It’s Mitsubishi’s own fault

Posted on February 6th, 2008 in Automotive News,Mitsubishi,Opinion by Julian Edgar

380-image.jpgSo Mitsubishi’s Adelaide car manufacturing plant is to close. The Mitsubishi 380, the large sedan released in 2005, has proved to be a flop.

Now, and over the next few months, there will be a prolonged post mortem, analysing the reasons why the car failed. Already, I’ve seen statements excusing Mitsubishi Motors Australia from culpability for its failure.

But to anyone not wearing rose-coloured glasses, manufacturing by Mitsubishi in Adelaide has been doomed since the very day of the 380’s release. The company – perhaps driven by their masters in Japan – made the atrocious decision to build and release a car that had no market.

And this is not a retrospective, wise after the event, summary.

In an opinion piece written days after driving the 380 for the first time, and within months of the car’s release, I wrote:

And the Mitsubishi 380? Unlike the very first 2.6-litre Magna, which offered a contemporary breakthrough combination of space and fuel economy, or the later V6 Magnas which had more sophisticated suspension and far better NVH than other local offerings, the 380 has nothing new. Literally, the entire mechanical package – engine, body and suspension – could have been offered five years ago… (Unarguably, the only technological aspects of the car which are right up to the minute are the Bosch engine management system and Bosch ABS.)

The interior design? Well, that could have been offered not 5 years ago but instead 15 years ago. Oh sure, Mitsubishi wouldn’t have been serving up an in-dash MP3 stacker in 1991, but in instrumentation, space, style and comfort, the 380 breaks no new ground. In fact, in some specifics like steering that isn’t adjustable for reach, a rear seat that doesn’t fold, rear vents that can’t be switched off, and a tiny boot opening, a 10 year old Falcon is superior. The 380 has no huge breakthroughs – in performance, in NVH, in fuel economy, in anything.

In fact, as an alleged new-age family car, it has nothing much new to offer.

Yes, the 380 handles very well – or at least the LS we had with optional sports suspension does. But when can you exploit that? In the first day of driving the 380 around the city, I deemed the handling unremarkable. All right, it certainly wasn’t lousy, and the traction control worked very well in cornering hard in urban conditions, but so what? It was only on the darkest and dirtiest of back roads (in one case, literally darkest – the car has great headlights), being driven in a way that would immediately result in the driver losing his license if sighted by a policeman, that the 380 showed the depth of its chassis design and development. Fantastic brakes – 160 km/h to nought, time after time – and handling that is precise yet forgiving, the car feeling absolutely planted even in tricky conditions.

And the engine! Especially in the context of its near ancient mechanical specs (Mitsi like to call it all-new but in the basics it’s anything but), the engine performs very well. Even with the 5-speed auto of the test car, the 380 is a strong, willing and effective workhorse. But of course, with Falcon or Commodore performance and basically Commodore or Falcon weight, you get just what you’d expect – Falcon or Commodore fuel economy. (To do better you need an engine with real technology – the Honda Accord V6 is a great example. Similar performance but fuel economy – especially on a trip – which is far superior to the 380.)

And the 380’s targeted buyer? Try to imagine this person:

Someone who loves driving very fast, in fact often at speeds illegal anywhere in Australia but the Northern Territory. Someone who doesn’t care if a car is front or rear-wheel drive. Someone who needs a largish car with lots of rear space. Someone who isn’t much concerned by fuel economy and wants strong performance. Someone without any existing tribal loyalty to Ford or Holden. Someone who is undaunted by the demonstrable appalling resale of the 380’s predecessor.

I guess that someone exists, but by golly, there can’t be many of them…

Mitsubishi see their 380 as a breakthrough car for family and fleet buyers in Australia, a car that will cement the currently precarious foundations underpinning the manufacturing plant in Adelaide.

I think they’re fooling themselves.

And I wrote the ‘fooling themselves’ line with care: I thought then and think now that the company genuinely convinced themselves that they were onto to something special when it was obvious they weren’t. One reason I think that is the tone and nature of the original press release that accompanied the 380’s release: material that points very clearly to the company’s internal thoughts.

Here are some extracts, firstly the tortuous effort to claim that the 380 was in fact a genuine Falcon/Commodore competitor:

“Australians expect a car to be big, powerful, stylish and value for money,” Mitsubishi’s Manager of Market and Product Strategy, Derek McIlroy, said.

“There isn’t any doubt that the new PS41 [later to be called the 380] is a sporty, stylish car, and consumers in our clinics agree. And, last month we released details of the new, large 3.8 litre engine that proves the car has the power to match it with the big boys.

“Now we are able to say that by any measure PS41 has the interior size to satisfy the demands of Australian motorists. There are two benefits to size – (1) is that you have got it, and (2) is that you use it wisely. There isn’t any doubt that PS41 is the most space efficient package in the medium-large car segment,” Mr McIlroy said.

