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A closer look at Mitsubishi's hybrid strategy

<p>Even if Mitsubishi&#39;s reported plan to hybridize or electrify its fleet materializes over the next four years, experts are mixed on the overall impact on the industry.</p>

A U.K. publication set some tongues wagging last week when it reported that Mitsubishi planned to offer hybrid or plug-in options for its entire future vehicle lineup over the next four years.

Despite Autocar's report, sources within Mitsubishi's North America division say the company has no plan yet to electrify and hybridize its whole fleet, at least not for this market. confirmed the company's plans to launch eight hybrid or plug-in vehicles worldwide by 2015, which would represent about a third of its current global lineup.

"Whether ... all of our entire lineup will have either electric or hybrid is still not decided for the North American market, but we have rolled out the i-MiEV (100 percent electric) and also have plans to introduce the PHEV during FY2013 in the U.S.," Roger Yasukawa, manager of product communications for Mitsubishi Motors Corporation's North America division, said in an email.

"As far as the future product, MMC's intent is to produce vehicles for global market and not just for a specific region," he said. "We will continue to study the best technological application for each model to offer more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles in the future."

Even if the plan to hybridize or electrify Mitsubishi's entire model line materializes, industry insiders expressed mixed opinions on its impact.

"If it is indeed across their entire model line, it is a significant event and would be a milestone among one of the automotive industry manufacturers," said Simon Mui, a scientist with the clean vehicles and fuels program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Such a move would underscore the importance fuel efficiency has taken on in the industry, he said, as well as potentially give Mitsubishi a first-mover advantage.

Industry analyst Alan Baum, however, is skeptical that the company could capitalize on it because it lacks the resources to market the move.

"I just don't think that even if they did that," Baum said, "it would make a huge difference because they don't have the scale to let the world know that they're doing this."

He called the potential move a way for Mitsubishi, as a relatively small player in the automotive market, to differentiate itself. While he characterized the reported four-year window to implement the plan "aggressive," he doubted a quick response from Mitsubishi's competitors.

"This segment requires a lot of development, a lot of time and a lot of patience," he said.

Photo of race between alternative fuel vehicles provided by iQoncept via Shutterstock

So far, it's unclear whether other automakers are planning to follow suit. Many already have action plans underway.

"Ford has developed its own strategy that offers our customers the Power of Choice in fuel-efficient vehicles, offering eight U.S. vehicles by year-end that deliver 40 mpg or more -- double our number versus 2011 and more than any other full-line automaker," Mike Tinskey, Ford's director of Global Vehicle Electrification Infrastructure, said in an email.

Ford's electrification strategy includes the release of five new electrified vehicles in North America by the end of this year and in Europe by 2013. Toyota will offer 18 e-drive models, mostly conventional hybrids by 2015, according to Baum's data.

In general, automakers are constantly looking at what role electric and hybrid powertrains will play in their portfolios and are working through the technological challenges, said Brett Smith, co-director of the Center for Automotive Research.  

Several, such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion, are adding plug-in options for their existing hybrid offerings, a move that in and of itself isn't a big leap.

"Most of these in many ways are almost evaluation projects in what the market will or will not accept, what the market is calling for and what the market is going to accept with these technologies," Smith said. "What's true with all of these companies is they need to experiment in the market, but it is incredibly expensive to experiment."

Demand for hybrids and plug-ins, at least at this point, he said, is "fairly small" and "fairly non-existent," respectively.

Even if Mitsubishi ends up following through on its less aggressive 2015 target of having eight hybrid or electric vehicles in its global lineup, the plan would still serve to create more competition within the industry, Mui said. Ultimately, he called the situation a sprint within a marathon toward more fuel-efficient vehicle choices that will benefit consumers.

"There is a pack of automakers who are closely looking to lead the race, with some taking an early lead position and others betting on their ability to play catch-up later in the race," he said. "I think other automakers are closely following a similar strategy to Mitsubishi and are neck-and-neck really in some sense. The risk of not following closely is losing current and future market share."

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