- GM on Friday touted how rapid prototyping is helping to speed updates on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, but the problem with Malibu's sales may go beyond the engine, styling and seating.
- GM said "rapid prototyping proved particularly useful for updates to the new Malibu's floor console, which now features a pair of integrated smartphone holders for driver and passenger."
- But one auto analyst told Edmunds that consumers aren't putting Malibu on their consideration list because of the car's price positioning.
DETROIT — GM on Friday touted how rapid prototyping is helping to speed updates on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, but the problem with Malibu's sales may go beyond the engine, styling and seating.
GM said "rapid prototyping proved particularly useful for updates to the new Malibu's floor console, which now features a pair of integrated smartphone holders for driver and passenger."
But one auto analyst told Edmunds that consumers aren't putting Malibu on their consideration list because of the car's price positioning.
You could almost say Chevrolet is improving the comfort of the 2014 Malibu by reshaping the car's foam-filled seats with an X-Acto knife.
It's among several upgrades Chevrolet hopes will jumpstart Malibu sales. The car, which was redesigned last year, is losing traction to the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and some other mid-sized models. Malibu sales for the January through May period are down 18 percent. Rebates as high as $3,000 have been added to move cars off dealer lots.
To create a buzz for the 2014 Malibu arriving this fall, Chevrolet will offer a new more fuel efficient, standard engine. The car's front end has been restyled, the suspension has been refined for improved driving dynamics, and the automaker has responded to customer complaints about rear-seat comfort. Chevrolet says the new 2.5-liter engine will provide a five percent increase in fuel economy during city driving over the outgoing engine and 3 percent on the highway.
But Jim Hall, an analyst with 2953Analytics, told Edmunds the problem with Malibu's sales goes beyond the engine, styling and seating.
"One of the reasons sales are down is because consideration is down," Hall said. "I think consideration is down because of their price positioning. There is somebody at General Motors who believes their cars can warrant a price premium."
Plus, Hall said, there are other issues with the Malibu that make the car less competitive that can't be addressed right now.
Pricing has not been announced on the 2014 Malibu. The base 2013 Chevrolet Malibu LS starts at $22,805.
Chevrolet's Phil Carlisle told Edmunds that customer complaints prompted the automaker to improve rear-seat comfort. Carlisle is Chevrolet Impala and Malibu product manager.
"Some of the feedback that we got back from the marketplace was that the rear seat was a little bit stiff, hard to sit on," he said. "The second thing was knee room," that sometimes when the front seats were positioned as far back as possible, the front seats would touch the knees of rear-seat passengers.
That consumer criticism resulted in a wide range of changes to gain what Chevrolet believes will make passengers happy, an additional 1.25 inches of knee room.
It unusual for a U.S. automaker to dive back into one of its newest models to make fixes. Generally speaking, a U.S. automaker may wait three to five years to address areas criticized by owners and the media. The current generation Malibu went on sale early last year.
"This is the most competitive segment in the U.S. auto industry," said Chad Lyons, a Chevrolet spokesman, told Edmunds. "Being it is such a competitive segment, we know that we can't stand still. We know that if there are areas to make a good car better, we know that we are going to do it. I think it says a lot of about the way GM is operating now."
The marketplace is filled with recently redesigned midsized sedans. Last year, the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord were redesigned. The Toyota Camry and Volkswagen were redesigned a year earlier. The Hyundai Sonata will receive new exterior styling next year.
Understandably, Chevrolet executives are jittery about Malibu sales. The redesigned car was introduced early last year and Chevy's brass expected sales to outpace the previous model.
Instead, Chevrolet sold nearly 90,000 Malibu models in the January through May period, compared with about 110,000 in 2012. The 2012 sales numbers included both the older and redesigned Malibu. Meanwhile, the Toyota Camry, the industry top-selling mid-sized car, sold nearly 172,000 vehicles for the January through May period this year.
One big difference between the previous-generation Malibu, which was marketed during the 2008 to 2012 model years, and the current generation, 2013 and 2014 model years, is wheelbase. The current generation's wheelbase is four inches shorter, resulting in some interior dimensions that are tighter compared to the older models, particularly in rear-seat comfort.
While there is nothing that can be done to stretch the wheelbase until a redesign, likely several years away, GM was able to carve out more space, resulting in 1.25 inches of additional knee room, Carlisle said.
Depending on model, the automaker replaced the hard plastic trim on the back of the front bucket seats with either a cloth or soft vinyl material. Then, some of the foam in the back of the bucket seats was sculptured out of the seat.
"That picked up a little bit of the (knee) room," Carlisle said.
Next, the foam in the rear seat cushion and seat back was re-sculptured, Carlisle said. The end result is that rear-seat passengers sit a little lower on a softer seat cushion. Additionally, with re-sculpturing the form, the seat back is angled further away from the front seats.
The last change to improve rear-seat comfort also enhances ingress/egress. The leading edge of the rear-seat cushion was trimmed about one inch, straight across the width of the seat. Carlisle said that change resulted in two improvements to rear-seat passenger comfort.
First, it makes the seat more comfortable for passengers with shorter legs. Second, it makes it easier for passengers to swing their legs in and out of the rear passenger compartment. Essentially, the distance from the bottom of seat cushion to the bottom of the front seats is increased about one inch.
Hall said, "the rear seat is tertiary. They fixed it because they could. They also (redesigned) the center console to make more legroom."
But Hall said Malibu's sales problem goes back to the car's launch in early 2012. The more expensive, though more fuel efficient, Malibu Eco was introduced about six months before the entry-level Malibu. Some Malibu shoppers likely experienced sticker shock and headed to a lower-priced competing brand.
"That set people's perception of the car," Hall said. "They relaunch it and (then) they have a non-competitive price point. And then on top of it, they have a vehicle that is smaller than the vehicle that replaces it."
Hall says there's also the issue of Malibu and Chevrolet Cruze styling.
"If you see a Malibu and a Cruze from a distance, it is tough to figure out which is the bigger car," Hall said. "There is a similarity to the cars that makes it tougher to sell the Malibu."
Hall said it will be marketing that spells success or failure for the 2014 Malibu.
"You live and die by marketing but you got to be able to market something that people perceive as being desirable or at least a reason to consider," he said. "They will talk about the seat room. But they will have to sell on other attributes and there-in lies the problem."
Edmunds says: Pricing on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu will be a big factor in determining the car's success in the marketplace.