Can the Malibu make it?
I confess to a certain pro-GM bias. In college, I worked for a Chevy dealer. (This explains how I became one of the few ever actually to drive a 427 Yenko Nova.) I grew up when GM was the dominant car maker in the United States and new models were so eagerly anticipated that dealers covered their showroom windows, just to build the suspense.
Then came Toyota. I was pondering that matter as I followed a Prius in traffic this morning. Do you realize that the Prius is the only original styling exercise that Toyota has put into automobile production? Everything else is a copy. The new Camry is simply a knock off of the BMW 7 – 5 – 3 Series design, one that seems to be awkward even in comparison to the unattractive lines of the BMW.
And cheap looking. Something about the Camry says low-budget, low class. Maybe it’s the utter absence of even accent chrome. Maybe it’s the Nash-like way the tire track seems just a tad narrow for the car. Maybe it’s the dull color palate. But everything about that car screams “appliance.” Even the Prius looks good by comparison. And the Prius looks like, just as Honda says, a cheese wedge.
The Malibu might just be the right car for GM at the right time. Starting at just under $20,000, it tops out at about $27,000 loaded with everything optional. But, there isn’t much that’s optional. There are three models. You can select a fancier model, which gets you more equipment and more power. But even the base car is what the automakers call “nicely equipped,” and the top line model is pretty much loaded. While the car’s exterior styling isn’t revolutionary, it comes across as both classy and clearly a Chevy, and the interior in the above-base models is stunning, especially in a car in that price range.
Chevrolet has some institutional advantages with the Malibu, too. Though Detroit’s automakers are accused of having too many dealers, the fact that Chevrolet has dealers in many places that Toyota doesn’t means that it’s got a lot more salespeople out there selling cars. If Chevy can meet demand, they’re got a lot of people out there who have been hungering for something to sell. They’ve got it now, and there is every reason to believe all of those Chevy salespeople are going to be aggressively selling the product. They’ve even got a hybrid in the line-up with which to go after the greenies.
Plus, the timing couldn’t be better if GM had scripted it. Consumer Reports lists the Camry as “below average” in reliability two days before Chevy officially introduces the Malibu to compete with the Camry. Bob Lutz must have been a very good boy, because Santa visited him several months ahead of the customary schedule.
Yes, the Malibu is much like the Saturn Aura and the Aura hasn’t set the world on fire. But the Aura certainly was a decent practice run. The Malibu comes to the market after a year of Aura sales and plenty of opportunity to iron out any kinks that may have existed. Why would the Malibu sell well when the Aura has been, by GM’s own acknowledgement, a disappointment? Advertising. GM’s putting $150 million behind the Malibu. It attempted to publicize the Aura through free reports in the media. The Aura simply didn’t get noticed by the buying public. Moreover, the Malibu is a more concentrated attempt at giving buyers visible value. The decision to make Malibu interiors the most attractive feature of the car is one that’s certain to be a sales point. Two tone leather interiors as standard equipment on a car that costs $25,000 is a big sales point.
It is true that the Malibu emulates the lines pioneered by Audi and isn’t original. But, that’s not such a bad thing. In the halcyon days of its past success, GM always tried to make the top-line Chevy look like a Cadillac. The idea that the new Malibu should look like an Audi works the same way – it gives the image of a quality product simply by the transference created by the similar appearance. From initial impressions, moreover, it appears that Chevy has executed well enough that the tactile and visual won’t detract from that image. That’s not something Toyota can say. A Camry simply doesn’t come across as a product of the same style and quality as a BMW. It comes across as a knock-off.
The Malibu is the car that Bob Lutz was hired to build. If it is successful, Lutz will be able to retire with his reputation as the man who saved General Motors secure. Granted, CEO Rick Wagonner may have been equally instrumental if the new contract with the UAW turns out to cut GM’s operating costs as much as GM’s management hopes. But, as necessary as it has been and may be, cost-cutting is not ultimately the key to GM’s future.
To succeed, a car company must sell cars.
For the first time in a long time, Chevrolet has a car to sell.