TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Motors is on track to produce a fiscal-year profit in the United States for the first time in four years. But many analysts say this still is not a good time to buy shares of the Japanese automaker.
Helped by popular new models such as the mid-size Outlander sport-utility vehicle, an improved financing program and aggressive efforts to win back dealers' trust, Mitsubishi, which just two years ago was rescued by a hefty bailout, is expected to post an operating profit in the pivotal U.S. market for the fiscal year ending March 31. The turnaround by Japan's No. 4 carmaker by volume poses an extra challenge to Asian rivals such as Nissan Motor of Japan and Hyundai Motor of South Korea, both of which have seen their sales drop recently in the United States. It also intensifies competition for Detroit's Big Three, which have been reporting heavy losses.
Mitsubishi's recovery in the United States is a surprise. In each of past two years, the company posted losses of more than $2 billion overall, spawning speculation that it might pull out of the North American market.
Mitsubishi's performance also contrasts with that of DaimlerChrysler, which bought 34 percent of the Japanese automaker in 2000 and raised that to 37 percent a year later. Daimler, which stopped investing in Mitsubishi in 2004 and exited in 2005, is considering whether to sell its ailing Chrysler Group unit.
But while the picture at Mitsubishi has brightened, many analysts are holding onto the "sell" or "reduce" ratings they have had on its stock since a 2005 bailout of about $3 billion by other companies in the Mitsubishi group. The automaker "still has a lot of problems at the moment," said Shinya Naruse, an analyst at Nomura Securities.
Among them, he said, is "weak demand in Japan and other Asian markets."
Naruse and other analysts say that growing competition in a global industry that suffers from overcapacity means that all automakers face tougher times. Improvement in the United States helped Mitsubishi report an overall profit of $36 million for the third quarter that ended in December, reversing a year-earlier loss of $36 million.
But the carmaker still has problems to confront. Worldwide vehicle sales in the quarter totaled 300,000, down from 326,000 in the year-earlier period, mostly reflecting slower demand in Japan and other parts of Asia.
There is a lot of interest in how Mitsubishi's revitalization plan fares. Before the bailout, it was reeling from many woes, including a scandal in Japan involving a cover-up of vehicle defects. The U.S. operations suffered from piles of bad consumer loans, the result of a "zero-zero-zero" financing incentive that gave people with poor credit records the chance to buy a car with no money down and no payments for a year. Many American dealers, wondering if Mitsubishi would pull out of North America, stopped carrying its vehicles.
Now, new models are helping Mitsubishi improve its performance in the world's biggest car market.
Even though sales of gas-guzzling SUVs have slowed as Americans opt for more fuel-efficient cars, the Outlander SUV, a crossover model that is more fuel-efficient than larger SUVs, has sold well since its November launch. The convertible Eclipse Spyder sports car launched in April also has sold fairly well.