“One of the things we did when we launched the Outlander plug-in hybrid electric vehicle [PHEV] was accentuate the ordinary aspect of it,” says Mitsubishi Motors’ managing director Lance Bradley.
It may not sound like a hugely appealing marketing attribute, but Bradley believes it has worked.
“People either expect a milk float or the Starship Enterprise when you say to them have a go on an electric car,” Bradley notes wryly. “And the fact is it’s neither of those.”
“Previously, electric cars had always been a bit different; they looked a bit different from a normal car and you had to make compromises. Either the boot wasn’t very big or it didn’t have five seats or whatever else,” he says. “So what we tried to do was make it as normal as possible.” The result was, to all intents and purposes, nearly the same as the diesel Outlander. “Whatever you want to do – drive your family to school, go off-roading, go to Scotland, tow a boat, you can do it.”
The electric vehicle market has been picking up speed. From 2010 up to September of this year, around 90,000 plug-in electric vehicles have been registered in the UK. And Mitsubishi has been in the driving seat for taking advantage of the growing demand. A couple of years ago it launched the plug-in hybrid Outlander, looking to turn popular perceptions of “gas guzzling” 4x4s on their head. As of mid-October, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is the all-time top selling plug-in electric car in the UK, with 25,000 units sold.
It’s not been without bumps in the road though. Bradley points to the change in the plug-in car grant provided by the government, which halved from £5,000 to £2,500 earlier this year. “We argued at the time, and we would still argue, that it was too early,” he says. “We’re doing well and the market’s growing very quickly, but it’s still in its early stages and we feel it needs a bit more nurturing. The fact is it’s very difficult to get customers to go straight from a petrol or diesel engine into a pure electric vehicle, because people have range anxiety.”
The worry over running out of charge before drivers reach a charging point (or their destination), is part of the reason why plug-in hybrids have been a way to get people to dip their toes in the electric car market “knowing they’ve got a backup of a petrol engine in the same car”.
There was an impact; in the first quarter after the grant changed, Bradley says the order take “dropped really very dramatically”, with an initial underlying fall of around 30 per cent. The rate is starting to recover, but it’s not yet back where it was. “Last year we did 11,000 HEVs, this year it’s probably going to be closer to 9,000, so there has been a drop and that’s a shame as you should always strike while the iron’s hot.”
Another big change this year, which we’re yet to see the full ramifications of, is of course the EU referendum vote in June. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a stir with his warnings over Brexit in September; predicting a series of corporate exits and “great turmoil” should Brexit lead to the loss of Single Market privileges. Half of Japanese investment in the EU comes to the UK, including firms such as Mitsubishi, Nissan and Honda.
From Bradley’s perspective, there’s certainly not been any need for new strategies post-Brexit, since Mitsubishi only imports vehicles and parts to the UK; it doesn’t manufacture here. “The exchange rate is the biggest thing that’s affected us, but we had a growth plan before Brexit and we still have one,” he said. “Although the exchange rate has made that more challenging, it hasn’t changed it.”
“This year we will end up with just under 30,000 vehicles, I would think that can grow to somewhere over 40,000 maybe 45,000 in the next three or four years,” he adds.
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The company had anticipated a drop in the market following the vote, with uncertainty causing people to put off big purchasing decisions, but in actual fact it has been almost exactly the same as it was last year.
“I think for a lot of people nothing’s really changed,” Bradley explains. “There’s a lot of change still to come, but to most people’s daily lives, nothing’s really changed at the moment, so there’s no reason for them to change their behaviour.”
Lance Bradley was speaking to City A.M. to announce that Mitsubishi Motors in the UK is the official performance partner to England Rugby.