Weak car brands should pack it in

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Mitsubishi is searching for an ad agency to help pull its sales out of the ditch. Here's a better idea: Give up. Mitsubishi, struggling through daunting global challenges, faces long odds on a U.S. comeback. Ditto for three other also-rans: Isuzu, Suzuki and Ford's murky Mercury.

In the intensely competitive U.S. auto market, consumers have their pick of great products and access to a bevy of information on quality, price and performance. Advantage goes to automakers with clearly defined brands, standout products and global scale. Fuzzy brands and me-too models don't cut it.

Bad marks beget bad marques: Isuzu, Suzuki and Mitsubishi scored the worst among Japanese brands in J.D. Power & Associates' 2004 long-term Vehicle Dependability Study. It's not all bad. Mercury scores well in quality. Mercury and Mitsubishi ranked above average in a Power study of how owners rate new vehicles on design, features and performance.

How do consumers vote? Ask the man (or woman) who owns one. Toyota was tops in Power's 2004 Customer Retention Study, keeping six in 10 owners when they bought a new vehicle. But just 7% of Isuzu drivers opt for a new Isuzu. About two-thirds of Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Mercury drivers ditch their cars when they go shopping.

These aren't brands-these are trade-ins. And they're not worth much: In Automotive Lease Guide's study of how much 2005 models will be worth three years out, Suzuki, Isuzu, Mercury and Mitsubishi accounted for four of the seven worst marques in depreciation.

The cost of trying to fix these fallen franchises may not be worth the risk. General Motors and DaimlerChrysler were smart to ditch Oldsmobile and Plymouth. Ford would be smart to scrap Mercury and use resources to restage lumbering luxury liner Lincoln, fix Jaguar and count on Jag and Volvo as its premium brands. Japan's also-rans may be better off going home, leaving the U.S. to brands with resources to compete.

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