An international engineering standard shows that PS41 has more leg room than either Commodore or Falcon (1457mm compared with 1439mm and 1430mm respectively) and is competitive with both cars on headroom and shoulder room. The new car has taken a distinct step up from the existing Magna, and is a legitimate contender in the large car segment.

“We are not saying this is the largest car in the segment, but we are saying that its interior dimensions mean it can now legitimately be considered a large car. A consumer clinic last year showed that it was overwhelmingly (nearly 75%) considered to be the “Just right” size by a wide cross section of Medium and Large car segment buyers., ” Mr McIlroy said.

So it’s clear that Mitsubishi was gunning for Falcon and Commodore conquest sales. Now anyone in Australia – even a school kid web discussion contributor – would have immediately realised that was a huge ask; that with front-wheel drive and with the loyalty that Holden and Ford buyers have to their respective marques, to achieve that outcome the 380 was going to require major and demonstrable advantages over Commodore and Falcon.

Basic advantages, like fuel economy.

Or price.

Or resale.

Or performance.

Or all-wheel drive

Or a turbo diesel engine.

And of course it had advantages in none of those areas (later they dropped the price…)

So where exactly did Mitsubishi see the 380 fitting in? The official “brand positioning statement” was this:

“A car for urban professionals who are looking for a sense of style and difference in a motor vehicle. A vehicle that breaks the mould of Australian derived vehicles and offers a unique blend of distinctive Euro inspired styling, with refinement and the heritage of rally bred technology and durability.”

Truly. That’s what they wrote. That’s also – I can only assume – what they believed.

I could go on – the press pack released with the 380 is full of stuff that was just crazy. In fact, here’s another extract:

A result of the most exhaustive research ever undertaken by MMAL, the 380 has been designed with two clear goals in mind – to be the best quality car ever built in Australia, and to redefine large car agility by designing a car for Australians.

Yes, that’s what they said: redefine large car agility. WTF?

At the time I read all of this rubbish, drove the car, then interviewed Mitsubishi’s (then) chief engineer.

In that interview, I asked him the simple question: “Why would anyone buy this car?”

Lee Kernich, an engineer to his bootstraps, simply couldn’t regurgitate the spin. Instead, he stared at me wordlessly, a glazed and blank expression on his face.

And that said it all.

16 Responses to 'It’s Mitsubishi’s own fault'

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  1. Stewart said,

    on February 6th, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I totally agree
    Mitsu Australias budget may have been tiny, but no amount of marketing can make someone buy something they can get elsewhere
    that they know.

    i thought they hit the nail on the head with the awd they brought out a few years ago and if this aspect was developed further, i think it would have generated crucial “loyalty” points.

    Subaru managed this when they started selling a bang-for-your-buck
    car called a wrx. people who wanted a gt4 or a mitsubishi could live out their rally dreams for a lot less money than these other two.

    As far as brand loyalty etc goes,
    I seen paralels beetween the
    “hey charger” sales struggle (correct me if i am wrong as i wasn”t born until 1979) and the magna/380 struggle.

    If Proton can re-hash a 1990’s Nissan pulsar with decent styling and handling, why couldn’t Mitsu Australia saved money refining the magna into something really good?

    recently i bought a 2003 vyII commodore wagon. i would have
    sold my soul for a late 90’s style magna wagon, with sexy styling, that was AWD. I think this would have been cheaper than to start again with the huge expense of engineering and tooling for a new chassis.


  2. Jensen said,

    on February 6th, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    380 Reminds me of the Alfasud. A commercial disaster that handled extremely well.

    The 380 represents a good used buy though. Very good value for money now they are worth so little.

  3. Bob said,

    on February 6th, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    I thought 380 was not the way to go after reading US reviews of the Gallant (and the US Magna called a Diamante). The Gallant was not rated anything special compared with early 2000 age cars in its price range, so it was a big ask to drop it ino the Australian market against VY commodores and AU 11 Falcons, let alone run it against the BA Falcon. When I sold my Magna TJ Sports recently, the one feature I was looking for was to return to a rear wheel drive or an AWD large sedan. It comes down to an older 5 series BMW or an E class Merc or a much newer but still second hand Magna AWD VRX, a Commodore or Falcon for me. A BA XR6 now graces the driveway and what a pleasure it is to get away from torque steer and understeer and rediscover true steering feel. The 380 was just not the thrill of a V8 VY nor as accomplished as the XR6. As larger cars do not need the space saving packaging of front wheel drive and a simple drive line keeps repairs simpler and cheaper, there should always be a market for Falcon and Commodore type cars for those of us who can’t afford the benchmark BMW or Mercedes. Bob Jay

  4. Darren Roles said,

    on February 12th, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Regretably I agree with everything Julian says. I had a TJ Sport and thought it was an excellent car, capable of surprising much more ‘serious’ sportscars. I also think Mitsi started to make a car whose looks were starting to appeal to the Australian public. Then that French ‘Stylist’ Oliver Boulay changed the front end to something similar to the AU. Personally I think that along with discontinuing the AWD was the beginning of the end. I was praying for full size AWD Mitsi wagon for my new expanding family.

