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Market Insight: Mitsubishi plugs in, again

Rolling showcase: Billed as the world’s first plug-in hybrid SUV, the Outlander PHEV will play a key role in showcasing Mitsubishi’s engineering capabilities and developing its brand image. But strong and sustained sales volume will be an uphill battle.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV takes over where i-MiEV left off as EV, hybrid sales wane

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Market Insight logo14 Mar 2014

MITSUBISHI’S plug-in hybrid Outlander PHEV launches next week, recharging the Japanese brand’s position in the electrified-vehicle market after the battery-powered i-MiEV city car was phased out last year.

Electric vehicles are still a highly niche market segment in Australia, and the i-MiEV never really took off after arriving in 2010 and becoming available to the general public in August 2011, managing only around 240 units for the duration.

Mitsubishi registered its last remaining i-MiEVs in December 2012, selling them off through its dealer network during last year – at a much lower price than the full-whack $48,800 list price, GoAuto understands – but not recording any official sales.

Around half of all i-MiEV sales went to the original ‘foundation customers’ who signed a three-year lease plan for the vehicle, with the remainder similarly taken up by companies and government departments looking to trial, or make a statement with, an electric vehicle.

The Outlander PHEV will similarly be pitched as a statement piece for green-thinking organisations, but Mitsubishi is also hoping to make inroads with private individuals via the SUV’s class-leading fuel economy – official combined-cycle figures from overseas put it as low as 1.9L/100km – and the reassuring fact that it has a 2.0-litre petrol engine onboard, enabling a claimed total cruising range of more than 800km.

PHEV pricing – the deal breaker for the vast majority of private buyers – is still to be announced, but the difference between the top-spec diesel-powered $46,890 Aspire and the new plug-in model should not be as great as the $48,800 i-MiEV compared to a sub-$17,000 Mirage.

It will, however, be a relatively expensive proposition for a compact SUV, and experience with conventional hybrids such as the locally built Camry show that Australian buyers overwhelmingly favour a traditional internal combustion engine – with no electric motor assistance, and no associated price premium – when presented with the choice.

Toyota sold 5585 Camry Hybrids last year – 47 per cent of all hybrid sales in the market – but its individual total was down 21.4 per cent compared to 2012, when it sold 7107 examples with the benefit of a fully redesigned model that launched in March that year.

Sales of the regular Camry, in comparison, were also down last year, but the 19,275-unit total speaks volumes in terms of the clear consumer preference.

As an aside, Toyota said from the outset that it needed to sell 10,000 Camry Hybrids each year to make the business case work. So with little over 50 per cent of that achieved last year compounding the fact that it had fallen well short of the 10K mark every year since its 2010 launch, the poor sales performance of the petrol-electric sedan can also be seen to have contributed to the company’s decision to close its Australian manufacturing operations by 2017.

While the overall new-vehicle market ran at record pace last year, sales of hybrid cars across all brands in total were down 14 per cent, finishing at 11,949 sales.

This represented a mere 1.05 per cent of the entire market and stemmed from a 24.5 per cent fall in sales of hybrid passenger cars (to 4335 units), a 6.7 per cent fall for non-private hybrid passenger cars (6989), and declines of 5.6 (320) and 12.9 (305) per cent respectively for private and non-private hybrid SUVs.

Meanwhile, the electric vehicle segment – made up of just the Nissan Leaf and Holden Volt now that the i-MiEV bank is depleted – accounted for just 0.02 per cent of the overall market last year, with only 292 registrations recorded by the official VFACTS service.

This was made up of 188 examples of Leaf – 111 units more than it achieved the previous year – and 101 Volts, up 21 units compared to 2012 but an incredibly small return on a vehicle that was heavily advertised during the year.

The remaining three units last year were for the Renault Fluence ZE, which were reported as company capitalisations and were presumably evaluation vehicles.

(One was also recorded in December 2012).

As GoAuto has detailed previously, the Australian launch of Renault’s full-electric small sedan was postponed indefinitely late in 2012, just ahead of Renault’s partner Better Place pulling back on its investment in Australia.

Honda has also discontinued production of its Insight hybrid in recent weeks – another model that has failed to catch on in Australia, and elsewhere. Honda sold just 175 Insights last year, down 21.5 per cent on 2012, while its CR-Z hybrid is also struggling, falling 84 per cent after finding just 58 buyers in 2013.

The market leader in hybrids and the market overall, Toyota sold 555 examples of the Prius last year, which represented a fall of 35.5 per cent on 2012 (861). Offsetting that to a certain extent, however, was a healthier return of 2337 sales of its Prius C light hatch (up 24 per cent) and 943 sales of its Prius V people-mover (up 0.7 per cent).

Crunching numbers in both the hybrid and electric vehicle segments will give product planners across various brands little reason to develop a case for launching new models in Australia.

In a softening market, and with no government incentives available, Mitsubishi is sure to have a difficult time selling the Outlander PHEV in any considerable volume.

But just as Holden has argued with Volt, and which BMW (with its ‘i’ cars) and others will do likewise, Mitsubishi is adamant its new model is a worthwhile addition in terms of showcasing its engineering capabilities and technological advancements, and in developing its brand image.

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