Mitsubishi reveals route to renewal

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Tokyo Motor Show 2017

Text and photos by Brian M. Afuang

CONCEPT vehicles rule the stands at the ongoing Tokyo Motor Show (TMS) — the 45th edition of Asia’s most important auto industry event. For Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (MMC), concepts are also what it pitches this year, although these are not limited to vehicles but extend to the brand’s identity as well.

The company this year marked its first century in car-making. It is also beginning its future as part of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance (the group formally adopted the name in September), following Nissan’s acquisition of a 34% controlling stake at Mitsubishi in October last year. The development came as a result of allegations, made earlier in 2016, of false fuel mileage figures MMC declared on some of its models, resulting in a $2-billion revenue loss for the company by September 2016. Now, change has come for Mitsubishi.

As announced during the Oct. 25 opening of TMS and at various company presentations held on the sidelines of the show, MMC’s next step is to renew the aspects associated with its brand. “We will do everything to restore the confidence of our customers and the public,” said Osamu Masuko, chief executive officer at MMC, at the show’s news conference.

The company said it would retain its “Mitsubishi-ness” even as it now forms part of an alliance. It stressed its historical focus on engineering and at pioneering the SUV and EV segments (in 1982 with the Pajero, and in 2009 with the i-MiEV hatchback and 2013 with the Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid crossover vehicle).

“We like to be the first. We like to be the best,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, chief planning officer at MMC, during a pre-TMS opening dinner reception held, significantly, at Kaitokaku, a late 19th century European mansion located in the middle of Tokyo that was home to the families who founded Mitsubishi.

Playing on the venue’s heritage theme, the executive also harped on what he said is Mitsubishi’s recognized expertise at building SUVs, four-wheel drive vehicles and EVs, as well as on its successes on the world rally stage (Mitsubishi did win in WRC and Dakar). “We have always been technically capable, but [the] brand has been quiet,” Mr. Yamashita said.

Looking forward, he bared three areas on which Mitsubishi would focus; development of more capable EVs, vehicles equipped with artificial intelligence, or AI, and SUVs — some of which may be electric-propelled and AI-equipped, too. Regarding the first area, MMC corporate vice-president Vincent Cobee said synergies among the alliance members are expected to produce 12 new EVs by 2022. Two of these EV models will come from Mitsubishi a year earlier. Of the dozen, 70% will sit on platforms shared among the three car makers. Each company will share all the components — whether these are intended for the cockpit, engine bay, electronic architecture, or front and rear underpinnings — related to electric mobility with one another. And these EVs — Mitsubishis, in particular — can travel farther on a single charge, MMC promised in a video presentation.

The company said its AI thrust would lead to autonomous-driving EVs that can connect with other vehicles and surrounding infrastructure. Though no timeline was specified regarding its AI program, MMC hinted at ongoing development work on AI driving assist, and on valet and autonomous parking systems.

Mitsubishi intends to build on its SUV expertise as this, according to Mr. Masuko, is the brand’s “core strength.” The company rationalized such move by citing statistics that point to the consistent growth of the SUV segment. In a separate presentation, Mr. Cobee said global annual sales of SUVs were at the five-million-unit mark in 2008 (when these began to climb). By 2018 the tally is expected to breach 20 million units, and to nearly 30 million by 2024, the executive said.

Capturing the three areas specified by MMC as its focus — EV, AI, SUV — in a single package is the e-Evolution Concept, the car maker’s halo model that’s on prominent display at TMS.

Billed by Mitsubishi as an “all-electric, high-performance SUV,” the vehicle is a technical prototype that is intended to also integrate new connected mobility systems, including on-board and cloud computing capabilities.

Mitsubishi said the e-Evolution Concept is propelled by electric motors juiced by a high-capacity battery system, which should translate into a smoother and more responsive performance compared against traditional internal combustion engines. Helping improve the car’s stability is the location of the battery — under the floor at the center of the vehicle, leading to a low center of gravity.

As an SUV, the e-Evolution Concept gets a four-wheel drive system consisting of an electric motor that drives the front wheels, and two others for each of the rear wheels. The rear motors are paired to an Active Yaw Control (AYC) system that electronically allocates the torque to the wheel that has more traction underneath. Mitsubishi’s Super All-Wheel Control vehicle dynamic control system, used on some of the brand’s existing four-wheel drive models, also finds its way to the concept vehicle.

Meanwhile, an AI system augments the e-Evolution’s driver’s skills via an array of sensors that instantly read changes in road and traffic conditions, as well as the driver’s intent, to maximize vehicle performance. The car’s AI can also “coach” the driver to improve his or her skills, or even form a training program that communicates through voice dialogue and a large dashboard display.

Besides the computerized technical wizardry beneath the e-Evolution Concept, the vehicle also introduces the design direction of future Mitsubishi models — that it should amaze the TMS crowd and draw attention to Mitsubishi’s display as well are a given. “Mitsubishis will become more identifiable because of design. Design will help differentiate our models from Renault and Nissan,” said Tsunehiro Kunimoto, global head of MMC for such matters.

Significantly, the e-Evolution Concept has already served, to varying degrees, its role as a bank of inspiration for three current Mitsubishi models — the latest Outlander PHEV, Eclipse Cross crossover and Xpander, an MPV that’s set to arrive in the Philippines in February 2018.

While all three have been released (or about to be released) in some markets — including the US, UK and Japan for the Outlander PHEV and Eclipse Cross; in Southeast Asia for the Xpander — it was the Eclipse Cross which Mr. Masuko singled out during his TMS presentation as the model that represents Mitsubishi’s “first step on our road map of growth.” Mitsubishi said the Eclipse Cross fuses the SUV expertise for which the brand is known with the advanced design and connectivity features it now intends to build a reputation on, and something quite possible because of the company’s partnership with Renault and Nissan.

“[The alliance] brought us economies of scale we never had before. We can now share advanced technologies for electric, autonomous and connected vehicles,” Mr. Masuko said at TMS.

It’s a concept whose time has come.