DETROIT – Mitsubishi Motors Corp. continues to debate whether its sole U.S. plant in Normal, IL, has a future, a top executive tells Ward’s during the North American International Auto Show here.

“We cannot think about (production) just for Illinois,” Mitsubishi Motors North America CEO Shinichi Kurihara says.

The Japanese auto maker first must decide on the proper allocation of models for all its global manufacturing plants before it can make a move on the Normal facility, which has been producing well under capacity for years.

“We need more time to finalize that kind of long-range product plan,” Kurihara says. “At this moment, I can’t say a clear idea for the future (of Normal).”

Should Mitsubishi decide to maintain a U.S. manufacturing footprint, Normal likely would continue to be a source of larger vehicles, he says, noting it’s difficult to build smaller A- or B-segment cars in the U.S. and sell them at a low cost.

Kurihara says he is in favor of using Normal as a source of greater volumes, due to the current weak dollar/strong yen, which makes the U.S. a more compelling production base.

Mitsubishi also would be open to the idea of contract manufacturing at Normal, says John Koenig, executive vice president-MMNA. He notes the auto maker already does contract assembly at a plant in Japan for PSA Peugeot Citroen.

Ward’s data shows Mitsubishi built 18,501 vehicles at Normal in 2009. The plant’s website lists an annual capacity of 135,000 units under “current conditions.” Normal’s capacity was 240,000 units when Mitsubishi and former joint-venture partner Chrysler Corp. both manufactured at the facility.

In 2008, Mitsubishi and the United Auto Workers union ratified a new contract that keeps the plant open through 2012.

Koenig says building Mitsubishi’s Triton compact pickup truck, currently produced and sold in Southeast Asia, also is a possibility for the U.S. It’s a move he and Kurihara would welcome. But the decision rides on the profitability of such a move.

“We both like the truck,” Koenig says. “We both would love the chance to sell the truck. But in order to sell it (here), we’d probably have to build it here because of the 25% (import) tax.

“If we (produce) it here, we’ve got to build a volume of at least 50,000 or 60,000 units a year to make it profitable. And that’s our sticking point. Can we do that?”

Mitsubishi’s total U.S. sales last year across all vehicle lines were 53,986, a decline of 44.8% from 2008. However, Koenig says the auto maker plans to return to a 100,000-unit annual sales rate in a few years.

Chrysler had been building a version of the Dodge Dakota compact truck for Mitsubishi to sell in the U.S. However, the Raider was canceled last year due to lackluster sales.

A Mitsubishi spokesman says Raider production at Chrysler Group LLC’s Warren, MI, plant has ended. Ward's data shows nine units of the truck in inventory at the end of last year.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com