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Mitsubishi, marketed with its own label, off to a fast US start

Mitsubishi, long identified with the Chrysler-sold Dodge Colt, the Nikon camera, and Three Diamond-brand tuna fish, is now selling its front-wheel-drive cars in the United States under its own label.

North Shore Mitsubishi, Lynn, Mass., sold 47 cars its first month, says Earl M. Weinshel, a partner in the dealership. ''We even have Dodge Colt owners coming to us for service now,'' he adds.

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In short, the company is off and flying, despite the sharp criticism of Japanese carmakers by Detroit and the United Automobile Workers of America.

The Japanese now hold some 23 percent of all US new-car sales, despite the voluntary curbs that limit shipments to 1,680,000 vehicles a year. The pact, which ends March 31 and had originally been aimed at limiting the Japanese share of the US market to 16 or 17 percent, is expected to be extended, possibly at a lower annual figure because of the sharp drop-off in car sales in the US in 1982 .

Heading up the Mitsubishi lineup is the Starion, a high-performance, 2.6 -liter, open-road car aimed at the sports-car purist. With electronically controlled fuel injection and a 4 plus 4 transmission as well as an automatic, the car also has digital instrumentation and U-shaped independent rear suspension. The driver's seat has more adjustments than you can count, it seems.A turbocharger makes the wheels sprint at about 2,000 r.p.m.

The entire system is designed for more power, better mileage, and reduced emissions, according to a Mitsubishi engineer.

Reflecting the car's move toward the 21st century, the aura is that of ''things to come'' in motorcars.

The well-equipped Starion I'm driving is priced at $14,529, including a Chapman lock; wheel locks - ''those wheels cost a bundle,'' says Mr. Weinshel; two-tone paint ($160); cruise control ($146); and a destination charge of $175. Base price is $13,990.

''That's the first thing we do when we get the car in the dealership,'' Weinshel says. ''We put on the locks.''

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The high-luxury Cordia is a 2-door sporty sedan with many of the innovations of the top-line Starion.

The Tredia, with 4 doors and standard 5-speed manual transmission, includes a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder MCA-Jet engine and dual engine stabilizers.

Mitsubishi will soon introduce a 4-wheel-drive utility vehicle in the US, similar to the Toyota Land Cruiser. The Japanese ''Jeep'' is free of both voluntary restraints and the 25 percent tariff on light-truck imports. There are more cars down the pike.

Why are the Japanese cars so successful? The product is quick to come to mind. Yet sometimes they can get a bit gimmicky, it seems. The Starion, for example, can play a tune if the driver's door is left open. But unlike Chrysler's new E-Class car, which houses a voice-simulated ''guest'' that never stopped talking until a kill switch was recently installed, the Mitsubishi ''songbird'' includes a kill switch right at the start.

The top level of the Tredia line includes a switch on the trunk lock which limits access to the trunk, a plus; the middle of the left-hand rear seatback can be pulled down to provide access to the trunk; and there are two plastic bins under the front seats where small items can be put.

''The Japanese never forget anything,'' a friend remarked.

Chrysler Corporation and Mitsubishi have long been at odds over Chrysler's handling of its cars in the US market. A deal, however, was worked out in Palm Springs, Calif., some time ago between Chrysler and the Japanese car manufacturer whereby Chrysler will get up to 150,000 cars a year, all financed by Mitsubishi, until 1990 - a good deal for the US carmaker.

Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca also insisted on a full line of cars. Thus, next year the US automaker expects to have access to some models of the Mitsubishi Starion, plus others, but none of the cars are expected to be exactly the same as those being sold by Mitsubishi under its own banner. Chrysler may not want the Starion anyway, because it plans to launch its own K-derivative sports car in the fall.

Mitsubishi has 70 dealerships in the US and will import no more than 30,000 cars under its three-diamond flag in 1983.

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