Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tokyo Motor Show 2015: Mitsubishi Sees Potential in Electrification, SUVs

Sharing the stage with Mitsubishi Motors Corporation Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Tetsuro Aikawa is a new crossover painted in an unforgettable shade of retina-searing yellow: the eX or Electric Crossover Concept. It’s bold and dynamic interpretation of the brand’s Dynamic Shield design is sure to capture the imagination of the public worldwide, but beyond that, it signals a new direction for Mitsubishi as a whole.

Having made a name for itself with models such as the Lancer, Galant, and Eclipse, Mitsubishi is now turning 180 degrees and has decided to focus on EVs (Electric Vehicles) and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) instead. Since its new corporate slogan, “Drive@Earth”, Mitsubishi has grasped that SUVs and EVs need not exist on polar opposites of the automotive spectrum. Understanding very well that SUVs and its offshoot, crossovers, aren’t the gas guzzlers they once were, the Japanese carmaker has seen the huge potential of this growing market.

Currently, they’ve invested in cleaning up their diesel engines. On the 2016 Montero Sport for instance, the 4N15 power plant features a lighter aluminum engine block and the first for a diesel: variable valve timing (MIVEC).

On the other hand, they’ve also toyed with the concept of electrification as well. For the past 50 years, Mitsubishi has developed different EV powertrains culminating in the i-MiEV. An even more commercial success is the Outlander PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle) which has sold over 35,000 units globally this year with a projected 23 percent increase in 2016. At its stand, the Outlander PHEV showed off its V2X (Vehicle to X) system which can supply electric power from its battery to homes. Living off the power grid is a testament to the possibilities and capabilities provided by EVs. Because of improving technologies, Mitsubishi remains bullish in EVs with sales projected to rise five times by 2020 making it a fundamental pillar for the brand.

And by that time, the eX Concept may become the sort of vehicle that roams the streets. It’s a future envisioned by Mitsubishi where the environmental-friendliness of EVs and the capabilities of SUVs blend seamlessly together. It’s perfectly encapsulated in the underlying theme of “Drive Beyond”—the company’s vision of SUVs with electric power. Aside from the advanced drivetrain with all-wheel drive capabilities, the eX Concept stylistically fuses elements of a shooting brake, a hatchback, and an SUV. And as a first for the brand, it debuts automatic driving technologies, connected car technologies, and active safety technologies.

In a round table with Aikawa-san, he reveals that developing markets will see the majority of Mitsubishi’s growth. And though he believes that EVs are a surefire way to improve the quality of life for urbanites (less air and noise pollution), there are challenges that must be overcome. He sees three basic challenges: charging infrastructure, cost of vehicles, and range anxiety. And while they’re working continuously with government agencies to reduce tariffs and offer incentives for zero emission vehicles, the short-term solution would be to rely on PHEV technology as seen in the Outlander PHEV. That way, shortcomings when it comes to range anxiety and charging station infrastructure can be virtually eliminated since it can switch to conventional gasoline power when needed. Of course, as battery efficiency improves as well as charging stations becoming more prevalent, pure EVs will become much more viable.

And in typical Mitsubishi fashion, their dedication to EV engineering is seen in its use in extreme situations such as motorsports in the Pikes Peak and Baja Portalegre 500 where the i-MiEV and Outlander PHEV participated respectively proving the performance and durability of this drivetrain. So when asked about a new high-performance sedan such as the Evolution, Aikawa-san’s response came as bluntly as the question: there are no plans for a direct successor to the Lancer Evolution.

The reasoning behind this is simple: the Evolution has always been based off a passenger car, in this case, the Lancer. Since there are no plans to come up with a new compact sedan, there’s no sense for Mitsubishi to develop a specialized niche product such as the Evolution. Still, thanks to the motorsports experience honed in various races, Mitsubishi can very well spawn a high-performance PHEV. And in Aikawa-san’s words, “That makes it an actual Evolution, signaling a new age of high-performance EVs or PHEVs.”

That’s not to say Mitsubishi is abandoning conventional passenger cars altogether. The global success of its small car, the Mirage and Mirage G4, means the company is open to expand its assembly footprint. For instance, the company is open to assemble the Mirage G4 in the Philippines—the Japanese company’s seventh largest global market (up two places from last year). This is especially true if the Philippine government’s Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) Program is implemented. As of now though, the Aquino Administration has yet to release the implementing rules and regulations regarding the CARS Program.

Long-time fans of Mitsubishi may decry the company’s shift towards an entirely new market demographic, but for them to thrive, it makes sense. They’ve centralized production to key locations worldwide, shutting down  both North American and European assembly, and in the process, returned to a state of sustained profitability. Instead of dwelling in the past, they’re looking forward; looking at opportunities that lay ahead, especially in the area of EV technology. It’s a future which, in Mitsubishi’s vision, is filled with environmentally-friendly cars that emit no emissions and yet offer the style, versatility, and performance that today and tomorrow’s discerning customer will look for.

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