  5. Dave said,

    on February 12th, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Easy to see from the other comments here that front-wheel drive was the big turn-off for the 380, but even with rear-wheel drive it did need that extra edge. The 380 really needed a ‘hero car’.

    Building on the Rallyart theme by making an 380 AWD turbo would have helped customers buying a base model hold their head up high; Toyota has tried with the TRD Avalon but it’s a supercharged 240kw V6 driving the front wheels! No-one’s EVER going to take a Falcon/Commodore contender seriously until we can see a RWD V8 model racing around Bathurst each year.

    Now we just have to wait for the FWD Avalon to follow the 380…

  6. Mark said,

    on February 13th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    What a shame – I think the manual V6 TJs, TL and TW Magnas were a joy to drive and I’m sad that MMA is leaving us. But you’re right Julian, they just didn’t pick their market. They really needed to take a risk to save themselves. Like spend 90% of development costs of engineering a Turbo Diesel from the parent company so it instantly becomes the only Australian made big car with 7l per 100km economy potential for $30 000. This turbo diesel Magna would have been unique in our market and would have had more chance of selling well in a minor facelift of the TW Magna rather than “same old, same old” in the 380.

  7. Jason said,

    on February 13th, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    It comes down to this. There are many mid sized vehicles offering superior quality & product features. They screwed up massively. They tried to be ‘me too’ in a segment that people were moving away from, big 6 cylinder vehicles.

    They needed to do a few things to salvage this model. All Wheel Drive option on all models. Would have eliminated any front vs rear wheel drive arguments & provided a genuine point of difference. Also, not just a petrol v6, but a 4cyl turbo diesel – with stand out fuel economy (7l/100kms).

    These two features (AWD + Diesel) would have made the car a real threat. Thirdly, a proper supercharged V6 220kW+ AWD sports version at SS/XR8 pricing would have given them a hero car.

    I guess in the end they must have been hamstrung by budget. Successive also ran models wouldnt have left Mitsu-Japan with any desire to drop the kind of dollars required. All of the above would have required a decent export program to the US. Instead we were left with a re-done US Gallant which was insufficiently modified to make it a threat to the local offerings.

  8. Peter said,

    on February 18th, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Not withstanding the lack of innovation in the MMAL product, you need to consider that the first sniff of a PS41 would have occured probably 10 years before the car was released. By 5 years from product release the freight train would have already been well and truely unstoppable. This doesn’t justify the product but it does explain how it even ended up being released to the market in the form that it was. Although most people could have guessed at the the future direction of the auto industry 10 years ago, trying to get the high level decision makers in their ivory towers to realise it is another thing.

    This long lead time and slow and stodgy management is also the reason why we ended up with the VE Commodore the way it is. And I wouldn’t be getting my hopes up for the new Falcon either!

  9. Alwyn said,

    on February 21st, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I am absolutely gobsmacked that Mitsubishi gave Mitsubishi Australia another chance to manufacture a vehicle that has no market in a country that represents around1% of Mitsubishi’s world sales.Ask any Kid what a cool car is and Guess what?It has rear wheel drive.!As for the fuel efficiency It means Bugger all when it comes to marketing a car.At the end of the day the 380 was’nt cool!And a massive opportunity to supply the world market with an Aussie made product has gone like down like a paper aeroplane.I bet Ferari or Hummer probably has some genious that occasionaly gets shot down in flames when they dare talk about having anything to do with front wheel drive anythings.

  10. Tim said,

    on February 21st, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    I had a chance to take a good look over a 380 within days of the launch.
    I quickly came to the conclusion that I feared. It was a competent car.
    To dig Mitsubishi out of the hole it was in, the 380 needed to be so much more than a competent car. It needed to be an exceptional car, and it clearly wasn’t.
    I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did.
    Mitsubishi’s factory should have tooled up for the Chrysler 300C instead. It’s not a car to suit everybody’s taste, but it’s a car that has appeal for _some_ people.


  11. Peter said,

    on February 26th, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    When the 380 first hit the market, my wife adn I went up to have a look. To say we were dissapointed in what we saw is an undrestatement. First thing we noticed was the high bootlid. Next the interior was as balnd as butter in the midday sun. The instrument panel had lots of idiot lights but no gauges. When we sat int he drivers seat , neither my wife and I ( and we are both relatively tall people) could see out the rear window – which meant we could not see the the external corners of the car when it came to reversing. I`ve driven a lot of cars since I was 18 and never ever have I seen such an uninspiring car as the 380. We walked away with our cheque book unopened !! Need I say more.

