For the past decade, Mitsubishi has been almost an afterthought in the U.S. car-buying market, fading from the popular imagination as it limped forward with older, cheap, uncompetitive cars and sank in quality rankings. But Fred Diaz, the newly minted CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America—now a part of the Nissan-Renault Alliance—is trying to get the brand back in touch with American buyers.
And no, before you ask, he isn’t planning to do so with a new Evo.
Instead, the company is slowly introducing a new generation of consumer-pleasing, competent crossovers and boosting marketing efforts to get them on buyers’ shopping lists. Even if Mitsubishi wanted to build high-performance, street-legal rally cars again, it has to start with the basics—and right now that means volume-selling crossovers.
At this point, Diaz says, it’s not about rebranding. It’s about introducing people to the brand.
“We are not a damaged brand,” Diaz told Jalopnik in a wide-ranging interview at our New York offices. “We haven’t done anything wrong, we haven’t made any big fiasco mistakes or have any black eyes [...] we just have very poor awareness as a brand.”
Diaz never said it, but a read between the lines suggests his company isn’t Volkswagen, attempting to re-earn the public trust after an emissions cheating scandal. But it has other problems, like what does that brand look like, and how does it avoid overlap with Nissan as they share technology?
Absent a halo model or enthusiast-focused vehicle, Mitsubishi has struggled to get attention in automotive media outlets. A quick look at our own “Mitsubishi” tag will show some whining about the carmaker reviving old nameplates as crossovers and a bunch of posts about the old Mitsubishis we loved.
And that’s fine; plenty of automakers get by without love from the enthusiast press. Most people just need transportation at a good price. The problem is, if the product doesn’t generate organic coverage, the automaker needs to build awareness itself. Mitsubishi, over the last decade, simply hasn’t.
So a big part of the company’s U.S. strategy, according to Diaz, has to be focused on marketing. That’s why the company is doing major national ad campaigns for the first time in years. Supposedly inspired by the ads of Mitsubishi’s early-2000s U.S. heyday, the first new ad campaign features an up-and-coming freestyle hip hop artist Harry Mack slings verses about the new Eclipse Cross.
It’s clever and actually contains some information about the product, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s anything close to being as good as those EDM-heavy ads from the early 2000s, ones that were famous enough to get lampooned on Chapelle’s Show.
And let’s be honest: it’s not enough, in and of itself, to relaunch the brand in people’s minds, but it’s a step. And until Nissan took over, it had been a while since Mitsubishi had taken that kind of step. For around a year, Diaz says Mitsubishi didn’t even have a head of public relations.
Diaz himself came in from Nissan last year and was appointed CEO in just February. At Nissan, he ran the truck division, and before that served as CEO of Ram and CEO of Chrysler in Mexico and Latin America.
The San Antonio, Texas native is a down-to-earth straight-talker, and while he lacks the flair of a Sergio Marchionne or a Ralph Gilles (or, God forbid, an Elon Musk) he makes up for it with a keen understanding of the work that needs to be done.
But ad campaigns and PR are all for nothing if the product can’t back it up. That’s the second big part of Mitsubishi’s growth plan for the U.S. Because while it’s already growing—March of 2018 was the company’s best sales month since 2007—Mitsubishi has got a lot of room to run before being one of the big players.
Central to that mission is a crossover-heavy lineup. While us Jalops would love for a resurgence to center on 3000GTs and Evos, the sad truth is that crossovers are the easy way for an automaker to make money.
“I love the passionate following for the Evo. Often, in the same sentence I hear dealers and passionate people talk about the Montero and how much they miss the Montero in the lineup,” Diaz says.
But right now, that’s not in the cards. The focus, he says, has to be on getting healthy. The newest crossovers in the lineup—the Outlander PHEV and new Eclipse Cross—have shown that there are untapped consumers willing to buy into the Mitsubishi brand. The goal is to keep that momentum up as new products roll out.
The plan is electrification for all models, maybe with hybrid versions or full-on electrics. So far the hybrids have brought in a newer, more educated, slightly more affluent buyer to Mitsubishi, Diaz said, and ones with better credit. Gone are the days when the brand would finance anyone who walked into a dealership and appeared to be breathing, he said—something that cost Mitsubishi dearly when defaults skyrocketed in the 2000s.
