People look at the 2014 Malibu at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in Detroit on May 31. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Plymouth — The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu is arriving in showrooms and General Motors Co. is hoping its quick refresh with an improved and roomier interior and betterfuel economy will boost sales of the ailing midsize car.
The Malibu, starting at $22,965 for its base LS model, has a new front fascia, a more comfortable armrest and improved center console, more rear legroom and a base model engine that gets 14 percent better city fuel economy. Ride and handling, braking and the transmission also were improved.
The new 2014 Malibu is the first midsize car sold in the U.S. to include start-stop technology on a base engine and the first to get Siri “Eyes Free”for iPhone users and a new text-to-voice feature that can read text messages receivedwhile driving. GM made the updates for 2014 in about 18 months, which is a quick turnaround after the Malibu was all new for the 2013 model year.
“We recognize we need to be our best to grow our brand, grow our share...,” said Chris Perry, vice president for Chevrolet marketing. “That’s the point of the new Malibu. We had a great product but we needed to make it better.”
GM has debuteda new marketing campaign to support the launch, with the first TV ads airing in the past week. Perry said the campaign, bigger than a traditional model refresh, will run for at least six months.
Malibu sales of 154,950 through September are down 13.7 percent and lag major competitors such as the Toyota Camry, which has sold nearly 319,000 during the same time period, and the Honda Accord which has sold more than 282,000. Malibu sales in September of 14,487 vehicles were up 29.5 percent over the same month in 2012.
GM said it will drop its MalibuEco model that featured eAssist technology. The Malibu now will be offered withtwo engines: a base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine which will get the Eco badge and a 2-liter turbo, which also will feature a new turbo badge on the back.
The MalibuEco version, more expensive than the base version, represented about 10 percent of Malibu sales last year. GM said with the improvements in fuel economy gained through start-stop technology in the base engine, the eAssist version was no longer necessary. The 2014 Malibu with a base engine gets 25 miles per gallon city, up 3 mpg over the 2013 version, and 36 mpg highway, up2 mpg from 2013.
Use of eAssist, which includes a small electric motor and lithium-ion battery, plus start-stop technology to boost fuel economy, in other GM products isn’t affected, said Malibu chief engineer Todd Pawlik. Pawlik said GM, which expects to put eAssist onto hundreds of thousands of vehicles annually by 2017, is working on a next-generation eAssist.
Even with all the upgrades on the 2014 Malibu, some analysts aren’t sure the changes have gone far enough to wow customers in the heated midsize segment.
Kelley Blue Book’s Karl Brauer, senior director of insights, said an effective marketing campaign to tell buyers about improvements will be key to gaining sales
“There’s potential that this will have a positive impact on sales, but in and of itself the answer would be no,” Brauer said. “I think you need marketing and messaging that plays up the changes.”
Perry said the new campaign will be treated as all-new vehicle launch, with ads that will convey the values and priorities its buyers have — think your favorite neighbors — while also weaving in product details and improvements.
Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for Auto Pacific Inc., predicts the 2014 Malibu’s sales may go up a bit over the 2013 model.
“We’re still predicting the Malibu is going to continue to struggle,” he said.
GMis offering $2,500 cash back on the 2013 Malibu, and $2,000 off the 2014 model. Chevrolet marketing director Russ Clark said GM is offering the incentives on the 2014 model to be competitive in the segment. Even with the incentives, Clark said the vehicle is profitable for GM.
The Malibu is built at GM’s Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan., and Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.