Seventh Japanese car, Mitsubishi, beeps for US sales

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

A ''new kid on the block'' joins the six Japanese car manufacturers already selling cars in the United States, even as the badly mauled US auto industry twists arms for continuing curbs on the Japanese.

Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc. (MMSA) is selling an upscale line of cars under its own flag - that is, outside the Chrysler Corporation - a 2-door sporty hatchback, 2-door fastback, 4-door family sedan, and two types of light trucks, one with a 2.3-liter turbodiesel engine.

Ultimately, MMSA will extend its marketing area nationwide, although its initial scope is in 22 major metropolitan areas on the East and West Coasts, Florida, and the Midwest and Southwest.

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As for the Japanese ''volunteer'' trade agreement, now midway through its second year, Japanese shipments to the US are limited to 1,680,000 cars a year. Light trucks are not a part of it, although the mini-size trucks carry a 25 percent import duty. The pact expires next March 31.

Domestic carmakers not only want to see the pact extended for a third year but demand that an even lower limit be set because of continuing poor US car sales.

The original point behind the voluntary agreement - ''voluntary'' although it came about because of severe pressure on Japanese automakers - was to provide a multiyear breathing space for US manufacturers so they could sharpen their competitive edge vis-a-vis the Japanese. Yet the unyielding downturn in car sales has plunged the US industry into a worse position than it was in when the Japanese initiated the curb more than 18 months ago.

Too, while the original intent was to limit Japanese car sales to about 17 percent of the total US car market, the poor showing of the domestic makes has, in fact, given the Japanese carmakers an average 30 percent stake in the US market.

Without the voluntary curb, some observers say the Japanese could drive away with up to 40 percent of the US market.

Meanwhile, the name is well known, that's for sure. After all, the Chrysler Corporation has been selling Mitsubishi cars for more than 10 years - Dodge Colt , Plymouth Champ (although it's called the Plymouth Colt in '83), and others.

The problem was that Chrysler only brought in the smaller, lower-priced Mitsubishi cars so as not to sap sales from its own nameplate cars. Also, while its Japanese competitors - Toyota, Nissan (Datsun), Honda, etc. - had found a gold mine in the US, Mitsubishi was locked outside the gate.

Originally, of course, it was a good deal for the company, but only in the beginning. In fact, it was a cheap, fast way for Mitsubishi to break into the largest automobile market in the world - and it got cash in the bargain. At the time Chrysler bought a 15 percent stake in Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) of Japan.

But then the Japanese company began to squirm. Also, Chrysler was running into tremendous problems of its own and in the past several years has come close to going belly up. Mitsubishi car sales fell with the fortunes of the US automaker.

Bringing its annoyance into the open in 1978, the chairman of MMC, Tomio Kubo , told a group of visiting US automotive journalists in Tokyo that the Japanese company was planning to set up its own dealership organization in the US and bring in more cars.

In the US a few weeks ago, the MMC chairman continued to attack what he called ''the performance of Chrysler Corporation'' in dealing with MMC cars.

A hard-fought new marketing agreement means that Mitsubishi will continue to provide Chrysler with cars till 1990 but will also market its own higher line of cars.

Mitsubishi, in fact, will finance its exports to Chrysler till 1985, a big help to the US carmaker, and will give it additional lines of MMC products over the years.

While none of the cars being sold by MMSA will be found in Chrysler-Plymouth or Dodge dealerships, the US carmaker isn't out of the woods, not by a long shot. The Mitsubishi cars, besides vying with the rest of the Japanese auto industry, will also fight tooth and nail against Chrysler's K-cars as well as the older Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. Eventually, if allowed to step up its allotment, the MMSA cars could spell trouble for the long-troubled US carmaker.

Even so, it could be a big help to Chrysler as well. Mitsubishi and Chrysler will continue to collaborate on future car projects, which could, at some point, lead to a jointly produced automobile in the US. After all, General Motors is talking with Toyota about a jointly built car in a GM assembly plant on the West Coast. GM also owns part of both Isuzu and Suzuki, while Ford has a sizable piece of Toyo Kogyo, maker of the Mazda.

American Motors and the French government-owned carmaker, Regie Nationale des Usines Renault, are now building a car, the Alliance, at the AMC manufacturing complex in Kenosha, Wis.

It cost Mitsubishi $21 million to set up its US subsidiary - $14 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, Tokyo, and $7 million by Mitsubishi Corporation itself, head of the Mitsubishi empire and reportedly some four times the size of General Motors.

Right now there are about 70 Mitsubishi new-car showrooms in the US, but ultimately the company expects to boost that total to around 400. A lot depends on whether or not the US Congress clamps curbs on the Japanese by requiring local labor and parts content in the cars being sold in the US. The United Automobile Workers of America is demanding that Congress enact such legislation.

Mitsubishi is selling three cars and a truck under its own label:

* Starion. The 2-door, high-performance sports car hatchback, using a 4 -cylinder, 2.6-liter turbocharged engine, will compete in the same import market slot as the Datsun 280ZX and the Toyota Celica Supra.

* Cordia. A 1.8-liter overhead-cam engine powers the 2-door, front-wheel-drive fastback and will vie with the Toyota Celica, Datsun 200SX, Honda Prelude, and VW Scirocco.

* Tredia. A roomy subcompact, 4-door, front-drive sedan will go after the Honda Accord and Nissan Stanza.

* Trucks. Both 2-wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive trucks will use a 2.3-liter turbodiesel engine, a first for the US. Also, the trucks will offer 2-liter and 2.6-liter gasoline engines.

''We believe our product lineup is right and meets the needs of many American consumers,'' says Richard D. Recchia, head of operations for MMSA.

During its first year in the US he hopes to sell 30,000 passenger cars and 10 ,000 to 12,000 pickup trucks. The first year's allotment of passenger cars is controlled by the 1981 voluntary agreement by Japanese carmakers to limit their car exports to the US as well as by the number of MMC cars that Chrysler has been selling in the US.

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