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New York Auto Show: Mitsubishi MiEV Electric Car for U.S.

In a U.S. auto market where just about every brand is hurting, the Mitsubishi brand is hurting more than most.

In fact, Mitsubishi Motors North America, which started U.S. sales in 1982, defies expectations just by sticking around. Its U.S. sales in 2008 of 97,257 cars and trucks were less than one-third a record 322,393 in 2001, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Nevertheless, Shin Kurihara, president and CEO of Mitsubishi's U.S. sales and marketing company, insisted in a speech at the New York auto show on April 9 that Mitsubishi will be a survivor.

Mitsubishi announced at the New York auto show that the company will offer the i-MiEV electric car in the United States, probably in the next couple of years. The egg-shaped car in profile looks something like a four-seat version of the Smart fortwo model from Mercedes-Benz.

The company also unveiled the Mitsubishi Outlander GT Prototype at the New York auto show. The concept car shows that the current Mitsubishi Outlander, which is more of a cross between an SUV and a minivan, will morph into much more of a car-like station wagon. The Mitsubishi Outlander GT Prototype also gets a giant, blacked-out, Audi-like grille, which Mitsubishi calls a "jet fighter" grille.

"The whole industry is at a crossroads. Some automakers may not emerge," Kurihara said. "I am here to tell you Mitsubishi will survive," he said. DaimlerChrysler, which later split itself, abandoned a controlling interest in Mitsubishi in April 2004, and withdrew its financial support of the brand.

John Koenig, executive vice president of operations for Mitsubishi's U.S. subsidiary, allowed that Mitsubishi has suffered from a fuzzy brand image. The brand's Lancer Evo model gets high marks from enthusiasts, but Mitsubishi for most of this decade has become known in the U.S. market more for big discounts than for its products.

Meanwhile, many U.S. dealers have dropped the franchise. According to Automotive News, Mitsubishi started 2008 with 491 U.S. dealers, down from 646 in early 2004. Koenig said Mitsubishi will re-focus its brand image around cars like the all-wheel-drive Lancer Evo.

"We have been all over the map. That stops now. What is a Mitsubishi? Super all-wheel control -- surreal control -- (based on) rally-drive performance sedans," he said. Koenig didn't make this comparison, but the newly focused Mitsubishi brand positioning sounds a lot like the brand positioning of Subaru in the U.S. market, with more of a high-performance component.

Mitsubishi could do worse. Subaru is the only 100-percent all-wheel-drive brand in the U.S. market, and it's also one of only a tiny handful of brands that had higher sales in the first quarter of 2009 versus the year-ago quarter, according to AutoData Corp.