Skip to main content

There was a time in the U.S. when Mitsubishi Motors vehicles sold more than Mazda and Subaru. It was the fourth largest-selling Japanese car brand below Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. So what happened? Mitsubishi is in the news of late because of the increasing sales of the excellent Outlander SUV. But much of its almost fatal situation was its own fault. 

How well has Mitsubishi done in the past?

Mitsubishi Evo
2016 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution EVO | Mitsubishi

Mitsubishi is now ranked 10th in sales for Asian manufacturers. There was a time when it was looking like it might leave the U.S. as sales tanked. Some of its brush with death was due to leaving one segment after another, with nothing new to add. It was killing itself one segment at a time. But there are other reasons.

By 2009, it was selling less than 54,000 vehicles total in the U.S. Miraculously, it clawed back to double that number by 2019. But it is still far from its heyday in 2004 when it saw sales of over 160,000. And with sales in 2022 of 85,000, it is slipping back. For comparison, Honda sold 10 times that many cars last year. Subaru sold over 550,000. 

Why did Mitsubishi almost stop U.S. sales?

Mitsubishi Starion
1989 Mitsubishi Starion 2.6 | Mitsubishi

One reason it began killing off models was that at one time it tried to compete with Toyota and Nissan car-for-car models. But it never had the resources to allow it to do that. By 2009, the Galant midsize sedan was selling only 12,000 units. For comparison, Toyota sold over 350,000 of its Camry sedan that year. 

1997 Mitsubishi 3000GT | Mitsubishi

The automaker killed the Galant in 2014. Extremely low sales numbers caused the kill-off. But before that, it was the Eclipse in 2012, and bookending the Galant was the Lancer in 2017, notable for the performance of the Lancer Evolution or Evo. Its co-development of the 3000GT with Chrysler began with the 1991 model, ending nine years later. 

Mitsubishi Forte
1979 Mitsubishi Forte pickup | Mitsubishi

That’s a lot of models to discontinue without replacements. But don’t forget Mitsubishi’s Forte pickup truck that also became the Dodge D50/Ram 50 sold from 1979 to 1985, and its Plymouth counterpart, the Arrow. It was popular enough that the second generation began selling here in 1986 as the Mighty Max. The final years of pickups were called Raider, this time based on Dodge’s Dakota. It sold through 2009 before being discontinued.  

Sharing models with Chrysler Corporation starting in the 1970s may have been another reason it almost died, according to Paul Niedermeyer at Curbside Classic. All of the other Asian manufacturers marketed the cars they sold independently. There are more profits from selling directly to buyers than from wholesaling to competitors. It also gives the automaker to control servicing and bolster its service network. 

Why is the Outlander doing so well?

Concept RA
2008 Mitsubishi Concept RA | Getty

Maybe Mitsubishi has a better approach to co-development today. The popular Outlander is based on Nissan’s Rogue architecture. The differences between the two are significant enough that it isn’t just a rebadged Rogue. This economy-of-scale strategy works for Mitsubishi. 

Mitsubishi announced today it will lead with electric vehicles over the next several years. All of its development work is around EVs. That includes the rumored return of a Mitsubishi midsize pickup truck. If it is more careful with its segment selections this time, the automaker can stick around for decades to come. 


Mitsubishi Offers First Performance Vehicle in 15 Years for 2024