Akira Kijima Board member and vice corporate general manager of car research and development at Mitsubishi Motors Corp. If a word describes Akira Kijima, it's his 'passion.' And the issue he feels most passionate about is Mitsubishi's 'direct injection' gasoline engine.

"There's no way this technology can fail," says Mr. Kijima. "It may take 100 years, but this engine is the way of the future. The history of automotive engineering is a history of improving efficiency. GDI dramatically improves efficiency." (GDI is Mitsubishi's tradename for 'gasoline direct injection.')

Since the first GDI engine went on sale in 1996, Mitsubishi has produced 700,000 units, far and away the world leader in DI engine output.

These are installed in 75% of cars Mitsubishi sells in Japan and 35% overseas; they are available in nine different sizes and types ranging from 1.1L to 4.5L displacement and including both in-line 4s, V-6s and a V-8. GDI engines power 16 cars.

This summer, management plans to introduce a GDI car in Europe that meets the stringent "Euro 3" standards. Then in 2002, the company reportedly will initiate fleet tests in California, although full-scale introduction of a GDI car into the U.S. market will wait until the sulfur content for each state is reduced.

Whether GDI helps boost vehicle sales by Mitsubishi remains to be seen.

Still, the engine has had an impact on the powertrain strategies of the automaker's competitors. To date it has licensed the technology to Hyundai Motors, Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd (Proton) and PSA.

Mr. Kijima, a graduate of Kyoto University's prestigious School of Engineering, credits former Mitsubishi CEO and fellow Kyoto University alumnus Hirokazu Nakamura with spearheading the GDI development effort. "We couldn't have done it without Dr. Nakamura's support at the top," insists 56-year-old Mr. Kijima.

On a personal level as well, Mr. Kijima benefited from his close relationship with Mitsubishi's former chairman. "He was my boss," says Mr. Kijima.

"When I wanted to go to the States, he challenged me to learn English. Years later, he gave me responsibility for the GDI project."

Mr. Kijima met that initial challenge and went on to spend five years in Detroit, from 1980 to 1985, working with Chrysler on the development of a 2.6L, 4-cyl. engine with balance shaft for the "K" car; the engine, the largest in its class, was supplied by Mitsubishi from its Kyoto plant.

Today, Mr. Kijima makes all technical presentations in English.

In 1994, Mr. Nakamura entrusted him with the GDI project which Mr. Kijima brought to fruition two years later with the remodeling of the Galant.

Mr. Kijima, an early riser, arrives at his office each morning at 7 o'clock sharp. He then works until 9 or 9:30 p.m. Although he has hobbies - playing golf "poorly" and making furniture - his life is basically his job.

He joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1968 because the company, which is better known for shipbuilidng than cars, had an automotive engine plant in Kyoto. "That was two years before the formation of Mitsubishi Motors," explains Mr. Kijima.

"Mitsubishi was a large company, it had a good name, and I had learned that it was planning to build a giant proving ground in Okazaki (Aichi Prefecture). Thus I saw a bright future in the company's automotive business."

How does he feel about his choice today, given Mitsubishi's serious financial problems, with debts last year exceeding $16 billion? He says, "We've always had excellent technology. Unfortunately, we lacked a marketing and sales tradition, coming from a heavy industrial sector. But I believe these problems are now being addressed, and when the Asian market recovers we'll be profitable again."

However, Mr. Kijima warns that Mitsubishi should never again try to compete with Toyota Motor in all product segments. "They're too big. If we try to follow them matching them product for product, technology for technology, we'll hurt our chances for recovery. Mitsubishi must develop its own unique products and technologies," he says, then cautions that the company "cannot hope to survive with RVs (sport/utility vehicles) alone."

Still, Mr. Kijima is confident that Mitsubishi CAN compete with Toyota in the powertrain field despite having a much smaller research organization (6,000 compared to 11,000) and budget ($1.3 billion to $4.7 billion).

And this is mainly because of its GDI engine which, he claims, is technologically superior to Toyota's "D-4" concept.

"The basic theory of engines is about combustion and what goes on inside the chamber. This is why I'm confident," he declares.

Moreover, he is not alarmed that Toyota has taken the early lead in development and marketing of 'hybrids' (combination gasoline/electric powered cars). "There is no question that the Prius (Toyota's hybrid car) is a remarkable achievement," says Mr. Kijima. "However, it uses two power sources, thus is 50% to 100% more costly than a similarly sized vehicle powered by a direct injection engine."