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Mitsubishi SUV 'Unsafe'

Montero Limited tips dangerously in tests, Consumer Reports says

Jun 20, 2001 | CNNfn

The 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited sport/utility vehicle has a severe risk of tipping on two wheels, according to Consumer Reports, which gave the vehicle a rare "not acceptable" rating.

The magazine published by Consumers Union said the problem was discovered in emergency avoidance-maneuver tests. It said the tests last month showed the Montero Limited tipped up on two wheels in eight out of nine runs at 36.7 miles per hour or faster. It said it conducted tests on two different Montero Limiteds which had been built 10 months apart from one another.

"Tipping up severely, we believe, demonstrates unsafe performance," the magazine's article said.

It marks only the third SUV model out of 118 vehicles tested during the last 13 years to fail the test. The others were the Suzuki Samurai in 1988 and the Isuzu Trooper along with its twin Acura SLX in 1996.

Mitsubishi defends vehicle safety

The U.S. arm of Mitsubishi Motors said it is confident that the vehicle is safe and that the tests used by Consumers Union are unrealistic. It said it has no record of rollover accidents involving the vehicle, and that additional tests it had conducted by an independent testing firm since it was informed of the CU results had validated its findings that the vehicle is safe.

In the real world, this vehicle's performance has been outstanding," said a statement from Pierre Gagnon, president of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America. "We are disappointed that Consumers Union chose to attack our vehicle despite overwhelming evidence that their conclusions are wrong."

The automaker said that the validity of the CU tests has been criticized by government safety experts and the tests do not depict a maneuver that would be needed by drivers in a real-world setting. It called the CU test a "staged" rollover.

But Consumers Union stood by its results, saying they raised a serious safety risk to vehicle owners. It provided a video of one of the tests showing all four wheels leaving the ground and the vehicle tipping up on the safety bars installed along the bottom of the vehicle for purposes of the tests.

"On the same day, on the same course with the same drivers, we tested six other similarly-sized SUVs and none of them exhibited any problems with tip-ups," said a statement from R. David Pittle, senior vice president and technical director of Consumers Union. "We believe that a vehicle that tips up severely in our tests is exhibiting dangerous behavior."

The article that the publication prepared for readers said it had been prepared to give the vehicle a mostly positive rating, and that it could have been one of the higher-rated models of its group of SUVs being compared. Its description of the Montero in its 2001 annual auto ratings issue included the description: "Routine handling is sound if unexceptional and the ride is compliant and well controlled."

The safety rating does not apply to the more popular Montero Sport, which Consumer Reports agrees is a very different vehicle despite the similar name. It tested an earlier model of the Montero Sport using the same emergency avoidance maneuver test and it passed, although the magazine did not recommend the vehicle because of its reliability record.

Jennifer Shecter, a spokeswoman for the magazine, said the Montero Sport has been redesigned since that earlier test and that Consumer Reports could not comment on the safety or chance of a rollover in the current models.

In past years, Consumer Reports faced lawsuits from automakers after it said models weren't safe. Suzuki's defamation suit against the magazine's publisher was thrown out, and it was cleared of any liability by the jury that heard the Isuzu case. But according to published reports, the jury found some of the charges in Consumer Reports' Trooper article were incorrect and wanted to award damages of as much as $25 million, but didn't because it "couldn't find clear and convincing evidence that Consumer Union intentionally set out to trash the Trooper."

Problems at Mitsubishi

German automaker DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX: up $0.16 to $43.42, Research, Estimates) took a controlling minority stake in the Japanese automaker last year. But the rescue of Japan's fourth-largest automaker is still far from certain as Mitsubishi Motors grapples with cutting costs and trying to return to profitability.

It also had to deal with a scandal in which it acknowledged it hid customer complaints from Japan's Transport Ministry over the course of more than two decades. The deception led to the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles, the resignation of the company's president and tighter controls of the company by DaimlerChrysler.

The Montero is a one of a number of relatively new SUV offerings from Japanese automakers that have eaten into the market share of U.S. automakers in this key segment in recent years.

For the first five months of the year, Mitsubishi has sold 8,804 Monteros, up 71 percent from the same period of 2000, and 24,392 Montero Sports, off 12.4 percent from the previous year. Those combined sales are about level with the year earlier period and represent about one-half percent of all U.S. vehicles sold during the period and 2.2 percent of all SUVs.

Sport/utility vehicles have a higher center of gravity than cars and other light trucks and are at greater risk of a rollover accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But it has yet to release rollover ratings for the Montero.

Consumer Reports said, for those who have already purchased the vehicle, it would advise them to wear safety belts at all times, drive with caution and not carry any cargo on top of the vehicle. Most fatalities in rollover accidents result from being thrown from the vehicle, according to NHTSA.

Consumer Reports said it also is important that Montero drivers leave extra space between the SUV and other vehicles to give themselves more time to react without the need for sharp turns.

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