Mitsubishi: The Tech Pioneer That Stopped Caring
With Mitsubishi's ignoble exit from the UK back in the news this week via the sale of its British heritage fleet, it’s a good time to look at how it went so wrong
What do you think of when you think of Mitsubishi? Rugged, dependable 4x4s built for the underdog life on a farm, forever at the business end of the daily maelstrom of sheep poo and stop-start trekking around fields? Or perhaps you recall the lusty WRC Lancer Evos of the 1990s and 2000s, ripping around rally stages across the globe in the hands of legendary drivers like Tommi Mäkinen. If you’ve seen the news this week, maybe your mind might instead turn to the sad auctioning of the brand’s entire UK heritage fleet.
Hopefully your first thought won’t be the hideous Eclipse Cross, the impossibly mediocre Shogun Sport or the cheaply made Mirage, where the kindest thing to be said about its build quality is that sometimes there is some. The L200 is a worthy favourite among pick-up aficionados and the ASX is actually not that bad, but the real success story of this decade – the Outlander PHEV – has become too expensive to make as much sense as it once did.
Now, it has to be said that the European market has been tough of late, and that there’s been a general trend leaning away from these shores. General motors has sailed off entirely, Infiniti is no more, various factories have closed and models have been axed. But according to reports reflecting on the state of the company’s UK and European operations, Mitsubishi just doesn’t have the money to invest into new models. That means its current - and final - crop of cars is already outdated, outmoded and outclassed. It’s a particular shame because it wasn’t always like that for this small but plucky maker of quality all-wheel drive motors and it wasn’t until the last few years that it went totally pear-shaped.
The 4x4 business, led by the Shogun and L200, has been steady for a long time. The products were solid, dependable, not too flashy and simply turned up to work, day after day after day. Launched in the early 1980s with a turbocharged diesel engine that made the contemporary Land Rover look like a relic even then, the Shogun was absolutely fit for purpose, using advanced (for the time) technology to deliver low-maintenance, low-fuss capability. Against the road-biased alternatives from other brands they weren’t much cop, but if what you wanted was a tough family vehicle for a life in the countryside, a Shogun or smaller Pinin was the perfect vehicle. It was a universal constant until Mitsubishi decided that it needed to be smarter, flashier and more biased towards roads.
Of course, it didn’t have the funds to give the reborn Shogun Sport the sort of chassis that would rival others, so it ran on the wrong platform and used the wrong engines to satisfy the school-run SUV crowd. Then from the farmer’s point of view it was suddenly too prone to damage inside and out. It was no longer built to take the abuse. It became neither one thing nor the other and in Europe it failed pretty spectacularly. What Car? gave it a one-star review.
The L200 was, for a time, the definitive pickup in the UK. They were everywhere; they kick-started the market sector in the UK and drove other manufacturers to fast-track rivals thanks to a combination of decent road manners, genuine commercial vehicle capability, a lifestyle element versus a panel van or double-cab, and just the right amount of bully-boy attitude. The customer base was loyal and the model deservedly sold well.
Remember the old Colt? Decent little thing; nippy and sharply designed. There was even a turbocharged version. Going back even further, older Colts were ever the underdogs but were decent things built with reliability and overachievement in mind. Sound choices, then. Its current de facto equivalent is the Mirage; a turd baked for the sometimes alarming automotive standards in India. Impossible to polish, it was only lightly rolled in glitter for Europe. Among British motor journalists the original press launch was famous for how many of the press fleet cars had obvious issues and for how bizarrely different one car felt to the next. It was like quality control had been modelled on 1970s British Leyland.
The sad demise of the Evo has been documented elsewhere and we’re not going to dig too deeply into those old wounds. Likewise we’ve previously vented our spleens about the distasteful re-use of the Eclipse name. The one we’ve never really looked at, but the one that perhaps best encapsulates the scale of Mitsubishi’s collapse in Europe, is the Outlander PHEV.
The Outlander had been brought to Europe in 2006 as a second generation car, not that anyone noticed. But in 2014 the new third-generation model suddenly burst to life with a plug-in hybrid version and the fleet world went totally bonkers. Here was a large SUV that could clock over 30 miles on electric power, qualify for a plug-in car grant from the government, could be written off against tax at a much higher rate than fully ICE cars (meaning tax relief of thousands of pounds per vehicle in the first year), and could give a company something for its PR team to shout about. It was an absolute bullet from the blue; a real pioneer of the age. It was also a godsend for fleet managers so demand was insane.
The Colt Car Company, Mitsubishi’s UK importer, couldn’t get enough of them. They started to appear absolutely everywhere, outside every location where any kind of meeting was happening involving anyone. The car was so popular that motorway EV point installer Ecotricity even criticised Outlander PHEV drivers for clogging up its charging network.
It seemed like the only way was up for Mitsubishi in Europe. Sales volumes were rocketing, consumer interest had been fired into the stratosphere on the back of a winged pig and all the company had to do was to follow it up with a slightly better one and perhaps some other models using the same tech. This didn’t happen. In fact, nothing happened. Mitsubishi didn’t invest in a replacement or any new PHEV models. Its golden moment to become a unique PHEV brand went unseized.
And so, as Spring 2021 beckons and the calendar indicates just seven years since the revolutionary Outlander emerged, Mitsubishi in Europe is ceasing to be a thing: devoid of ideas and insight, reduced to nothing more than a badge grafted onto some Nissans. From then to now is an almost unthinkable transition. It’s as if, sometime during the 2010s, Mitsubishi simply stopped caring.