GM spends time, money to give car ‘wow factor’


DETROIT - With a bold new grille, optional two-tone interior and a starting price of about $20,000, the next generation of the Chevrolet Malibu was designed to “stun and delight.”

It had better.

General Motors Corp. officials said they devoted time and spent money to turn the Malibu into something more than an everyday family car.

“Let’s face it. Most midsize cars don’t inspire much in the way of honest emotion. With Malibu, we want to change that,” Ed Peper, general manager of the Chevrolet brand, said as the vehicle made its debut Tuesday at the North American International Auto Show.

“Our goal was to stun (car buyers) and delight them with a vehicle that looks like it’s $40,000, but it isn’t.”

The new Malibu will find its way to dealer lots this fall. An earlier version of the Malibu, along with a fleet vehicle also known as the Chevrolet Classic, was made at the old Lansing Car Assembly plant between 2000 and 2003.

Lots of options

The latest version of the Malibu will come with flexible option packages. For example, buyers will be able to get the upstyle, two-tone interior while picking the smaller 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

The larger engine is a 3.6-liter V6. GM also plans to introduce a hybrid version in 2008.

The Malibu LTZ will have a dual overhead cam engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

GM says it will be the only vehicle in the segment to have a four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic.

Changes to the look and feel of the vehicle are just as important, said Ed Welburn, GM vice president of global design.

“People who own what people call bread-and-butter vehicles want to be excited about their cars, too,” he said. “Every Chevrolet should do that.”

The current version didn’t. “Blah styling” and “cheap-looking interior,” said a Car and Driver review. Even so, it’s been an important part of the Chevrolet lineup. It’s one of a handful of GM vehicles to sell more than 100,000 units per year. But its sales slipped in 2002, along with sales companywide.

GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz said it was critical to turn reaction to the Malibu from a yawn to a “wow.”

“You want to include some feature or features that a new owner will want to show to his or her friends,” Lutz said, calling that the “wow factor.”

Details on the Malibu, such as chrome-plated accents, and its longer, wider and lower stance give the Malibu an edge, he said.

But at a price. The upgraded interior, for example, costs GM $100 to $200 more in the new Malibu.

“Some of this takes money, but it’s money well spent if it increases the perceptual value of the vehicle,” Lutz said.

Bottom line

Spending more money on making a car could seem like a controversial move for GM, which is fighting for profitability. Plus, cars, as opposed to trucks or sport utility vehicles, carry smaller profit margins. But changes at the Detroit automaker have given it some wiggle room in production costs, said Ed Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

The changes include the reduction of the work force, renegotiated retiree health care plans and a reduction in incentive offers.

“GM has taken $2,000 out of the (production) cost of the average vehicle in the past year,” Cole said. “They’ve got more room to play.”

Cole thinks the changes to the Malibu could make the car a strong contender in the market.

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