  12. Joe said,

    on February 29th, 2008 at 10:13 am

    In today’s situation of high fuel prices at the bowser, rising housing mortgage rates & escalating food prices, people’s appetite for big cars has clearly waned. The 380 concept was clearly conceived during a different era where consumers’ rising expectations provided the justification. By the time it was ready, the ground had shifted! It should have been canned prior to launch. However, the 380 was no real big loss to Mitsubishi – it was simply a reskinned, updated Magna with a rebored engine. Some of those losses were already been underwritten through political intervention. The 380 project simply delayed the inevitable – the closure of the SA plant and the loss of jobs in Australia. The 380 was clearly a product dictated by politics and not economics. The marketplace had no bearing in the product. The signs are not good for the remaining local manufacturers ie. Holden, Ford & Toyota. It’s time for Australia politicians to let go with the idea of manufacturing & assembling cars locally. The local products eg. Commodore, Falcon & Aurion, are losing market share terminally and it’s time to culled them.

  13. Winston N. said,

    on March 17th, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Yes I do remember that opinion piece you wrote 2 years ago, especially when you mentioned the type of buyer that the 380 would appeal to; someone who loves drivin’ very fast, needs a big car, not overly concerned about fuel economy, doesn’t care if it’s front or rear drive & doesn’t have any brand bias.

    Well except for the large car bit (I don’t need that much space!) I fit the bill, but completely understand that I’m not exactly a big target market, which as history has shown, has led to the closure of the 380 plant.

    But on a positive note, now that I’m in the market for such a car – I’m finally getting rid of my series4 Rx7 turbo that’s cost me thousands in repair, maintenance & fuel bills. The (compared to the Rx7) relatively good fuel economy of the 380, along with it’s relability, good handling & bargain 2nd hand price, has really sealed the deal for me.

    I’m about to take delivery of a late ’06 manual 380 & can’t believe what a bargain this car is 2nd hand, not to mention that is has the remainder of it’s 5 yr warranty till 2011.

    Yeah as a car enthusiast who’s sick & tired of maintaining an aging turbo car & wants something a little more practicle, I think the 380 is fantastic, with enough oomph, handling & braking ability to still keep the hoon in me mostly satisfied. It’ll never be as outright fast as my modified rotary, in the corners & definitely not in the straights, but is much easier to drive at 10/10ths compared to the Mazda, requiring only 1/2 the concentration & commitment compared to the slightly twitchy rwd turbo. It can also be easily converted to lpg if fuel prices continue to go AWOL!

  14. David said,

    on June 6th, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    I’m very late to this party but I just want to comment on something that I never see mentioned. In my opinion the 380 failed mainly because it was one of the dullest looking cars ever made. I really couldnt believe my eyes when I first saw it. What a letdown. At first I thought it was just new model lancer. If it had looked a bit cooler maybe more people would have given it a test drive. I’m a ’99 magna owner, so I’m not too fussy about appearances, but even I couldnt be bothered looking inside the 380. Funny thing is, I think its very similar in many ways to the current, terrific looking commodore ‘cept the commodore has those nice flared wheel arches. If only for a bit more style they might have limped along long enough to get a few economy options going like a diesel or an LPG model.

  15. Brian said,

    on June 27th, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Yet another knw all jounalist with only half the facts giving an opinion about a company he knows nothing about.

    Well we see now that Mitsubishi is one of the fastest growing brands in the Australian market…..perhaps the 380 was a strategic move to hold the company over until the raft of all new models that are taking the market by storm were fully on sale. Answer that one, or I am sure you will have a smart reply….you guys always do!!

  16. dg said,

    on December 18th, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I notice a lot of people commenting on rwd being an issue.

    As a wagon-only buyer, I’ve owned many different types – HQ Kingswood, XD Falcon, EA Falcon, TP Magna, TR Magna and KR Verada. Also my brother had a 1997 Commodore (can’t remember the model, think it was TS).

    And in my experience, the fwd wagons out-handled the rwd drive in all conditions, and especially on gravel and in the wet. My brother’s 97 Commodore would beat my 93 Verada on a straight (I’d get him on 0-60 then he’d roar past), but I could get around tight bends and roundabouts much faster and regularly got away from him on bendy roads.

    I could push the Commodore into oversteer without hardly trying.

    Now, I understand that with wagons the situation is different to sedans – long wheelbase, rear suspension designed for load bearing rather than handling etc. But when Mitsubishi stopped making wagons, they lost me as a customer.

    My next car will be a Holden Adventra – with lowered suspension and high performance street tyres.