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Chevy Malibu, JD Power, and how GM beat the recall rap

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
  • Most recalled Malibu is also JD Power's most reliable mid-sedan
  • Recall puzzle: In a year of record recalls, cars more reliable than ever
  • Expert: "Consumers aren't looking at recalls when they shop"

The hapless, stalling, ignition-plagued Chevy Cobalt has been the bane of General Motors' existence in its 2014 Year of the Recall. But it's not the General's most recalled vehicle. That title goes to the Chevy Malibu.

That's right, the same Chevy Malibu that J.D. Power's Initial Quality Survey honors as America's most reliable midsize sedan.

Surprised? You're not alone. The most recalled-most reliable Malibu is evidence of why GM's recall woes haven't been a drag on sales. Despite relentless media headlines about GM lemons, sales of Chevy cars are up over three percent this year. And while the Malibu hasn't been burning down the house, it did just record its best September sales in five years. Its little brothers, Cruze and Sonic? Both are flying off the shelves.

2015 Chevy Malibu

This is all the more remarkable given that the compact pair are the replacement for the unloved Cobalt. Shouldn't Americans be avoiding Spawn of Cobalt? Shouldn't they be exiling Chevy, King of Recalls, to the sales dungeon?

The truth is recalls aren't the same as reliability. And the new Malibu isn't the Chevy of old.

Indeed, the good ol' days of quality cars are today. Vehicles have never been so trustworthy.

"In 2013, overall vehicle dependability averaged 126 (problems per 100 vehicles) – a five percent improvement from the 2012 average of 132 – and the lowest problem count since the inception of the study in 1989," reads J.D. Powers' 2013 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.

Um, okay. But what about an industry on pace for a record 40 million recalls this year? Some 26 million by GM alone? The 850,000 Fords recalled last week? The 690,000 Toyotas recalled this week?

"Our dependability studies measure problems that consumers actually experience in their own cars," says David Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of global automotive research. "Recalls are more about potential problems. That is to say, 99.6 percent of recall issues will never be experienced by consumers."

GM spokesman Alan Adler says that 3 out of 4 his company's recalls have been so-called "noncompliance" repairs where no safety defect is at issue. A May recall on 2004-2012 Malibu tail lights, for example. "Not to minimize any recall," says Adler, "but it hardly belongs in the rogue's gallery of problems."

J.D. Powers' Sargent has his own example: His personal vehicle was recalled this year . . . for a sun visor replacement. "Manufacturers are just more sensitive right now," he says of the post-Cobalt, post-Toyota-instant-acceleration climate. "There's a bias right now towards recalling what wouldn't have been recalled before."

David Sullivan, an Auto Pacific analyst, concurs. He sees little relation between recalls and dependability.

"Consumers aren't looking at recalls when they shop for a vehicle," he says. "They are looking forward, not backwards. They are looking at Consumer Reports and whether cars have poor reliability or crash ratings."

Which is why Malibu's high J.D Power grade is so important. It is the equivalent of a four-star movie review. You know it won't be a wasted trip to the theater.

What's more, recalls get customers back into the dealership.

"Imagine the owner of, say, a recalled 2004 Malibu," says GM's Adler. "Maybe they haven't been in a dealership for a while and they come in to see a new Malibu or Cruze. They're going to say 'WOW!' That's a new Chevy?"

"Wow" wasn't my first reaction to the 2015 Malibu I drove recently. But it's a solid performer. And it would wow anyone who arrived here in a time machine from a decade ago.

To this time traveler the interior might as well be the Star Trek Enterprise. This affordable, $30K chariot is whisper quiet inside and features a dizzying array of tech from rear-cross traffic alert to standard stop-start engine technology that will get you 29 miles per gallon. It's crisp, intuitive keys and dials surround a touch screen that will connect you to phone, Sirius, and even read you your text messages.

Outside of the Chrysler 200, it's the best center console in the business. Wow.

Speaking of outside, the Malibu could use a stylist. Where Chevy has dressed its high-end Impala and low-end Spark like runway models, the middle of its lineup is, well, middling.

Adler says the recalls are a silver lining — a chance for the General to reconnect with buyers. "If you take care of the recall customers and minimize the inconvenience," he concludes, "then you make a better Chevy customer than you had to begin with."

What the heck, one more Malibu recall and I guarantee sales will really soar: Just replace its mug with that sexy Impala grille.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Chevrolet Malibu

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe

Price: $23,290 base ($30,280 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, direct injection 4-cylinder

Power: 196 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.4 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,532 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Quiet cabin; Driver-friendly console

Lows: Small back seat; A face only a mother could love

Overall: ★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★