General Motors (NYSE:GM) on Wednesday took the wraps off of its all-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, the midsize sedan it hopes will restore its fortunes in America's best-selling car segment.
The current Malibu has been something of a disappointment. It's a good car, but the standard of "good" has been raised sharply in this ultra-competitive segment over the last few years. The Malibu hasn't kept up: It was behind its key rivals the moment it was launched, and a quick refresh in 2013 didn't do enough to help.
Will this all-new model have a chance to change that?
This new Malibu might actually be a "game changer"
Based on my first impressions here at the New York International Auto Show, the answer is an emphatic "yes." I didn't have a chance to drive the car, but based on the things I could evaluate, the new Malibu is miles ahead of the old one, and it might be ahead of all of its key rivals, too.
Gone is the old Malibu's bland rental-car exterior, replaced with a striking fastback-like shape that follows the template set by its (very successful) big brother, the full-size Impala sedan. It's a shape that will turn heads and draw curious shoppers, which is exactly what GM needs.
If the two Malibus that GM has here at the show are any indication, those curious shoppers will be very pleased indeed when they open the door and sit inside. (Those doors open with a click and close with a solid thunk, by the way.)
One of the advantages of reporting from an auto show is that interior comparisons are easy: For any given mass-market model, carefully primped examples of its key rivals are just a few steps away. Your humble Fool compared the new Malibu's interior with well-trimmed examples of the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Camry, Honda (NYSE:HMC) Accord, and Ford (NYSE:F) Fusion that were nearby, and came to this quick conclusion: The Malibu might be the new class-leader.
That's important. Exterior styling can draw buyer interest, but a great interior can close the deal. The combination of leather and smooth metal trim in the Malibu Hybrid I examined works very well. It's attractive and functional and even luxurious, and the general fit and finish and quality of the controls is surprisingly high. Taken together, it's a step ahead of Honda and Ford, and maybe a step and a half ahead of the Camry.
GM's designers didn't neglect the backseat, either: There's much more legroom than in the outgoing model, thanks to a longer wheelbase, and your six-foot-tall Fool found a surprisingly generous amount of headroom as well. While the Accord's backseat also feels roomy, headroom in the back of the Fusion and Camry is a bit tight by comparison, and the Fusion seems to have a bit less legroom than the others.
How big a deal is this for GM?
It's a very big deal. SUVs and crossovers may have surged in popularity, but after pickup trucks, midsize sedans are still America's best-sellers -- but GM's entries haven't been among the best-sellers in a long time.
Lately, the best-sellers have been the Camry, the Accord, Nissan's(OTC:NSANY) Altima, and the Fusion. The current Malibu has been an also-ran, far behind.
With strong new engines and what may be a class-leading hybrid system, this new Malibu could change that. In fact, I'm going to rephrase that: This new Malibu should change that. It's the no-excuses entry that GM has needed, and it looks set to vault to the head of this extremely competitive class -- if not in sales, then in perceptions.
That's great for GM for two reasons, one of which might not be obvious. First, the new Malibu should sell quite a bit better than the old one, and at better prices. That means more profits, of course. But second, those sales will come because the new Malibu looks and feels like a high-quality product, one that will help spread the word that bad old GM's bad old products are a thing of the past. That in turn should lift GM's overall reputation, indirectly helping sales of its other products.
One last note: Right before I wrote this article, I spent a few minutes with the new Malibu on Chevrolet's show stand. This was very early on Thursday morning, before most of the journalists and executives attending the show had arrived for the day.
But I had company as I looked over the Malibu: Two Japanese-speaking Toyota executives were also taking a close look. I don't speak Japanese, so I don't know exactly what they were saying, but they weren't smiling.