GM Tries Again to Catch Ford's Fusion


The refreshed 2014 Chevy Malibu. Photo credit: General Motors

Here it is, folks: The hastily revised 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, just unveiled on Friday. What do you think?

If you've been paying attention, you might think it strange that General Motors is revising the Malibu now. After all, GM's midsized mainstay was all-new just last year.

Don't most automakers wait a few years before revising their products? And doesn't GM have enough other product priorities - like launching its all-new pickup trucks - to keep it busy right now?

Yes, they do, and yes they do. But the Malibu is a special case, and - in a big break from past practice at General Motors - GM's new management wasn't willing to wait.

That's a big deal. Let's take a closer look.

An all-new Chevy that didn't make the grade
The Malibu is - or at least, is supposed to be - General Motors' high-volume midsized sedan. But despite the fact that the Malibu that's at Chevy dealers today was all-new for the 2013 model year, its sales haven't been great.

The 2013 Malibu isn't bad, but it wasn't good enough. Photo credit: General Motors

Why? Because it isn't up to snuff. Specifically, it isn't all that competitive with Ford's white-hot Fusion sedan and Honda's hot-selling new Accord, both of which are stealing sales in a big way from the longtime class-leader, Toyota's Camry - and from the Malibu.

Sales of Ford's Fusion have boomed this year. Photo credit: Ford Motor Co.

Through April, U.S. sales of the new Malibu were down 11.9% from the same period in 2012. Meanwhile, the Fusion and Accord were up 25% and 26%, respectively. That has dropped the Malibu to fifth place in the midsized sedan rankings, behind the Accord, the Camry, the Fusion, and Nissan's Altima.

That's not good enough for GM's current leadership. That's why they ordered a high-speed do-over.

Instead of excuses, a fast facelift
The current Malibu isn't a bad car, really. But reviewers weren't all that impressed, saying that the interior was kind of cheap-looking and a little cramped, the exterior styling was bland, and it wasn't all that much fun to drive.

It's clear that GM heard the criticisms. As you can see in the photos, the overhauled 2014 Malibu gets a bolder face, similar to that on the new full-sized Chevy Impala sedan (which is getting very good reviews, by the way).

GM also added more rear-seat room, increasing "knee room" by over an inch by redesigning the seats, spiffed up other parts of the interior, gave it a little more power, and tweaked the suspension for "more refined" (their words) handling.

Will it be enough?

I don't know yet. But just the fact that it happened at all is significant.

You think GM hasn't changed? Think again.
GM wants - no, make that needs - to do better than "not bad" nowadays. For years, GM was happy if its cars were just in the discussion, while it focused its efforts on trucks and SUVs.

We know where that kind of thinking led: bankruptcy court.

Under current CEO Dan Akerson, GM's goal is to be top of class in every class. That may sound like auto executive lip service, but they're really serious about this. That's why Akerson and GM's North America chief, Mark Reuss, ordered a quick redo.

Last year's Cadillac ATS showed that GM could build a sedan good enough to go head to head with the best in its class - which in that case is one of the best cars in the world, BMW's 3-Series.

The revised Malibu faces a different kind of competition than the Cadillac, but it's no less fierce. Toyota and Honda are the perennial leaders in this class and have huge followings of intensely loyal customers. And Ford's Fusion has been a big hit - so big that Ford is adding a second factory to keep up with demand.

This new Malibu will have to be more than just good to make an impression on that crowd. On paper, it looks like a bunch of small changes that could add up to a big improvement. We'll know more once reviewers get a chance to drive it.

But just the fact that it exists is a big deal. Old GM's management wouldn't have bothered to do anything like this. They would have been happy to cut prices and crank up fleet sales and pat themselves on the back for another "best-seller".

Clearly, that approach doesn't fly anymore at GM. And that says a lot about how much the company has changed under Dan Akerson.

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Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. Follow him on Twitter at @jrosevear.The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, and General Motors, and owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Originally published