Mitsubishi Motors Europe is gearing up to take on the C-segment, a key battleground for automakers on the continent.

In an interview with just-auto, MME president and CEO Tim Tozer said that, in contrast to the east where sales in some markets are soaring, MME faced challenges in the west.

“To be honest, we won’t fully face those challenges until we’ve got C-segment representation. Without a C-segment, four or five door, petrol or diesel car in your line-up, you miss out on a huge chunk of the market.

“Our product line-up, until we have C-segment, doesn’t fully cover the marketplace. Our product coverage today is 33%. When we have a C-segment sedan and five-door hatchback our product coverage will grow to 50% overnight. So then your covering the market to a far greater degree and then you can grow the business.”

He said the redesigned Lancer sports sedan, with petrol or diesel engines, will be launched in Europe at the Frankfurt motor show in September and, in third quarter 2008, a five-door Lancer, also with petrol and diesel engine choices, will follow. Toxer said he had seen the five-door model and it was a “very good-looking car”.

Preparations for Mitsubishi’s first Lancer five-door hatch in Europe since the 1990s are already under way.

“In Germany in the last 18 months, we’ve appointed 50 new dealers to prepare for C-segment and to exploit the new 4x4s [Pajero, L200 and Outlander] and consolidate Colt, and these are dealers in cities where we’ve struggled – Munich, Berlin, Hanover and plenty of others that, historically, we’ve found it difficult in which to get proper representation.”

He agreed that MME results in western Europe markets last year were largely flat but was pleased with rising sales in the emerging east.

“In Russia and the Ukraine we’ve grown dramatically, almost exponentially. In 2004 Russia sold 33,000 cars, last year we did nearly 70,000 and that’s still going like a steam train.” He added that Mitsubishi is the top-selling brand in Ukraine, outselling Toyota.

“That is dramatic growth with distributors that do a great job, with networks that are well established now.”

In Europe this year: “We are on track to sell between 275,000 and 280,000 cars and also increase the profit contribution we make to our parent.”

The company sold over 8,000 units of the new Pajero – a major reskin and technology update of the previous model rather than a full redesign – in its first three months on sale which Tozer said was greatly beyond early expectations.

He said reaction to the new Outlander SUV, only in European showrooms from February, was also favourable, stressing that the mid-sized model had a smaller footprint than some D-segment station wagons.

He described the 180g per kilometre CO2 emissions of the (VW) two-litre turbodiesel engine that dominates sales in Europe as “very leading edge” and noted that distributors had been reporting fuel consumption as low as 7.4 litres/100 kilometres in everyday driving.

Tozer said that initial misgivings over the radical restyle of the L200 pickup range (effectively lots of curves replacing a very conventional boxy model), launched just over a year ago, had proven unfounded.

“When we first launched that, some dealers and distributors were a bit worried, it’s so radically different.”

However, the arrival of redesigned rival models – Toyota Hilux and Nissan Navara – in fact led to growth in the segment so last calendar year volume of 48,000 (up from 36,000) kept market share steady around 40%.

“We haven’t given an inch of ground, our volume is up, therefore the segment is growing and [the model] genuinely is ‘talking’ to people who would never have considered a one-tonne pickup truck because it’s more car-like, there’s an automatic option and it’s more comfortable,” Tozer said.

Tozer, who has previously told just-auto that 100,000 units a year of a model is a good starting point for local manufacture, would not comment much on the recent announcement that Mitsubishi Motors and PSA Peugeot-Citroen are considering building a joint venture plant in Russia.

Parent company Mitsubishi Motors Corporation in Japan is just starting to build variations of the Outlander for PSA’s Peugeot and Citroen brands and, in turn, the French are supplying a 2.2-litre diesel engine for the model line.

“Mitsubishi will consider anything and in the very Japanese way, they will study, they will visit, and that’s what’s happening. If it is considered that, after lengthy deliberation, [a Russian plant] is what’s needed to continue to grow, to continue to deliver at the bottom line, then the Japanese always get to make the right decision at the end of the day.”

He added that decision was due by the end of the year.

Graeme Roberts