Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Mitsubishi Motors North America President Hiroshi Harunari says the auto maker’s only U.S. plant, located in Normal, IL, still has a future despite being underutilized.

The facility, which opened in 1988, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In that time, 3 million vehicles have been produced there. Last year, workers built 62,810 light trucks and 15,992 passenger cars for a total 78,802 units, Ward’s data shows. Of those, 12,000 were targeted for export.

But that’s a far cry from the 2000 benchmark year, when the plant pumped out 222,036 vehicles, Mitsubishi’s data shows.

Normal’s downward spiral is worrisome, industry observers say, especially in light of parent Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s announcement earlier this week it plans to shutter its Adelaide, Australia, plant in March due to plummeting sales of its 380 sedan.

Adelaide currently is operating at one-third capacity, producing just 10,948 units in 2007, vs. 59,000 in 1997.

“Compared with us, there’s a big difference utilization wise,” Harunari tells reporters at the Chicago auto show here. “Our rate is higher.”

Mitsubishi is betting on refreshed versions of its Galant midsize sedan and Eclipse sports coupe and Spyder convertible, both built at Normal, to reinvigorate sales and boost plant capacity.

However, Harunari is hazy on sales expectations, saying only, “As much as possible.” Nor is he willing to discuss future product for the plant, which also builds the Endeavor cross/utility vehicle.

The Galant gets a new front fascia and better interior materials, as well as a DVD-based navigation system with 7-in. (18-cm) screen and heated front seats and side-view mirrors in three of its four trims.

The four models – ES, Sport, Sport V-6 and Galant Ralliart – all come standard with a Mitsubishi’s Sportronic automatic transmission, which has four forward gears mated to the 2.4L 4-cyl. engine and five speeds when mated to the 3.6L and 3.8L V-6 engines.

The Eclipse has a lower and wider stance and gets the new Lancer Evolution’s jet-fighter-style grille.

Upper level GT models now have standard stability control and high-intensity discharge headlamps, as well as a dual-exhaust system that increases the 3.8L V-6’s horsepower and torque.