GM's tweaked Malibu arrives just 18 months after major redesign

Reuters

By Ben Klayman

PLYMOUTH, Mich., Oct 9 (Reuters) - General Motors Co is taking the unusual step of offering a mildly restyled versionof the Chevrolet Malibu in an effort to reverse the last 18months of disappointing sales since the mid-sized sedan's lastmajor redesign in early 2012.

The 2014 Malibu, hitting dealer showrooms now, was reworkedto improve fuel efficiency and interior space, update thestyling and add more technology and a new base 2.5-liter engine.

Analysts say the move is intended to halt GM's slide in theU.S. auto market's largest and most hotly contested sector.

The 2014 model also will be backed by a marketing campaignon par with last year's launch, another unusual move for the No.1 U.S. automaker.

"They stumbled and they created some of their own problemsin 2012 with the Malibu launch, and then when the car came outit was not best-in-class," auto analyst Maryann Keller said.

"They realized they couldn't keep that car as it was on themarket in a very, very competitive segment," she added.

The redesigned 2013 Malibu was introduced in limited numbersand in a hybrid version in February 2012. More varieties anddifferent engine options did not arrive in greater quantitiesuntil later in the year.

Automakers typically wait at least two years beforerefreshing a car design.

"We recognize the importance of this segment and how weneeded to make sure we were as competitive as possible," ChrisPerry, vice president of Chevy marketing in North America, toldreporters at an event here. "Eighteen months into it, werecognized that we needed to up our game."

Perry said the refreshed Malibu design was required by thecompetitiveness of the market, and GM would do it again in othersegments if required. He said it would be wrong to call thelaunch of the 2013 Malibu a failure.

STIFF COMPETITION

Mid-sized cars make up about 15 percent of the overall U.S.market and the Malibu ranks fifth in sales with 8.2 percent ofthe market so far this year, according to research firm KelleyBlue Book.

Toyota Motor Corp's Camry led the segment with a16.8 percent share, followed by Honda Motor Co's Accordat 14.9 percent, Nissan Motor Co's Altima at 13.2percent, and Ford Motor Co's Fusion at 12 percent,according to KBB.

Malibu's U.S. sales last year rose 3 percent to almost211,000 vehicles, but so far this year sales are down about 13percent.

Total industry midsize sales are up 1.5 percent this year,according to KBB. While Toyota's gain in that period matches thesegment's, Fusion (up 17 percent), Accord (up 14 percent) andAltima (up 7 percent) have all shown strong gains, according toresearch firm Autodata.

Fusion, Accord and Altima also were redesigned last year.

Perry said GM is spending about as much as it did to launchthe redesigned 2013 model last year, although he declined toquantify that total.

"We're looking at this as an all-new launch," he said.

GM spent $226 million advertising the Malibu in the UnitedStates last year, according to WPP Plc unit KantarMedia, which tracks such spending.

The automaker boosted the 2014 Malibu's fuel efficiency by 3miles per gallon to 25 in the city and by 2 mpg to 36 on thehighway with the new base engine. GM said that tops theperformance of Ford's Fusion and Toyota's Camry.

The 2014 Malibu, which starts at almost $23,000, in place oflast year's hybrid eAssist engine now features stop-start enginetechnology that saves fuel by allowing the car's engine to shutoff when the vehicle is at rest and restart when the acceleratoris pressed.

The car also enables incoming texts on the driver'ssmartphones to be converted to speech and read over the car'saudio system, a first for the segment according to GM.

The automaker also added on the 2014 Malibu Apple's "Siri" personal assistant feature at the push of a button,something previously only offered on the Chevy Cruze small carand Sonic subcompact.

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