Malibu Heart of GM's Lineup?

General Motors Corp. is gambling the Chevrolet Malibu, a car it has redesigned practically from the ground up to challenge perennial midsize segment leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, will become the key vehicle in its 2008 lineup. GM dealers, however, have heard this story before. Four years ago, the auto maker promised a similar feat from the '04 Malibu and the disappointing Malibu Maxx 5-door,

General Motors Corp. is gambling the Chevrolet Malibu, a car it has redesigned practically from the ground up to challenge perennial midsize segment leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, will become the key vehicle in its 2008 lineup.

GM dealers, however, have heard this story before. Four years ago, the auto maker promised a similar feat from the '04 Malibu and the disappointing Malibu Maxx 5-door, calling the duo the “heart and soul of the Chevrolet portfolio.”

That vehicle also had little in common with its predecessor, save the name. And between 2004 and 2006, that generation of Malibu sold 547,162 units in the U.S., according to Ward's data. That compares with sales over the same period of 1.3 million for the Camry and 1.1 million for the Accord.

So it's not without a fair bit of trepidation that dealers and consumers alike would approach the '08 version. But this Malibu, GM says, is different. Really, different, they say. And if the award-winning '07 Saturn Aura serves as any indication, this time they might be right.

The new Malibu starts with the same revamped Epsilon underpinnings as the Aura, but GM engineers had an extra year to smooth out the rough spots. In terms of ride and handling and NVH, GM thinks the Malibu dusts its competition.

“The Malibu will be a much better car than the Aura was at launch,” GM product boss Bob Lutz tells Ward's during the recent Woodward Dream Cruise in suburban Detroit.

Pricing should fall between the upper teens for an entry-level model and the upper $20,000-range for a decked out LTZ version.

Yet as important a role as Malibu will play in 2008, it alone cannot swing GM's passenger car fortunes. The auto maker also is relying on a dramatically redesigned Cadillac CTS to create some needed umph for its luxury brand.

GM softened the exterior lines while creating a more muscular, aggressive stance for the CTS. Inside, the car becomes more competitive against its luxury sports sedan peers with items such as cut and sew leather trim, authentic Sapele Pommele wood accents, ambient lighting and a cutting-edge infotainment system.

The '08 CTS ranks a knockout by nearly all accounts, but whether it will win the hearts of intensely loyal buyers of German and Japanese brands in this segment remains to be seen.

The auto maker spices up its Pontiac division, too, by adding the rear-wheel-drive G8 sedan which boasts a 6.0L small-block V-8 that delivers 362 hp and 391 lb.-ft. of torque.

The '09 Pontiac Vibe arrives in the first quarter of 2008, a couple months earlier than originally planned. GM promises a redesign of the 6-year-old hatchback and says its all-wheel-drive and GT variants could return.

Saturn taps GM German subsidiary, Adam Opel GmbH, for the '08 Astra. The Astra comes to America with very few changes versus the overseas model, as GM engineers left the car's tightly-tuned suspension untouched but switched from a seasonal to all-season rubber.

The taut setup might be a tough sell to some shoppers, but GM promises a marketing campaign that targets younger buyers with the promise of a European driving experience.

The '08 Saturn Astra also adds a cupholders to satisfy U.S. consumers.

Meanwhile, deliveries of GM's luxurious '08 Buick Enclave began in the spring and demand has surpassed its platform mates, the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook.

Dealer availability remains tight with supplies running at a brisk 24 days in August, according to Ward's data, so don't expect corporate incentives anytime soon. As further testament to the strength of its reception in the market, Enclave's conquest rate stands at about 43%, an astonishingly high number for any brand.

But buyers have gravitated to its combination luxury and functionality, as the CUV offers arguably the quietest and smoothest ride in the segment with seating for seven

One nagging point: at 4,985 lbs. for an AWD version, the Enclave's 3.6L V-6 work awfully hard to carry all that weight and it shows up in fuel economy that runs closer to the lower end of its 16 mpg city and 24 mpg hwy.

'08 Chevy Malibu (left)

In Showrooms: November

Price: $18,000 to $25,000

Estimated 2008 Production: 155,000

Pro's: Significantly blows away the previous generation, and is getting rave media reviews - GM just may have got this one right.

Con's: Yes, the Malibu is improved, but is it better than the new Accord? It's not enough to be better than last year's version, it has to be vastly superior to its import competition.

Our Take: Great car, but will need strong marketing and timely incentives to make up ground on Accord and Camry.

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