NEW YORK – Mitsubishi Motors Corp. says it isn’t about to push the panic button.

The Japanese auto maker saw its sales fall 23.2% last year in the U.S., where it hasn’t posted a profit since 2002 and has operated only a single shift at its Normal, IL, assembly plant the past two years. And new-vehicle deliveries this year are down 25.9% through the first quarter.

But Chairman Takashi Nishoika remains patient.

"It took five years for things to go down; it could take five years for things to come back again – and I'll wait," Nishoika says in an interview at the New York International Auto Show.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are scrambling to close plants and eliminate jobs in the U.S. to bring production in line with sales, but those are steps Nishoika is loath to consider when it comes to Mitsubishi’s sole assembly plant here.

"No matter what, we are going to remain open in the U.S.,” he says. “It has twice the market for vehicle sales as Japan and twice the gross domestic product as Japan, and so it's necessary to stay here.

“We just need to develop our foundation here again and strengthen our technology,” Nishoika says. “I don't look for a swift recovery, but one that takes place one step at a time. I've been involved in aeronautics and nuclear energy in my career with Mitsubishi in which you need to work 10 years ahead, and I plan to oversee automotive patiently.

Nishoika says that because GM and Ford are significantly larger than tiny Mitsubishi they have “suffered more damage.” Chevrolet, for example, sells more Impala sedans than Mitsubishi sells cars and cross/utility vehicles combined.

While he hasn't given Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. co-Presidents and CEOs Rich Gilligan and Hiroshi Harunari a specific timetable to meet, Nishoika says he has a 3-year plan. He hasn't detailed the plan publicly but says the first year ended in March, leaving two years to go.

Harunari says under Nishoika's 3-year plan, "we consider where we should be at the end of 2007," but that nothing has been mentioned about 2008.

"I have some ideas, but I'm not saying," he says.

Gilligan says Mitsubishi still is struggling with troubles inherited from Pierre Gagnon, who was ousted as president and CEO of North American operations after his plan to offer low-cost financing to high-risk consumers and boost discounts to fleet customers to prop up sales numbers backfired.

Loan defaults and sharply lower residual values on trade-ins helped create the mess for Mitsubishi.

"We're finally getting to the tail end of fleet sales that once averaged over 4,000 (units) a month, so as we move forward we'll get rid of that albatross and get fleet sales down to 11% of our total and then show some (financial) improvement," Gilligan says.

Echoing Nishoika, Gilligan says it took years for Mitsubishi to get in trouble, and "it could take two to three years to turn around."

He is encouraged that consumers have accepted the redesigned Eclipse coupe introduced late last year and the new Eclipse Spyder convertible arriving at dealerships now.

And Nishoika was in New York to unveil the next-generation Outlander CUV, which unlike the old model now sports a V-6 engine rather than a 4-cyl. and comes with three rows of seats to hold seven passengers instead of five.

"Sales may be down now, but with Eclipse and Outlander, I'm starting to see the future," Nishoika says.