lancer Sportback in a lower trim level, with a slightly smaller engine, starting at $16,995.
The bottom line here is that the Lancer Sportback is a surprisingly strong alternative to the Focus, and when you remember that it's just one part of the Lancer family'”along with the Lancer proper and the Lancer Evolution'”it's obvious the company has a strong base on which to build its business in the U.S.
Outlander in Demand
All that being said, the most important factor behind the automaker's growth is, naturally, the success of its new small crossover, the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. A nimbler, more fuel-efficient version of the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Sport model topped the 1,400-unit mark in sales last month and has helped Mitsu to some relatively nice market-share gains in recent months. In fact, by the end of last month, Mitsubishi's piece of the non-car pie had risen .3 points over April 2010 to reach .4 percent of the market. That may seem nearly irrelevant, but it's now in striking range of the numbers put up by Subaru and Mazda, both of which hold .6 percent of the market with their crossover lineups.
Backed by the success of its Lancer and Outback families, Mitsubishi would seem to have a lot going for it. The company also is cutting the deadwood from its lineup by eliminating the Mitsubishi Galant, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mitsubishi Endeavor; improving its production situation by bringing its new vehicles to its U.S. plant in Normal, Ill.; and it's bringing the all-electric Mitsubishi i to this country, too.
Now if Mitsubishi can recover from the tragedy in Japan without losing too much momentum, its commitment to the U.S. market may actually pay off.