I have been looking for a chance to drive the diminutive Mitsubishi i-Cars ever since I first saw the photos of them. When visiting Mitsubishi HQ in Cypress, California, there they are in the lobby on display. But it wasn’t until the just finished Outlander and Friends press preview Mitsubishi held in Palm Springs that I was able to drive both of the i-Cars.
There were two i-Cars at the preview – the i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) – the all electric Japanese kei car that the press is reporting on continuously and its gasoline-powered base car. Lets talk about the gas-powered version first.
“kei” Car for the USA? First, the Mitsubishi i is a very, very small car. It is a Japanese “kei” car meaning it is designed to be a tiny commuter car for dense urban environments. It also means that the car is limited to a 660cc engine. The example we were able to drive was powered by a turbocharged 660cc engine, had an automatic transmission and all wheel drive.
After years of reasonable success in Europe, the Smart ForTwo is finally here in the US. At least on the surface of things, the ForTwo’s arrival couldn’t be better timed. After all, in this era of $4 per gallon (and likely rising) gasoline, a fashion-forward and fuel-efficient commuter makes all the sense in the world.
Smart’s entry to the US market is a venture by Roger Penske, auto dealer extraordinaire. Though Smart is a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, the three-pointed star’s US distributor isn’t directly involved (at least not yet) in the Smart brand’s arrival in the US, though some US Mercedes-Benz dealerships have added Smart showroom areas to their dealerships. Penske knows a thing or two about smart (no pun intended) business decisions, and he obviously saw a place in the market for this chic and efficient little runabout.
So what is the ForTwo? In a nutshell, it’s a diminutive two-seater that was designed for the tight streets of European urban environments. Visit Berlin, Paris, or Rome, and you’re sure to see them everywhere. It packs a tiny rear-mounted 1.0 liter 3-cylinder turbo engine (with a rip-roaring 70hp) and has an overall length that is shorter than many cars’ wheelbases. So, does it translate here in a $4 per gallon America, or does the ForTwo remain an unintelligible foreign tongue?
DaimlerChrysler stopped production of the diminutive smart roadster and roadster coupe at the end of September 2005. Launched in 2003, the roadster only lasted about two years. The tiny tiny microsportscars did not achieve the volumes needed to reach profitability. You wonder what kind of research DaimlerChrysler did to justify the investment in the smart roadster and roadster coupe?
Like many brands and vehicles that refuse to die, it appears that there are folks that want to resurrect the smart roadster. With DaimlerChrysler taking the hit on the investment on the roadster and roadster coupe, the vehicle can be purchased for a song.
Project Kimber and the smart roadster
Project Kimber is an acquisition group, run by Lord David James, that was founded to buy the assets of the MG Rover group but lost out to Nanjing Automobile and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). Project Kimber is searching for funding with Grant Gazdig’s Access Capital firm, a private equity firm – European American Securities, and other investors from continental Europe, Hong Kong, Britain and America. While purchase of the tooling, car, etc from DaimlerChrysler may require about £13 million, the total investment would be on the order of £60 milion.
In 2006, it was reported that Lord James had entered talks with MG Rover’s new owners (this time Nanjing – that owns the MG name) to buy the MG brand in order to produce a number of sports cars based on the smart roadster.
On Friday February 17, 2006, The London Times reported that Lord James was in discussions with DaimlerChrysler to buy the roadster’s design, technology and equipment for approximately £13 million.
The initial plan was that the roadster equipment would be then transferred from the smart factory in Germany to a former Dunlop tire factory in Coventry where the roadster would be built under the MG brand.
As of 19th July 2006, the Welsh Assembly Government confirmed that production of the new roadster could be based in South Wales. In an August 27, 2006 report, The London Times
reported that three sites are under consideration: a soon-to-close Panasonic factory at Port Talbot, a greenfield site near Bridgend, and a partly completed factory owned by the aforementioned Welsh Assembly.
Kimber believes that they can be profitable with sales approaching 8,000 units per year.
Use of the MG brand, however, has not been attained, with a possibilty of the car being badged with the AC badge from the AC Cobra. AC “Midget” has been floated as the nomenclature for the car.
Negotiations are underway with resolution expected by the end of September 2005
Persistance Pays Off
Though once abandoning a plan for U.S. sales, automaker smart didn’t give up on us like they have on the use of capital letters and two of their European entries (smart roadster and forfour dropped by 2007MY). An exclusive agreement with the United Auto Group dealers, headed by Roger Penske, has been forged to bring over the next fortwo in early 2008. Reports are that optimistic DaimlerChrysler, parent of smart, would like to see sales in the States at about 20,000 units.
Having never really given up on the States, smart has shown off its fortwo at several occasions, including an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and as a lead vehicle for the New York City Marathon and a sponsor of the Boston Marathon. Groundwork for creating interest and enthusiasm for this tiny city car is well laid, and rising fuel costs only add to the hype.
The current fortwo was never meant to come to the States, due to problems meeting U.S. emissions regulations, though importer and electric car company ZAP has sold about 200 Americanized fortwo
s through May 2006, and sales in Canada reached 4000 units with months-long waitlists.
Editors NOTE: Since this was written, Dave Schembri has landed at Roger Penski’s smart operations in the USA. Schembri had been head of smart at Mercedes-Benz USA prior to joining MMNA. Wayne Killen joined Hyundai Motor America as Director of Product Planning in early 2007.
Mitsubishi Motors North America announced on Friday, February 17, that Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing David Schembri and Vice President of Marketing Wayne Killen had resigned from the Company. In a statement by Mitsubishi, “Both left to pursue other opportunities.”
The former Mitsubishi marketing duo joined Mitsubishi at a time when sales were off drastically from prior years and no rebound in sight. Just stabilizing losses and rebuilding from a lower base of sales may have been considered a success, but even after a year with Dave Schembri running Sales and Marketing the Titanic couldn’t be turned.
Schembri joined Mitsubishi Motors North America in February 2005 after serving as the chief of the Maybach brand at Mercedes-Benz USA and then head of its still-born smart division. With the demise of smart’s efforts in the USA shortly following the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Schembri moved westward to Mitsubishi headquarters in Cypress, California.
Wayne Killen, brand manager for the ill-advised Maybach brand at MBUSA joined Schembri at Mitsubishi in August 2005 as Vice President of Marketing. Working for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America early in his career (1987 – 1989), Killen had most recently spent ten years at Mercedes-Benz USA. At MMNA, Killen was responsible for advertising, brand experience marketing, product and marketing public relations and product strategy.
During their tenure at MMNA, Schembri and Killen launched the 2005 Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mitsubishi Raider pickup and had just completed the public introduction of the soon-on-sale Eclipse Spyder.
The duties of Schembri and Killen are beeing handled by Hiroshi Harunari. Harunari has bee co-Chief Operating Officer of Mitsubishi Motors North America since January 2006. Rich Gilligan, former head of Mitsubishi’s manufacturing operations in Normal Illinois continues as the other co-COO.
These moves at Mitsubishi demonstrate the level of exposure senior managers take at some import-brand distributors. Last Fall, Peter Butterfield was ousted from his position as head of Kia Motors of America. In January, after a very confident presentation at the 2006 North American Auto Show in Detroit, Bob Cosmai fell at Hyundai Motor America. While Schembri and Killen had not yet been able to stabilize MMNA’s fortunes in the USA, Butterfield and Cosmai were managing companies that have healthy growth and prospects.