Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ewwww, just ewwww

TTAC:The Mitsubishi Freightliner

Mitsubishi Motors is on the ropes. US sales are in the basement. Aside from the new Eclipse and the niche-market EVO, they haven't got a winning product in sight. A line of forgettable sedans and me-too SUVs does not a viable car company make. DaimlerChrysler’s decision to pull the plug on future financial aid doesn’t bode well either. In fact, Mitsubishi is knocking on the door of bankruptcy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s time for them to build a “real” pickup truck: a Mitsubishi Freightliner.

..... To make the grade and mint some money, Mitsubishi needs a full-size competitor to the Ford Super Duty.

Despite its connection to DaimlerChrysler, Freightliner isn't doing so well. Demand for their medium and heavy trucks has been soft for some time. Their foray into vans, the re-badged Mercedes Sprinter, is aimed at a narrow market niche-- a niche that's even narrower now that there's a Dodge-badged Sprinter. But Freightliner’s reputation as a maker of tough trucks is undiminished. Their Century Class trucks set new standards for comfort and luxury in heavy truck cabs. Freightliner’s Sterling (formerly Ford) trucks are probably the most efficient and durable medium and heavy trucks on the planet.

Mitsubishi and Freightliner should pool their resources and build a new, heavy-duty, full-size pickup truck, designed to compete head-to-head with Ford’s Super Duty. Freightliner has the design and engineering capabilities to create the truck. The Mitsubishi version could be sized and optioned like a Ford F250HD and F350, and the Freightliner version could cover the F350 and F450 range. Make sure it’s big enough, has all the truck amenities and a really aggressive front end, and buyers will flock to the showrooms. A real Freightliner for the price of Dodge imitation? Hard to resist.

Freightliner doesn’t make engines, and Mitsubishi doesn’t have an engine suitable for a large truck. As we’ve discussed here before, there are plenty of first-rate American parts makers who can feed aspiring automakers suitable components. Freightliner is a major customer of Cummins. The new Mitsubishi Freightliner could run on the same Cummins diesel engine used in the Dodge Ram. Alternatively, Navistar (International) has developed a new 4.5-liter V6 diesel for Ford’s F250-- that The Blue Oval abandoned. Navistar has the engine and the plants to build it, but no customers.


Freightliner and Mitsubishi each have a suitable marketing channel for the truck. Freightliner could offer the product to fleet buyers who need a pickup to complement their semis and/or delivery trucks. Buyers could have the truck financed and serviced by the truck professionals at any Freightliner outlet, where employees know the commercial truck business inside out. No more hanging out at the Ford dealer waiting for mechanics to finish changing the oil on a minivan before getting to your work truck. Freightliner could also market a truck chassis in this class to motor home and ambulance builders; a market that’s currently locked-up by Ford.

Obviously, Mitsubishi’s distribution channel caters to the average consumer. Since most pickup trucks are sold for personal use, a Mitsubishi dealership would be a logical place to offer a Freightliner pickup truck for the masses. The presence of an attractive full-size truck would act as a halo vehicle, bringing buyers into the showroom (most for the first time) to see Mitsu’s other offerings. A premium truck would also have a premium margin for both dealer and manufacturer, something both companies need desperately.

The US automotive market is in flux. Only those companies willing to consider new ways of doing business are going to survive. Will Mitsubishi and Freightliner see the next decade? That could very well depend on whether or not they realize that a problem shared is a problem halved.

Just don't write about something you don't understand, K?

Freightliner has growing sales right now. Now sales will fall off a cliff in about six months for the same reason that they are surging now. New 2007 emissions rules that will make trucks $5-10K more expensive and add new technology. New Technology means something new to break (and of course something new you have to teach your mechanics how to fix). The trucking industry is still undergoing therapy and suffers nightmares from the last emissions change in October 2002. The clever folks at the EPA moved the emissions deadlines up via litigation forcing the 2004 engines to be released 18 months early. The result was lots of breakdowns and a big drop in fuel economy. So fleets, having been trained by the previous cycle (thank you EPA), are buying new trucks now while they are cheaper and less likely to break down. We go through another round of this 2010.

I'm not an expert on pickups or the pickup market, but I would imagine a DCX honcho asking "why are we going to spend all this money to compete with our own product?"

OK, Freightliner doesn't make an engine technically. But corporate cousin Detroit Diesel does (and those engines are by and large only available in DCX products (Freightliner, Sterling, Western Star, Thomas Built bus). Detroit Diesel also markets and distributes Mercedes Benz engines in the US. Just because it doesn't say Freightliner on the rocker cover doesn't mean it's not a proprietary product.

Once again though, why would DCX spend money to build another Cummins powered pickup? As far as International goes, ha ha ha. See, Detroit Diesel was an independent company. Made/makes a great fleet motor, the Series 60 which at one time had an overwhelming market share lead and was available to all manufacturers. DCX wanted to rule the world though and so they bought Detroit Diesel and made it a proprietary option. This succeeded in forcing several large trucking companies to switch brands to stay with the Fuel Sipping Series 60. So DCX and Navistar are not best buddies. Navistar International has a proprietary engine family in the light and medium duty spaces and will have one in the heavy space in 2007. Add to that they are fighting tooth and nail for the medium market on the strength of their integrated powertrains. The last thing either company is going to do is source an engine from one another.

You really don't want to take your pickup to a heavy duty diesel shop. The shop rates are much, much higher. Also, instead of waiting behind a minivan you'll be behind a truck that has to be halfway across the truck by morning. Dealers are going to take care of their bread and butter first.

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