General Motors Company (GM) Tries Again to Catch Ford Motor Company (F)’s Fusion

The refreshed 2014 Chevy Malibu. Photo credit: General Motors Company (NYSE:GM)

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 Company (NYSE:GM) is revising the Malibu now. After all, GM’s midsized mainstay was all-new just last year.

General Motors Company (NYSE:GM)

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 Company (NYSE:GM) – 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 Company (NYSE:GM)‘ 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 Motor Company (NYSE:F)‘s white-hot Fusion sedan and Honda Motor Co Ltd (ADR) (NYSE:HMC)‘s hot-selling new Accord, both of which are stealing sales in a big way from the longtime class-leader, Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM)‘s Camry – and from the Malibu.

Sales of Ford’s Fusion have boomed this year. Photo credit: Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F).

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 Motor Co., Ltd. (ADR) (OTCBB:NSANY)‘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.