Seventh Japanese car, Mitsubishi, beeps for US sales
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.