Mitsubishi: What happened?

Cars like the Mitsubishi Mirage, Eclipse and Galant were once the bedrock of their segments. Montero and Montero Sport pioneered the SUV boom. So good were Mitsubishi vehicles that Chrysler shared architecture, factories and powertrains. This year, Mitsubishi didn't even display at the Detroit auto show.

Much has changed.

According to Automotive News, Mitsubishi sold 62,227 vehicles in the U.S. during 2013 — an 8 percent increase from 2012. Impressive, but not close to the 345,111 vehicles it moved in 2002.

"Mitsubishi is just a small part of the market — less than 0.5 percent," said Jessica Caldwell, automotive analyst for Edmunds.com. "At one point, Mitsubishi was the fastest-growing Japanese automaker in America. They were at 2 percent share in 2002 — a fairly significant number."

Details are telling

"We saw the beginning of the end in 2005 when Outlander, Galant and Eclipse shared a platform," Caldwell said. "It didn't work for any of them — a bad compromise building a sports car and crossover on the same architecture. Eclipse was a big seller, but the sporty car segment died out. Montero was popular but had a hard time competing. There was no compelling reason to buy any of these cars."

You can see it in the numbers. In 1999, Mitsubishi sold 261,254 vehicles in the U.S. (1.5 percent market share), rose to 345,111 (2 percent) in 2002, then trended down. By 2005, sales were 123,995 (0.7 percent) and fell to about a 0.5 percent share since 2009.

But things are looking up.

"Overall in 2013, we were up 8 percent but increased 13 percent for retail sales," said Don Swearingen, executive vice president of Mitsubishi Motor Sales. "In the first half of 2013, we were up 5 percent but increased 21 percent in the second half after our new Outlander and Mirage began arriving at dealers. We expect 25 percent retail growth in 2014."

Compelling vehicles

To achieve those goals, Mitsubishi will reshape its product line while continuing to offer surprisingly affordable prices. Its current lineup includes the subcompact Mirage ($12,995), compact Lancer ($17,195), Outlander Sport compact crossover ($19,470), Outlander large crossover ($22,995) and rally-bred Lancer Evolution ($34,995). The iMiEV plug-in electric is $6,000 more affordable, at $15,495, after federal tax credits.

"Mitsubishi is positioning the brand for small fuel-efficient vehicles," Caldwell said. "It's a decent strategy, but there's not much growth in that area. It's a one-dimensional approach that could be a major problem if larger cars take off."

Bringing back the popular subcompact hatchback Mirage for 2014 proved a smart move.

"We needed to really say what this car's about: under $13,000 starting price, 44 mpg highway, and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty," Swearingen said. "We're having great success with Mirage — really able to challenge great cars in that segment. In only its fourth month of sales, Mirage outsold the Toyota Yaris and Mazda2."

Swearingen says Outlander will receive a design refresh for 2015 that includes an enhanced grille, body trim and 18-inch alloy wheels. Mirage gets new seat fabric and chrome accents.

A Mirage sedan with a turbo engine is under consideration. This year, Lancer and Outlander Sport receive a continuously variable transmission that was redesigned for better acceleration, fuel economy and quietness.

In late 2015, we'll see an Outlander hybrid with EV mode.

According to Swearingen, an agreement with Nissan-Renault could bring shared platforms for a next-generation Galant, while Mitsubishi's global portfolio offers the Montero.

Three concepts, with future-think styling, pointed to next-generation Mitsubishis during October's Tokyo Motor Show.

"We're looking at every possibility to expand our U.S. lineup," Swearingen said. "We're still in the early investigation stages of considering a next-generation Montero or Montero Sport, but we have a lot of brand awareness; lots of people still own them. Through our joint alliance with Renault-Nissan, we're investigating a sedan to possibly replace Galant."