“We won’t make that mistake again,” he said. “Everyone here who remembers that won’t allow us to fall into that situation.”
Diaz said that future Mitsubishis will have Nissan platforms and components. But what those products will look like remains to be seen. Diaz wouldn’t comment on specific product plans but rather described the broad strategy.
Essentially, Mitsubishi is planning seven core models for the world. Each one, he says, will incorporate the concept of “electrification for all,” though he wouldn’t comment on whether that meant fully-electric or plug-in options.
Importantly, we shouldn’t assume that all seven are coming to the U.S. The company is focused on developing a portfolio that satisfies customers across the world, but U.S. customers tend to have significantly different preferences. That means we probably won’t see all seven, as some won’t have much of a business case in our market.
The ones we do see are likely to be mostly—if not all—crossovers, as the U.S. is even more partial to the body style than foreign markets. Diaz wouldn’t say that there would be no cars in the lineup, but he sees the sedan market as a whole as continuing to shrink.
“Industry-wide, I don’t think cars are ever going to be completely gone[...],” Diaz said. “[The market for sedans] won’t be huge, it will continue to drop as CUVs get more popular, but you have some people who just need basic transportation and there will always be a segment for that.”
Whether that segment would be served by Mitsubishi, though, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the crossover market is competitive and Mitsubishi is a small manufacturer without the deep pockets of Toyota and General Motors.
So Nissan seems to be Mitsubishi’s way out. Following the fuel economy cheating scandal that plagued Mitsubishi in Japan, Nissan swooped in and purchased a controlling stake in the struggling automaker in 2016.
The world’s 17th-largest automaker by production, Mitsubishi now benefits from being part of the massive Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Of call cars sold in 2017, one in nine came from that alliance. Suffice to say, Mitsubishi is set up to benefit from economies of scale in a way it never has before.
Diaz says the company is working hard to find ways to take advantage of that. The auto industry is filled with complicated regulations, high development costs and fixed costs that need to be amortized over as many units as possible. Technology and platform sharing, at this point, is a must to stay competitive.
Having come to the company from Nissan, Diaz is well aware of how much money is on the table. Last year, he says, synergies between brands in the alliance saved the company a whopping $6.6 billion. Renault-Mitsubishi-Nissan currently has 30 different teams working worldwide to find further overlap in the business, as full integration of Mitsubishi is still in progress.
There are obvious spots where working together will benefit, especially for Mitsubishi. While Mitsubishi has invested most of its money in getting healthy and developing mainstream products, it hasn’t made much public progress in self-driving technology. Nissan, though, has poured money into developing autonomous cars, so Diaz says that’s a natural spot where technology sharing makes sense.
On the flip side, Nissan has apparently expressed interest in using the plug-in hybrid system Mitsubishi uses in the Outlander PHEV. Plus, Super All Wheel Control, the all-wheel-drive system originally developed for the Evo and now used on Mitsubishi’s crossovers, may be borrowed by Nissan.
That’s in the near term, but in the future, it’s likely that much more fundamental components will begin to be shared. He wouldn’t give a timeline, but as more Mitsubishis and Nissans come due for replacement you may start to see commonality between the brands.
He stressed that this wouldn’t devolve into re-badging, though. The CEO of the alliance, Carlos Ghosn, has done this before and Diaz is confident that Nissan and Mitsubishi can work together in the marketplace,
“The company, and especially Mr. Ghosn, has been masterful at making sure that the companies have their own brand identity,” he said.
A Mitsubishi, he added, will be “distinctly Mitsubishi” even when it shares components with a Nissan. “Badge engineering is not part of the plan.”
Though we still don’t know what will separate the two mainstream brands. Pressed for what makes a car “distinctly Mitsubishi” as opposed to a Nissan, he said they haven’t quite figured out the answer.
“We’re still trying to figure out where we want to be as we improve our awareness,” Diaz said.
There are some signs of life. The company has built momentum in our market for the first time in a decade, spurred by new products and a renewed commitment to brand awareness. And sales are up too. But the marketplace is crowded and getting more so, especially as Chinese automakers and new startups enter the fray.
Now, Mitsubishi has to figure out what it wants to be before the window closes.