With just 1,564 sales last month, the new 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport barely outsold the Nissan LEAF in August, so it’s not exactly like Mitsu’s crossover is tearing up the monthly sales charts. But thanks to that model, and some surprising sales bumps elsewhere in the lineup, the automaker itself has been one of the fastest-growing brands in the business for most of the year.
It’s something I first noticed as I was tracking Jeep’s outstanding success so far in 2011. That latter brand has conquered the industry’s challenging sales environment with the same kind of aplomb its vehicles show on the trail, garnering a 50 percent increase in deliveries through the month of August. Yet as impressive as that is, it pales before the growth of Mitsubishi, which has raised sales 64.9 percent on a year-to-date basis, capped off by an August that saw deliveries shoot up by 86 percent. That makes Mitsubishi the second-fastest-growing automaker in the industry through the first eight months of the year, trailing only—and shockingly—Saab.
Of course, volume-wise, Saab trails Mitsubishi by about as much as Mitsu trails the big boys, with the corpse of the Swedish automaker managing a total of 4,101 deliveries so far this year. That works out to a 98.6 percent YTD increase, but the fact of the matter is that Saab is circling the drain faster than it’s selling cars right now.
Mitsubishi, on the other hand, does appear to be showing some surprising signs of life.
Disasters? What Disasters?
And the surprise goes beyond just the numbers that Mitsubishi has put up so far in 2011—it’s the context in which the automaker is achieving these numbers that makes them really standout.
Following this spring’s tragedies in Japan, the post-disaster narrative for Japanese automakers has generally positioned Nissan as the luckiest of the bunch. The production disruptions caused by the tsunami/earthquake/radiation leaks in Japan took heavy tolls on both Toyota and Honda, two automakers that had been struggling even before then. But while sales from those two have been firmly in the red recently—total Toyota sales in the U.S. were down 12.7 in August, with Honda deliveries falling by 24.3 percent in the same period—Nissan has been able to eke out at least some amount of positive growth in every month of this year except April. And this includes a fairly impressive 19.1 percent jump last month.
But after closing the books on 2010 by achieving a modest 3.8 percent increase in sales for that year, Mitsubishi’s worst month this year was January, when it still raised deliveries by 37.3 percent. And the company’s numbers for the rest of the year go like this: February, up 71.5 percent; March, up 39.1 percent; April, up 105.5 percent; May, up 59.8 percent; June, up 97.7 percent; July, up 41.1 percent; and, again, August, up 86 percent.
Obviously, it’s kind of hard to see any “disruptions” in those figures.
The Sun Sets on the Eclipse
The answer to this mystery—and the problem for Mitsubishi going forward—becomes apparent when you dig into the numbers a little deeper. The Outlander Sport is a new model, so there’s no way to measure its year-over-year sales growth and attempt to put its recent performance in context.
But when you look to the rest of the lineup, it’s vehicle like the Mitsubishi Galant and Mitsubishi Endeavor that were the company’s growth leaders in August. Deliveries of the Galant midsize sedan jumped up by 42.4 percent and sales of the Endeavor crossover posted a crazy 773.3 percent improvement. That may look like good news, but it’s not, because the Galant and Endeavor (and Mitsubishi Eclipse) are all in their last year of existence.
Mitsubishi is re-strategizing its approach to the U.S. market and will join a number of other automakers in integrating its global and American lineups. Practically speaking, that means the axe will fall on the three models just mentioned, while the Outlander and Mitsubishi Lancer families will be bolstered with plenty of attention and support.
Now, I’ve driven the latest Lancer Sportback, and it’s certainly a more than competent car. But the Lancer lineup grew sales by a meager 4 percent in August and there’s nothing to indicate it will do much better in the future. It’s also true that the automaker will soon launch the all-electric Mitsubishi i, but I’m not breaking any news when I say EVs remain a large gamble in the current U.S. market.
And if the “i" doesn’t work out well for Mitsubishi, the company’s goal of returning to relevancy in this country could be short-circuited permanently.
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