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Moving In on Mazda : Auto industry: Mitsubishi's U.S. car sales exceeded Mazda's for the first time in January. Now the company is planning to introduce a 296-horsepower sports car next fall as part of a determined drive to hold on to its place among the top four Japanese auto importers.


CYPRESS — Richard Recchia isn't brash enough to vow that it will occur every month, but the chief operating officer of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America is determined to repeat January's sales triumph as often as possible.

That's when Mitsubishi's car sales in the United States surpassed Mazda's for the first time, propelling the U.S. automotive unit of the giant Mitsubishi conglomerate into fourth place among all Japanese car importers here.

To achieve his goal of establishing a permanent spot in the top four, Recchia, the company's top U.S. official, must make Mitsubishi--a name best known in the United States for televisions and stereos--into a nationally recognized automobile nameplate.

To do that, Mitsubishi must penetrate a thicket of competing domestic and foreign brands--more than 40 makes and nearly 300 models of cars and trucks are marketed in the United States--in a year that most industry experts expect to be a disappointing one for car sales.

Recchia is confident that a revitalized Mitsubishi can buck the trend.

And industry observers say that the company, a bit player for most of its seven years in the United States, is now well positioned for a major breakthrough. They say all the elements have finally come together and, for the first time, Mitsubishi Motor Sales has:

* A stable of hot models that have won numerous design and performance awards;

* Several potential bestsellers about to be introduced; * An expanding dealer network;

* A growing import allotment;

* A supply of U.S.-built cars;

* A beefed-up advertising budget that enables the company to conduct a national network television campaign.

Mitsubishi's new lineup is its strongest selling point.

The company is part of a conglomerate that includes several of Japan's largest aerospace and electronics firms. And drawing on that expertise, Mitsubishi Motor Corp.--the Japanese manufacturer that shares ownership of Mitsubishi Motor Sales with two other Mitsubishi companies--has developed some of the most technologically advanced, affordable production cars on the road today.

In the United States, Mitsubishi offers buyers of its top-of-the-line models features such as all-wheel drive and four-wheel steering; automatically adjusting suspension systems that the driver can set for different levels of stiffness, and turbocharged, high-performance engines.

Later this year, Mitsubishi will introduce the 3000-GT, its image flagship.

The low-slung sports coupe, with seating for two adults in the front and limited seating and storage space in the back, will offer--at the top of the line--a twin-turbocharged, 24-valve, V-6 engine that develops 296 horsepower and pushes the car to a topspeed of 160 m.p.h.

It will come with four-wheel steering, electronically controlled suspension, all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes and a speed-sensitive aerodynamics package that automatically adjusts the front air dam and rear spoiler to increase high-speed stability.

And it will do all that for a price several thousand dollars less than the closest competition--Nissan's 300-ZX Turbo.

"Mitsubishi is taking off partly because it uses technology pretty well and provides a lot of value for the price," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Group, a Santa Ana-based automotive product-consulting firm.

Mitsubishi offers the value it does because of the Japanese philosophy of managing for market share rather than short-term profit, said John McElroy, editor of Automotive Industries magazine in Detroit.

"They are packing in more technology for the buck than their competition. I'd almost give them the nod for best engine technology anywhere," he and. "And it is working. You don't see a company chalking up the kind of sales increase Mitsubishi has had in the U.S. year after year without a strong word of mouth among buyers that it has something special."

Even without the 3000-GT, "Mitsubishi has come out with some awfully sweet automobiles in the last year," said Detroit-based analyst Arvid Jouppi of Keane Securities Co. in New York.

The lineup includes the Galant, a compact sports sedan that not only won Import Car of the Year honors from Motor Trend magazine in 1989 but was Car of the Year in Japan in 1988.

Mitsubishi's best-selling model last year was the Eclipse, built in Illinois at Diamond-Star Motors, a high-tech auto factory designed and equipped by Mitsubishi Motor Corp. and jointly owned with Chrysler Corp.

Chrysler gets half the cars produced by Diamond-Star--its share was 32,000 in 1989--and sells them as the Plymouth Laser and, through its Jeep-Eagle unit, as the high-end Eagle Talon.

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