At the 2006 Detroit Auto Show

Mitsubishi has had a tough time of it lately. Lousy quality and a years-long cover-up came to light in Japan, creating a major scandal in the press. The automaker had to be recapitalized by other parts of the Mitsubishi conglomerate after DaimlerChrysler refused to inject any more money. Its U.S. operation was deeply wounded by a marketing strategy of extending loans to high-credit-risk customers, many of whom predictably defaulted on their loans. And the Mitsubishi product line is aging.

But with revised models on the way, a newly energetic Mitsubishi unveiled a forward-looking concept car to underscore their technical capabilities—and their dedication to hybrid drive. The bright orange Mitsubishi Concept-CT takes hybrid drive systems even further into the future, replacing an electric motor in the transmission with four smaller motors, one in each wheel hub. This Mitsubishi In-wheel Electric Vehicle (MIEV) system is mated to a small gasoline engine mounted behind the rear seat. The three-cylinder 1.0-liter engine generates 67 hp (50 kW), driving the rear wheels through a transmission incorporating a 53 hp (40 kW) generator that recharges the 50 kW lithium-ion battery pack. (Regenerative braking charges the batteries as well.) Peak power delivered by the two is 134 hp (100 kW).

Each 20-kW wheel motor is individually powered, providing all-wheel-drive without the heavy and complex differentials of the mechanical version. This also gives a flat floor inside the car. The great challenge for this kind of design will be reducing “unsprung weight,” the total mass of the motor, hub, and wheel—any movements of which the suspension has to handle smoothly. But it let the designers locate the fuel tank under the front floor, with battery packs at the front and rear of the vehicle, providing a large frontal crush zone for safety.

Styled at the Mitsubishi design center in southern California, the Concept-CT is a compact four-door hatchback just 3.8 meters (150 inches) long. The unusual scoop in the roof channels cooling air through the car’s pillars to the engine. The interior is even more futuristic than the powertrain, with molded flat screens for virtually every function. Its designers said the styling theme was inspired by sleek, high-performance Japanese scooters.

Mitsubishi is now road-testing the MIEV power train in a Lancer Evo rally car, its fastest and best-known performance vehicle. Its goal, the company says, is to launch a production model incorporating MIEV technology and lithium ion batteries by 2010.