Mitsubishi Motors Chairman Osamu Masuko leaves legacy of change

Masuko ascended to the top of Mitsubishi Motors even though he transferred into the company late in his career, a rarity in Japan, where company lifers typically climb to the top of the ladder.

He was sent by Mitsubishi Group’s trading firm Mitsubishi Corp., then one of its top shareholders, to help revive the carmaker after its brief marriage and messy divorce with DaimlerChrysler.

He stepped in just before the Great Recession throttled the global auto industry.

Mitsubishi’s U.S. sales fell by more than half to 53,986 vehicles in 2009, from 128,993 vehicles two years earlier. Its volume hovered below 100,000 a year until 2017 and grew to 121,046 in 2019. But the brand’s U.S. sales still languished far below the record 345,111 booked in 2002.

Masuko pushed ahead with rebranding Mitsubishi as a purveyor of electrified vehicles, crossovers and SUVs.

While other auto chiefs would be chauffeured around town in luxury limousines, Masuko would shuttle around Tokyo in a red-and-white i-MiEV. The four-passenger minicar, launched in 2010, was Mitsubishi’s first mass-market EV. And Mitsubishi tried to carve out a niche spanning the segments with its Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid crossover.

But fragile finances meant Mitsubishi was usually strapped to invest deeply in new technologies for electrification and autonomous driving. And pinched for cash, the company dropped some of its long-running passenger cars, including the Eclipse sporty car and Lancer and Galant sedans.

Masuko, then 65, seemed poised to ease himself into retirement in 2014, when he handed the presidency to Tetsuro Aikawa, a veteran engineer noted for leading development of such Japan-market minicars as Mitsubishi’s eK Wagon and the egg-shaped i.

Masuko took the then-vacant CEO position in addition to remaining chairman.

As part of the revival plan under Masuko and Aikawa, Mitsubishi decided to shutter its only North American assembly plant, the underutilized factory in Normal, Ill., it opened in 1988 as a joint venture with then-partner Chrysler.

Mitsubishi also dangled plans for various new EVs and plug-ins, none of which materialized. But any rebound was derailed in 2016, when Mitsubishi admitted it had been overstating fuel-economy ratings on four minicar models sold in Japan by Mitsubishi and Nissan.

The bogus fuel-economy results were discovered when Nissan noticed discrepancies and called out Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi’s sales tanked, and so did its share price.

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