The completely redesigned Chevrolet Malibu won't go on sale until the 2013 model year, but it's already clear we're going to see GM take a whole new approach to the mid-size segment, and not just in this country.
For one thing, the new 'Bu'”the best-selling Chevy car in America last year, with nearly 200,000 sales'”isn't even going to make its premiere in the U.S. Chevrolet will introduce the car first at the Shanghai Auto Show, although the event will be streamed live over the Internet and the car will turn up a few days later at the New York show.
It turns out GM is quite serious about making Chevy (Chevrolet?) an international brand, and according to the General's press release: "The new Malibu is Chevrolet's first midsize car to be sold globally. It will be sold in nearly 100 countries on six continents and built in multiple locations."
This naturally will include China, and it's interesting to hear exactly which customers the '13 Malibu is aimed at in that country. According to Kevin Wale, president and managing director of the GM China Group, "It will address growing domestic demand in the upper-medium segment." Which means that it's going to have essentially the same target here in the U.S., since it's essentially the same car.
And that, in turn, brings us back to a common Krome on Cars concern: If Chevy is now geared toward the "upper-medium segment," doesn't that imply GM is giving up on mainstream customers who are looking for basic transportation?
Today's Malibu: The Game Changer
This generation of the Malibu, first introduced for the 2008 model year, set the stage for Chevy's ongoing transformation with its sophisticated good looks, a very nice interior and fuel efficiency that was on the leading edge of the segment when it was first introduced. As a result, the car went on to win North American Car of the Year honors as well as plenty of acclaim from the critics, and the vehicle still stands up fairly well today.
I spent a week in a Malibu late last year, and I can tell you the car seemed to be in a completely different class from a rival like the Hyundai Sonata. Of course, the Malibu did have a starting price roughly $2,500 above that of the Hyundai. But at this stage, it's hard to get a handle on the Malibu's retail sales performance to see if its upscale packaging is gaining customers. As I indicated above, the Malibu sold 198,770 units last year, an increase of 23 percent, but it's had mixed results so far this year, and a lot of its volume has been going to fleets lately.
It's also worth pointing out that while the Malibu's fuel efficiency ratings still hold up well when comparing naturally aspirated four-cylinder models, the Chevy is at a notable disadvantage against V-6 rivals (and the Sonata I4 turbo). Among the former crew, the Malibu, Sonata and Toyota Camry all get 26 mpg combined according to the EPA, and the Honda Accord bumps that to 27 mpg. But looking at this quartet when configured with their more powerful engines shows the Malibu 17/26/20, as compared to the Sonata at 22/33/26, the Accord at 20/30/24 and the Camry reaching 20/29/23.
Malibu's fuel-efficiency disadvantage is unlikely to be having any effect on sales today, and with the car stacking up so well in most other measures, yet still showing some sales weakness, I'm not convinced Chevy's strategy of transforming the Malibu into a near-premium choice is working. With the next model certain to be even further upscale, and more expensive, the issue will be exacerbated further.
What I find particularly interesting is that Chevrolet's strategy represents a completely opposite approach from what's going on at Volkswagen. Consider: VW, which is explicitly aiming for much higher U.S. volumes, is trying to attract customers with lower-priced iterations of the compact VW Jetta and mid-size VW Passat; Chevy, which you'd think would have the same ultimate goal, is going so far the other way that it's trotting out the ol' "European driving dynamics" business to promote the new Malibu.
Which should make for a heck of a horse race when both the new versions of the Passat and Malibu reach the marketplace.