When General Motors introduced the most recent generation of its Chevrolet Malibu mid-sized sedan in 2007, it was quickly hailed as one of the company's best new products in many years, and it helped set the stage for the post-bankruptcy sales revival that the company would begin experiencing in 2009.
But not so with the newest Malibu, the 2013 version: Critics panned it, and even GM has admitted it's not up to snuff. What's remarkable, however, is that the company already has pivoted quickly to producing a new "mid-cycle" version of the car that addresses many of its shortcomings and is already bringing it out as a 2014 Malibu after a fast-tracked, 18-month development effort.
"The mid-sized sedan segment is the most contested in the industry," GM North America President Mark Reuss said in a statement. "We're not sitting still with the 2014 Malibu." Rapidly made improvements include an improved 2.5-liter engine with stop-start technology, an improved suspension and what GM called "a more refined ride," a broader grille on the front end, and "sit-deeper" new rear-seat cushions.
GM's move has a recent precedent: Honda did a quick mid-cycle "refresh" of its crucial Civic compact last year after early reviews panned it for what critics called a cheap interior and bland exterior styling. For April, sales of the updated Civic were up by 8 percent over a year ago though for the year to date, they were still down by 3 percent.
Arguably, Malibu isn't as important a nameplate to GM as Civic is to Honda; it's just Chevy's fourth-selling nameplate overall right now although its the second-biggest sedan behind Cruze. In April, Malibu sales were flat with a year earlier, but for the first four months of 2013, sales of the new Malibu were 12 percent off of last year's pace for the previous version.
Malibu has outsized importance for at least a couple of reasons. First, the previous version arguably kicked off the new-product parade under former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz that played a huge role in allowing GM to take advantage, over the last few years, of the new lease on life granted to it by the US taxpayer in 2009. Second, the mid-size car segment has emerged with greater importance this year than in a while, as more consumers upgrade from smaller cars to seek the fuel-economy benefits of larger sedans and enjoy more amenities. It's become highly competitive with a relatively new Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and Nissan Altima as well as a redesigned and resurgent Ford Fusion.
To compete in that segment, GM needed much better than a 2013 Malibu than the one it got last year, which company executives said got short-changed by coming of age in the development process during the Great Recession. Motor Trend ranked it last among six top-selling family cars, citing "a retrograde interior, a nearly useless rear seat, and the thirstiest powertrain in our group."
Traditionally, it has taken GM and other US automakers four years and sometimes more to completely redo an existing model, but just like the many other things that have been changing lately in the car business, fast recycles like the 2014 Malibu—taking less than half that time—are becoming far more common.
Now GM is hoping it doesn't have to do a fast recycle of its fast recycle.