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Galant Drives Mitsubishi Make-Over

July 27, 1998|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mitsubishi Motor America this week will launch a remodeled Galant sedan that analysts describe as a make-or-break car for the troubled company.

Mitsubishi is relying on Galant to lead an image make-over of the Japanese auto company, which consumers view as duller and less reliable than American Honda Motors and Toyota Motor Sales USA--makers of immensely popular rival sedans.

Rather than attack the best-selling Honda Accord and Toyota Camry head on, Mitsubishi portrays Galant as a sedan with style. Aware that young adults view sedans as boring, Mitsubishi is offering Galant as the four-door that breaks the mold.

Teaser ads now airing use fast-paced music and show a narrow, open road. Legends appear, saying: "You will see that sedans and pulses can harmoniously coexist" or "There is life after four doors."

Commercials for Galant, to begin Saturday, tap into insecurities about adulthood and present Galant as a cure for blandness. "No one will notice the baby seat" and "The other soccer moms will talk" are two slogans that appear in ads. They were created by Deutsch L.A.

"In each of us lives this core of vanity," said Peg Dilworth-Hunt, Mitsubishi's director of marketing. The ads "speak to that."

Mitsubishi is counting on Galant to reverse years of dismal sales that have left some analysts wondering how long the car company, with just over 1% of the U.S. auto market, plans to stick it out in the United States.

Buoyed by the introduction of the Montero Sport truck, Mitsubishi posted a slim 1% sales gain in 1997 over 1996. But sales of Mitsubishi cars plunged 12.2% in 1997, led by a dramatic 35.1% slide in sales of Galant, according to figures from J.D. Power & Associates.

During the first three months of 1998, Mitsubishi sales slid 12.5%.

Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Pierre Gagnon said the Cypress-based arm of the Japanese auto maker expects to sell 60,000 1999 Galants--fewer than it sold in 1996 but 41% more than the 42,607 Galants sold in 1997.

"This is our most critical launch," Gagnon said. "We are using Galant to relaunch the franchise."

Analysts said the goal is doable. Wes Brown, a consultant with Thousand Oaks-based Nextrend, said the stylish Galant could pull some sales from Accord and Camry, as well as move-up buyers from Mitsubishi's smaller Mirage or Eclipse.

A pitfall, he said, is that the Galant, with a base price of $16,990, might siphon buyers from Mitsubishi's more expensive Diamante--one of the few bright spots for Mitsubishi in 1997.

But changing Mitsubishi's image will require at least two years of consistent advertising and cars that live up to the promises in the ads, said Brown.

In a sign of how much is riding on Galant, Mitsubishi will spend $45 million from now through the end of September to advertise the car.

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* REVIEW: The new Galant will be reviewed in Thursday's Highway One section.

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