The current Malibu sedan isn't bad, but it's an also-ran in a segment that is dominated by the Japanese giants but where rival Ford has gained ground with its dramatically styled Fusion.
The Fusion (which is sold in China and Europe as the Mondeo) has won acclaim around the world for its styling, solid feel, and comfortable interior. Meanwhile, the current Malibu... has not. It's not a bad car, but -- unlike the Fusion -- it hasn't given Camry and Accord buyers a reason to switch.
Now, General Motors is about to pull the wraps off an all-new Malibu. Will it be sufficiently improved to finally put GM back in the ranks of family sedan leaders?
What we know about the 2016 Chevy Malibu
The all-new Malibu will be unveiled at the New York International Auto Show this week, probably on Wednesday. We don't know everything about it yet, but here's what we do know:
- It's both longer and lighter. The 2016 Malibu is built on an all-new architecture that includes GM's latest weight-saving advances. Its wheelbase is almost 4 inches longer than the current car's, giving it more rear-seat legroom. Despite the added length, it will be 300 pounds lighter, GM says.
- GM put a lot of effort into durability. One indicator of "quality" is how long a car lasts before turning into a rattletrap. GM's cars haven't historically had a great record on that front, but the company has worked hard to change that. The new Malibu incorporates lessons learned from 40 years of GM data-collection efforts, and prototypes have logged over 1.5 million miles of driving in all kinds of conditions. All automakers do such tests nowadays, of course, but GM's latest results in J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Study suggest the automaker's durability testing is working pretty well.
- The styling should be more dramatic. The current Malibu isn't a bad-looking car, but Ford's Fusion is a head turner. The new Malibu will need something to differentiate it from the pack -- or, put another way, to get a Toyota or Honda loyalist to consider a Chevy this time around. Ford did it with styling and a strong interior. Early hints (see the "teaser" photo above) indicate GM is following a similar path with the latest Malibu.
- There will finally be a hybrid. What do the top four best-selling sedans in this segment have in common? The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion all come in hybrid versions. GM has stayed away from mainstream hybrids in the past, but that's about to change: The new Malibu will be offered in a proper hybrid version that leverages technology from the all-new 2016 Chevy Volt, GM said this past week. And GM promises it will get an EPA combined-mileage rating of more than 45 mpg, enough to beat the hybrid versions of both the Fusion and the Camry.
Will it add up to enough to dent the strong sales posted by Ford,Toyota, and the others? Or is all of this -- top-notch durability, sharp styling, a hybrid version -- now simply the price of entry in this very tough segment?
The 2016 Malibu must be really good just to be "good enough"
General Motors has launched a string of impressive new models since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009. Far from the also-ran GM products of old, models such as the new Chevy Tahoe, Buick Regal, and Cadillac CTS have been big leaps forward, earning strong praise from some tough critics.
In fact, the current Malibu might be the only post-bankruptcy GM model that failed to measure up to the top models in its class. The company is clearly determined to change that with this latest version -- and GM's other recent efforts make it a safe bet the new Malibu will be a big improvement on the current car.
But the Camry, Accord, Altima, and Fusion are among the best-selling vehicles in the United States, month after month. The sales numbers are huge, and that has made the competition very stiff. There's an argument to be made that a strong hybrid entry, extensive durability testing, and all the rest is simply what is required to be taken seriously by mainstream shoppers nowadays.
Even that would be a step up for the Malibu. But GM CEO Mary Barra and her team have made it clear GM is done aiming for "good enough." Will the Malibu have a trick up its sleeve to eclipse its rivals -- one that can give GM's sales and profits a real boost? We'll find out on Wednesday.
John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool 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.