Positive potential customer reaction has persuaded Mitsubishi’s independent UK importer to offer its distinctive i city car here, but in strictly limited numbers.

The mid-engined aluminium-shelled i has been on sale in Japan for over a year but currently there are no plans to offer it in Europe.

However Mitsubishi UK will put 300 modified Japanese market specification units on sale following “overwhelmingly positive” reaction from customers who have seen the car.

Mitsubishi displayed an i on its stands at last year’s British motor show in London and at the Badminton Horse Trials which it sponsors, and then sent the car on a tour of six dealers.

The cars will be imported through the same Special Vehicle Type Approval (SVA) channel through which the EVO range of performance Lancer saloons are brought in, and go on sale from July.

The SVA cars are Japanese market specification but are modified at the port of entry to meet UK/EC rules governing items such as a rear fog light (mandatory in Europe) and the MPH-calibrated speedometer required in the UK.

Revealing the plans at this week’s UK launch of the latest Outlander and Shogun 4x4s (SUVs), Mitsubishi Motors UK managing director Jim Tyrrell also poured cold water on predictions of the death of the UK 4×4 market.

Data showed that the overall UK SUV market dropped 6.2% in 2006, in a UK market down 3.9%. But Tyrrell said that the three SUV segments needed to be looked at separately. While the four major players in the SUV 1 small vehicle sector saw declining sales in 2006, Tyrrell argued that this was because all were upsizing to the larger SUV 2 sector with newer models.

Mitsubishi, Toyota and Nissan all saw their SUV 2 sales drop, but all were in the run-out phase of existing vehicles before new models take their place. Tyrrell noted that the European SUV2 market had increased by 54% to 500,000 units between 2001 and 2006, and is expected to increase by a further 35% by 2009, driven by new models such as the Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-B and Mitsubishi’s own Outlander.

Similarly the full-house 4×4 sector, SUV 3, is expected to show similar growth. Overall sales increased 3,007 units last year, led by new models from Land Rover, Mercedes and Nissan. The European SUV3 market increased 75% to 350,000 units between 2001 and 2006 and is predicted to increase at a steady rate over the next three years.

“The death of the 4×4 market has been greatly exaggerated,” Tyrrell said, adding that there was no room for complacency. The market would be affected by the anti-4×4 ‘gas-guzzler’ campaign, a government and opposition influenced by the environmental lobby, rumours about road charging, and proposed hikes to the London congestion charge and local authority parking based on vehicle VED (road tax) rates.

“We cannot and have not ignored this,” Tyrrell said, claiming that, of Mitsubishi’s two new models, the Outlander was the ‘greenest’ seven-seat vehicle on the road, and would benefit as such from future tax legislation.

“Chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown is influenced by data, not headlines,” Tyrrell said. “He knows that tax band G is not a 4×4 issue, but an emissions issue. Environmental taxes will be proportionate because his approach is reasonable.”

The other newcomer, the Shogun, was not a fashion accessory, but an authentic SUV for people who need one for the way they live. And Tyrrell added that the traditional 4×4 buyer is beginning to fight back against the negative publicity applied to such vehicles.

“The anti-4×4 lobby would never buy one anyway, but the pro-4×4 lobby is beginning to get irritated, and more entrenched in their love for their vehicles – these people will not be influenced by such publicity. I’m not complacent but I believe that the people who traditionally buy 4x4s will still buy them, and they’re now getting more punchy about it.”

Andrew Charman