Was There A Cover Up At Mitsubishi?

As customer complaints rise, police probe the auto maker

Motohiro Kaibara could be classified as a Mitsubishi man. He works as a mechanic at his family's Mitsubishi Motors Corp. dealership in Kitakyushu, a city in southern Japan. And he will only drive a Mitsubishi. But Kaibara's faith began to unravel last year. That's when a customer nearly ran down his own grandchild while attempting to park a 1998 Mitsubishi Diamante. The driver had just put the car in reverse when it shot backward, just missing the child.

Mitsubishi tested the vehicle at its regional technical center in July, 1999, and insisted that nothing fundamental was amiss. But the customer, a retiree in his late 60s who asked not to be identified, says that twice more his $33,000 Diamante accelerated in reverse. Kaibara decided to check the car himself, though he was aware such incidents rarely occur with any consistency. To his surprise, the vehicle shot back a meter or so upon shifting into reverse.

Mitsubishi may have a problem here. In recent months, there have been other reports of reverse acceleration involving Diamante sedans. The allegations of a possible defect do not involve a large number of cases. But they come in the wake of revelations that over two decades Mitsubishi Motors has covered up thousands of complaints about glitches with its cars and trucks.

The problems won't go away. Police in Tokyo, where Mitsubishi Motors is headquartered, have launched an investigation into allegations that the company was criminally negligent in covering up defects. Mitsubishi has declined to comment on the probe. But investigators have told the Japanese press they have evidence indicating that serious car defects were secretly repaired at two Mitsubishi technical centers. In some cases, the sources said, engineers replaced or repaired car computers.

According to Kaibara, a faulty computer likely is to blame for the Diamante acceleration problem. The model is believed to be part of the police probe: The Transport Ministry says so far authorities have documented seven cases of reverse acceleration involving Diamantes made since 1997.

Is the computer the culprit? No way, says Megumu Okubo, general manager of Mitsubishi Motors' car service department. "We believe drivers mistakenly hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes," he says. Yet Kaibara insists that's not so. The company does know of about 20 cases of sudden acceleration--forward and backward--since the early 1980s. Twenty years ago, when Mitsubishi first began putting computers in cars, it's possible, Okubo says, that a mixed signal in the electronic brain could have caused sudden acceleration. That's why Mitsubishi developed a "fail-proof" system made of two computers. Thus, he asserts, the auto maker is sure drivers are at fault.

TOUGH FOE. Try telling that to Shigeo Toyoda, the 57-year-old president of a small employment referral business in western Tokyo. After his Diamante lurched backward last September, hitting another car, Toyoda asked Mitsubishi to inspect the vehicle. The company said there was nothing wrong with it. That's when Toyoda set up a Web site where Mitsubishi owners can report troubles. Toyoda has since received 1,000 reports of faulty brakes, engines that stop, and sudden acceleration.

While activists like Toyoda are increasingly assertive, successful consumer activism is still rare in Japan. And it's not easy to take on a Mitsubishi. On at least three occasions, Toyoda has received visits from company execs who, he says, were rude and implied he was a liar. When Toyoda stepped up his online campaign, Mitsubishi filed a lawsuit in May demanding $5,000, or what they say it cost them to test his Diamante. Last week, Toyoda launched a countersuit to get the carmaker to pay $20,000 in damages. "Someone has to stand up to Mitsubishi," he says.

Kaibara is also feeling pressure. Mitsubishi dispatched a senior engineer to his dealership to convince the mechanic that the car was trouble-free. Kaibara remains resolute. "Many Mitsubishi mechanics believe it's a programming quirk," he says, "one that might be difficult to fix." Mitsubishi would do well to take seriously ordinary Japanese like Kaibara and Toyoda. Otherwise its reputation may be impossible to repair.

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