Mitsubishi to lure Asian buyers with new Xpander

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Tokyo Motor Show 2017

THE banked turns — nearly vertical on the outermost lane; it should be taken as fast as one would dare — of Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s (MMC) high-speed, oval-shaped test course in Okazaki, Japan, is not the best spot on which to try forming opinions over a new model’s prospects in the market. But it has to be done. The car maker is pinning serious hopes on its fresh product. And the fact it herded the world motoring press over to its research and manufacturing facility, located some 350 kilometers south of Tokyo, so that some of them could pass verdict on the model, should be taken as a sign of MMC’s confidence on the new Mitsubishi Xpander.

Billed as a “next-generation MPV,” the Xpander is a compact car-based model that could be configured to seat seven, making it ideal for family use, MMC said. It has already been launched, in August, in Mitsubishi’s largest Southeast Asian market — Indonesia. But MMC apparently thought the vehicle needed further introduction to markets it is destined to land on, and so the company included presentations and test-drives of the Xpander in the list of programs that complemented Mitsubishi’s exhibit at the last edition of Tokyo Motor Show (which ended its two-week run on Nov. 5).

“The Xpander is a hit in Indonesia… it turned out to be real game-changer there. It’s selling better than expected,” said Froilan G. Dytianquin, first vice-president for marketing at Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Corp. (MMPC), during a dinner reception held on the eve of the Tokyo Motor Show Oct. 25 opening.

In a presentation, MMC said the Xpander, built at a new facility in West Java, Indonesia, will be exported to the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam starting in February 2018. The model is also expected to land in Sri Lanka, Bolivia and Egypt, with total annual production in 2018 pegged at 80,000 units. Besides Indonesia, which would account for around 70% of yearly output, forecast to take the next sizable chunk of deliveries is the Philippines, with an estimated 20% share. Thailand is seen as the Xpander’s third-biggest destination.

This focus on emerging markets like Southeast Asia — and the Philippines, in particular — is apparently not a random decision.

MMC said total auto industry volume in the region is expected to reach 3.1 million units by year’s end (actually lower than the 2013 result). By 2022 the figure will have risen to over four million units. But between Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, which account for 90% of Mitsubishi’s deliveries in the region, it is the Philippines that have posted sustained growth since 2012.

This is the case even as the car maker’s sales in the region have been slipping during the same five-year stretch. The addition of an MPV with upscale aspirations to Mitsubishi’s lineup in the Philippines is seen to boost the brand’s position in a segment it has underserved, particularly with the recent deletion of the Mitsubishi Fuzion in MMPC’s model range. The Xpander is poised to fill this gap.

Mitsubishi is pitching the Xpander’s mix of MPV utility and SUV toughness and style as key to the model’s commercial success. The company said the vehicle has the roomiest cabin in its class, and even out-sizes the cabin height of a competitor’s larger MPV because of a lower floor — the result of the Xpander’s monocoque structure that does not require its body to be mounted atop a ladder frame (unlike the larger truck-based MPV). A long wheelbase helps in stretching cabin space, too, although some Mitsubishi officials admitted the abovementioned MPV trumps the Xpander in cabin width (the Xpander remains widest among its ilk though, according to them). They also noted that while the Xpander can capably ford floodwaters, having been designed with Southeast Asian countries in mind, they do not recommend owners take the car to places best reached in a proper SUV.

Mitsubishi’s MIVEC 1.5-liter, 103 hp gasoline engine, which can be ordered with a either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission, spins the Xpander’s front wheels. In Indonesia, the model is offered in six trim lines, and is positioned to compete against the Daihatsu Xenia (sold as the Toyota Avanza in the Philippines) and the Honda Mobilio.

MMC at its proving grounds in Okazaki devised a series of tests to show what the company pitches are the Xpander’s other strengths — nimbleness, comfort and the ability to stay on the driver’s intended path. Starting things off was the usual cone-marked course, across which the Xpander had to be threaded. There, the vehicle’s light, electrically boosted steering kept to the disconnected feeling such systems are known for, but at the same time turned out to be quick as well. Steering the car across a row of pylons did not require too many turns of the wheel, and the lane-change test that followed revealed the same behavior, too.

On a course meant to simulate the different conditions cars encounter in real-world driving — alternatively bumpy, gravel-lined and rough — the hyped ability of the Xpander to soak undulations and bad road surfaces delivered on Mitsubishi engineers’ promise. The car’s suspension proved pliant, if not too softly sprung, as it seemed to bottom out over deep ruts. But the car’s structure and underpinnings did manage to quell harsh vibrations to keep the cabin passably cocooned.

The high-speed test run supplied its own revelation, too. On the proving track’s two long straights, each linked by banked, sweeping bends, the Xpander could be taken to near its maximum speed. Yet at this pace the engine remained unobtrusive, with only the expected whir entering the cabin, and tire and wind noise were also nothing to complain about. There, the Xpander tracked straight, displaying the least tendency to weave across the tarmac. At high speeds it stayed mindlessly easy to drive.

As an MPV meant for emerging markets — which means it needs to be competitively priced — the Xpander may not be as posh as most compact crossovers and SUVs are. Still, its mix of car-like qualities and MPV utility means the model has plenty to offer. And, hopefully, at a reasonable price tag.

Of course, such a conclusion can only be reached when one is no longer precariously tilted to one side, having driven swiftly past the banked turns of the test course. Because at that point it’s safe to assume that one has regained the ability to form opinions. — Brian M. Afuang

Okazaki outtakes

BESIDES the series of tests meant to show the Mitsubishi Xpander’s mettle, also lined up at the Okazaki proving ground was a shotgun ride on the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (as well as another chance, apart from that during the opening of the Tokyo Motor Show, to view the e-Evolution Concept and the Eclipse Cross). The purpose of the shotgun ride — with one vehicle driven by rally racing legend Hiroshi Masuoka — was to demonstrate the capability of Mitsubishi’s S-AWC system to keep a vehicle pointed into the direction its driver wants to go.

Essentially a traction and stability management system, S-AWC governs over the vehicle’s four-wheel drive train, brakes and differential, allocating power or brakes to the axle or wheel that has better available grip. In the Outlander PHEV’s case, S-AWC works with both the car’s engine and electric motors, as well as its differentials and friction brakes, to ensure traction and stability over slippery terrain. At Okazaki, this terrain is simulated by a soaking wet skid pad over which the car is driven with its traction controls on — which kept it constantly on the correct path — and off, in turn allowing passengers to get a glimpse of the talent a rally racing legend possesses. — BMA