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Mitsubishi fuel economy cheating a reminder of 2000 safety scandal

Anyone suffering deja vu while watching Mitsubishi Motors' top executives admit the company cheated on fuel economy tests should not be surprised.

Not because of the similarity to Volkswagen's emissions test-rigging admission of last September, but because this was not a first for Mitsubishi Motors.

In 2000, the Japanese carmaker revealed that it had covered up safety defects and customer complaints about its vehicles. Four years later, it made further admissions of a broader cover-up going back decades.

It was Japan's worst automotive recall scandal of the time, hitting vehicle sales and forcing Mitsubishi Motors to take a bailout from its parent, Mitsubishi Group.

Now, analysts say history could be repeated, with the group again having to come to the carmaker's rescue.

At Wednesday's widely televised press conference, complete with deep bows from top executives, Mitsubishi Motors admitted to cheating on fuel economy test data. The company said the test manipulation involved 625,000 vehicles produced since mid-2013, including its eK mini-wagon as well as 468,000 similar cars it made for Nissan Motor.

It was Nissan that uncovered a discrepancy in the test data, according to reports.

Mitsubishi Motors said it would stop making and selling those cars, and had set up an independent panel to investigate the issue. Japan's transport ministry ordered the company to submit a full report on the test manipulation within a week, and said it would decide on its response by May 18, Reuters reported.

The latest scandal couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for Mitsubishi Motors, which had already forecast a 15 percent decline in profit for the fiscal year ending March 2016.

Tradewinds Global Investors managing director, Peter Boardman, told CNBC's "Street Signs" that Mitsubishi Motors would likely have to rely on the group again for financial support.

"The company's been coming out of significant financial distress over the past couple of years," he said. "They thought they had a strategy for trying to improve themselves by being a supplier of engines and transmissions to Nissan and other players but obviously with this incident it's going to make it much more difficult," he said.

Boardman noted that Mitsubishi would have to reimburse Nissan and other companies it supplied, and that the misdeeds were likely to cost the carmaker 30 billion to 40 billion yen ($270 million to $360 million). Rivals Suzuki and Daihatsu would get a boost from the Mitsubishi's sales halt, he added.

But fallout from the automaker's cheating admission was likely to be relatively limited, as most of its car sales were in Japan, John Humphrey, senior vice president and general manager at J.D. Power and Associates's global automotive practice.

Even though the admission of cheating was a black mark on Mitsubishi's report card, it was not safety issue as the company had faced in the early 2000s, Humphrey told CNBC's "Squawk Box".

Mitsubishi Motors President Tetsuro Aikawa bows during a press conference on April 20, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. Mitsubishi Motors share plunged more than 15% after the Japanese car maker announced it has mishandled the fuel economy test data.
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images
Mitsubishi Motors President Tetsuro Aikawa bows during a press conference on April 20, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. Mitsubishi Motors share plunged more than 15% after the Japanese car maker announced it has mishandled the fuel economy test data.

"Yes, it's wrong. They cheated," he said. "[But] did it result in recent deaths? No, it didn't. Is it something that can be overcome by Mitsubishi? It certainly is, but they are going to be very aggressive in terms of regaining market trust especially in Japan which is their biggest market."

Mitsubishi Motors shares weren't traded on Thursday amid a deluge of sell orders with no corresponding buyers.

Under Tokyo stock market rules, with no trades made for all of Thursday, the stocks were deemed to have closed at the indicated price of 583 yen, the lowest they could go for the day, representing a 20.4 percent drop from Wednesday's close.

That took Mitsubishi Motors' shares below the previous record low of 660 yen, meaning they have lost a third of their market value, or $2.5 billion, in two days.

- Reuters contributed to this report

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