Mitsubishi Motors Corp. will begin assembly of its Outlander Sport cross/utility vehicle in Normal, IL, in mid-2012, giving a shot in the arm to the underutilized plant.

The Outlander Sport, which went on sale in November in the U.S., is the first new model to be produced at Mitsubishi's sole North American plant in years.

The facility currently builds the slow-selling Galant midsize sedan, Eclipse midsize coupe and Endeavor midsize CUV, none of which have been fully revised in at least five years. Mitsubishi is discontinuing those models as part of its JUMP 2013 business plan, which calls for a smaller-footprint U.S. lineup in the near future for the struggling Japanese auto maker.

“Mitsubishi Motors remains fully committed to producing vehicles in Normal,” Mitsubishi Motors North America CEO Shinichi Kurihara says in a statement released today. “We will build vehicles here not just for the United States, but for many nations around the world,” estimating about half of Outlander Sports made in Normal will be exported.

MMNA spokesman Maurice Durand tells Ward’s the Outlander Sport, which now is exported to the U.S. from Japan, will continue to be built there for other markets.

Mitsubishi has been exporting the Galant, Eclipse and Endeavor from Normal in an effort to boost production.

However, because of the proclivity in Europe and other nations for smaller vehicles, it has not been a hugely successful strategy, with Normal building just 29,375 units in total last year. Although up from 2009’s 18,501, the number is nowhere near the plant’s record high of 222,036 units set in 2000, Ward’s data shows.

Durand says the Galant, Eclipse and Endeavor will go out of production at the Illinois plant, a one-time joint-venture with the former Chrysler Corp., in 2013, with more specific timing to follow.

For years, Mitsubishi has struggled with whether to revise the Normal models, which are larger than most of its global products and specific to the U.S. market.

Now, with JUMP 2013, the auto maker is on the path to pursuing smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles for the U.S. such as the C-segment Outlander Sport. Sales of the CUV jumped 23.3% in January from December, Ward’s data shows.

Mitsubishi also plans to launch by 2015 eight new plug-in hybrid or battery-electric vehicles, although not all will be sold in the U.S. The list includes the B-segment i-MiEV electric car, coming in November to select U.S. states.

To produce the Outlander Sport in Normal, Mitsubishi is receiving $29 million in tax credits and other incentives from the state of Illinois. In a release, the state says Mitsubishi will invest $45 million in the facility.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was on hand this morning at the plant for the announcement of Outlander Sport production, as was United Auto Workers President Bob King. Normal is one of two foreign-owned vehicle-assembly plants in the U.S. that is organized by the UAW, with 1,000 of its 1,300 workers UAW members, Mitsubishi says.

The other is the Ford Motor Co.-Mazda Motor Corp. joint venture, AutoAlliance International Inc., in Flat Rock, MI.

In December, Normal UAW members accepted a new labor pact, details of which have not been announced. It reportedly includes wage concessions.

Mitsubishi’s U.S. sales stood at 55,683 units in 2010, up 3.3% from the prior year but drastically down from the 300,000-plus vehicles the brand moved in the early 2000s.

Because of this drastic drop in sales, rumors have been constant about the brand exiting the U.S. market.

But last year, several company officials spoke enthusiastically to Ward’s about Mitsubishi’s U.S. future, noting the desire to sell 100,000 units annually here in a few years.

However, they also admitted faults, such as not properly promoting key new products, including the Lancer compact car and regular Outlander that is slightly larger than the Outlander Sport.

“They are very competitive compact products in their segment; they’re feature-packed,” Durand said in 2010 of the Lancer and Outlander. “We have to work hard to enhance their perception and desirability.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com