Let battle commence

Date: Wednesday, April 06, 2016   |   Author: James Dallas

Like a prize fighter relishing his next bout, Mitsubishi’s UK boss tells James Dallas that the L200 Series 5 is ready to take on all challengers

The Mitsubishi L200 Series 5 broke new ground when it became the first pick-up truck to take home the top gong from the What Van? Awards.

In fact, the overall prize for 2016 was renamed ‘Light Commercial Vehicle of the Year’ to take account of its status as a 4x4 off-roader rather than a conventional van.

What Van? had already recognised the profound impact of the new model’s predecessor on its own sector by awarding the Pick-up of the Year prize to the L200 Series 4 for six consecutive years from 2006 to 2011.

The segment is becoming increasingly crowded with new players, but they would not all be there if it was not for the pioneering Mitsubishi vehicle, which showed the market that pick-ups could be desirable and cool as well as rugged and capable workhorses.

Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi’s UK boss, describes the L200’s triumph at the 2016 awards as “massively important”, not least because it raised morale in a close-knit company.

“When you win a prestigious award it makes the people here feel good – everyone is involved in everything.”

Unlike many of its rival manufacturers that produce a range of vans as well as a pick-up, the L200 is a central model for Mitsubishi’s overall UK vehicle operation. Bradley says it used to regularly command a third of the brand’s sales, but that now, with the Outlander on board, it still accounts for one-in-five sales.

The prominent position Mitsubishi’s pick-up holds in the line-up gives the brand an advantage in an increasingly competitive sector, according to Bradley.

“Now the competition is strong but no one else has a situation where it’s a quarter of the business,” he says.

This means, he continues, that the sales staff in the brand’s dealerships know all about the 4x4.

“They have a level of expertise you can’t get anywhere else,” he claims.

Bradley is unfazed by the prospect of more pick-up models seeking to muscle in on the L200’s territory. He maintains that it was always going to be the case that other manufacturers would join the party.

“In the early 2000s we had the market,” he recalls, “and said: ‘Let’s make pick-ups like Tonka Toys.’

“We were miles ahead, we had 70% of the retail market.”

Halfway through the decade Bradley says the competition started to get in on the act.

“Others looked enviously at it, so it was inevitable they’d come in.”

He actually expresses the hope that the new manufacturers coming into the market are “genuine players” rather than brands using a pick-up as an “add-on sold at a discount”.

When defining customer choices he admits those needing a pick-up for the maximum towing capacity will go for an alternative. The Isuzu D-max and Ford Ranger, for example, can pull a 3.5t trailer compared with the L200’s 3.1t capacity. But he claims those wanting the best 4WD system opt for the L200, which can handle extreme off-road conditions.

“It will do much more than most people would feel comfortable doing,” says Bradley.

He also emphasises the L200’s USP: it is the only pick-up where you can choose to drive on-road in either two or four-wheel drive thanks to its Super Select 4WD system. Drivers can switch between the two at speeds of up to 62mph.

The majority of pick-ups need to be in 2WD at anything above low speeds on-road while the VW Amarok offers permanent 4WD.

Despite the L200’s lifestyle-oriented image, Bradley emphasises that its core appeal remains as a working tool. Its main markets are agriculture, not just farmers (who don’t want a “posh-looking vehicle” but rather rugged reliability), but also the likes of animal feed supply merchants.

Its other key market, of course, is construction – particularly small building firms, Bradley says. In this industry, he says, sales act as a barometer of the economy because the truck’s durability enables customers to run it for an extra year if they need to before trading it in for a new one.

One of the new pick-ups set to go on sale later this year is the Fullback, the sector debut from Fiat Professional, which is based on the L200. It’s fair to say Bradley does not sound overly enamoured by this development, which is a joint venture between Fiat and the Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi Motor Corporation, and does not involve Mitsubishi in the UK.

He does not know how closely the Fullback will resemble the L200, but predicts customers will stick with the sales and service operations that have proven track records in the pick-up market.

“Customers tend to see through where things are not what they seem,” he says. “People want expertise.”

But Bradley acknowledges standards have improved across the board and all the main competitors are producing decent vehicles. A decade ago, he claims “we were a generation ahead”.

Bradley says the Series 5 immediately gained a 30% retail market share upon its launch, proof it remains the class leader, but warns: “We are still ahead but can’t sit on our laurels, so we must keep improving – you can’t sit back.”

He reckons the brand positioning in the pick-up sector as more debut models arrive will depend upon whether customers know where the vehicles originate – for example, Mercedes, a cast-iron prestige marque, is to launch a pick-up based upon the Nissan Navara before the end of the decade.

He believes that due to improved refinement the new arrivals will expand the pick-up sector beyond its current 10% share of the LCV market rather than see more competitors fighting over the same-sized slice of the pie.

“I think the market will grow because people can use them as family cars,” he says.

“In that way it [the market] will increase. They [pick-ups] are so much more similar to SUVs now.”

 

Keeping in trim

In the Series 5 L200 range the Warrior is on a par with the Barbarian in Series 4 and the flagship has moved higher still, according to Bradley. These two double-cab versions, which sit above the entry-level 4Life and the Titan, take 80% of volume, due to the appetite for dual use, he says. Single and club-cab Series 5 derivatives in base level trim will come to the UK in the second half of the year when Series 4 examples run out. This will help Mitsubishi present the model as a working vehicle, Bradley points out.

As well as six-speed manual transmission the L200 comes with a five-speed automatic alternative that now gets paddle levers on the steering column to allow the driver to change gear manually if so desired, and Bradley says the auto mix is increasing – going from 25% in Series 4 to 32% so far in Series 5 – but he reckons this could increase because the supply of autos was slightly short initially.

“It’s an indication of the vehicle being more refined,” claims Bradley, and adds that only in the most extreme off-road conditions does the manual exceed its capabilities.

Accessories are big news in pick-ups and Bradley says about half of L200 customers order hardtop covers and nearly all get some form of load protection, such as a roller-cover.The average accessory spend on each L200 is £2000, he says, three times the amount forked out on other vehicles. Three-quarters of customers add a tow bar, and styling features such as light covers and roof bars are also in demand. With sales expected to go from 6000 to 8000 in 2016, the same can be said for the L200 overall.

 

Not so outlandish

Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi’s UK boss, says the Outlander 4Work, which is derived from the Outlander passenger car, came about because when he worked at Ford in a previous life he noticed some customers would convert vans into all-wheel drive vehicles, and he realised that converting the 4WD Outlander into an LCV would be easy – basically a case of replacing the rear seats with a load floor and, if you’re sensible, specifying a bulkhead.

The 4Work is available as a diesel and as the petrol/electric plug-in hybrid. Unlike with the passenger car plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, as yet there are no tax benefits in choosing this version as an LCV, but Bradley believes the Government will inevitably move towards linking LCV tax to emissions, at which time “it will become more desirable”.

But he admits the Outlander 4Work is a niche model, selling up to 300 units annually.

“You have to need that vehicle [with 4x4 capability] because there are cheaper vans out there,” says Bradley, telling it like he sees it, as usual.

 



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