As the maximum era draws to an end at GM, there’s no shortage of praise for the Bob Lutz-led product turnaround. Cars like the CTS, Lambda CUVs and the Chevy Malibu are said to represent a new day in quality and design for the General. And without a doubt, they are all consistently better cars than GM has made for years. But for all their accolades and fawning reviews, these vehicles actually represent a relatively small fraction of GM’s offerings. Though marketing executives wail from the Renaissance Center that consumers aren’t understanding the alleged sea change in GM products, there are still more GM vehicles you can ignore (to borrow GM’s marketing phrase) than you can’t. Automotive atavisms occupy GM’s entire lineup, but the contrast between Chevrolet’s D-segment offerings, the Malibu and Impala tells the whole story. And it isn’t pretty.
It’s no coincidence that the Malibu is, above all others, the poster child for a GM turnaround. Its clean styling and high-quality interior give it an edge in the first impressions game that GM hasn’t enjoyed in decades. More importantly, it brings an impression of actual effort to the crucial mid-sized segment, a category that was long ago ceded to the CamCord legions by such W-bodied luminaries as, well, the Lumina.
But the W-body and its parts bin of horrors lives on. Though the “Malibu Classic” has gone to the great rental lot in the sky, the Impala remains a rolling reminder of a time when the term “GM midsized” meant cheap, bland and unreliable. GM’s current fleet queen boasts a shake, rattle and roll interior, with all the aesthetic delights of a cheap pocket calculator. And let’s not even discuss the old-school wallow that the Impala calls handling. Place the Impala and the Malibu side-by-side and the contrast in impressions couldn’t be greater.
And yet, the Impala sells far better than the perception gap-changing ‘bu. In fact, the Impala is by far GM’s best selling car, with 265,840 sales last year. That’s more than the entire Pontiac car lineup, and nearly the volume of Saturn, Buick and Cadillac cars put together. The Malibu is well behind with 178,253 units sold last year, despite relentless hype and giant ad budgets.
Of course, none of this should come as much surprise to the experienced GM watcher. It is, after all, a long-standing GM tradition to offer long-outdated models as a cheap fleet sale booster. But not only is GM supposedly trying to cut back on fleet sales, unlike the Classic before it the Impala actually sells at retail too. Oh yeah, and GM has been propping up Malibu sales with fleet deals as well.
So while publicly denouncing fleet sales, GM is keeping its fleet queen in the public eye by keeping the roomier Impala’s retail price relatively close to its marquee Malibu. So when shoppers arrive at a Chevrolet dealership to look at the mid-sized offerings, both sides of General Motors are there to see: the sleek (but snug) Malibu or the roomy but dismally old-school Impala. And if you work with the best fleet percentages we have for 2008 (about 50 percent of Impala sales and about 33 percent of Malibu sales went to fleets), it turns out that more people are buying Impalas, even at retail.
This raises a number of interesting questions about the value of GM’s supposed product-led turnaround. If the Impala sells better than the Malibu at retail, despite its aged underpinnings and staid looks, was Bob Lutz’s enormous paycheck and frequent outbursts worth the investment? Class-competitive styling, interiors and platforms cost a considerable amount of money, and based on the numbers it seems that loyal GM customers aren’t particularly swayed by them. For all its accolades, the Malibu looks to be not only less popular than its fleet-flooding cousin but less profitable too.
And so we arrive at the real question: why do GM customers seem to prefer the aged and uncompetitive Impala to its acclaimed Malibu? In his hilarious address to the White House Press Club, Stephen Colbert quipped that President Bush’s 30 percent approval rating meant that though the metaphorical glass is only two-thirds empty, the last third is usually backwash. And the implication that Bush’s constituency represents all the ugly stereotypes of American culture also applies to GM’s midsized predicament. After decades of foisting uncompetitive cars on the American public, choosy shoppers no longer even consider GM a source for high quality vehicles, a fact proven by KBB’s 2008 “most researched” list.
And as long as Impalas and Malibus share lot space, GM’s cries of “perception gap” will continue, as the brand image is confused by two such divergent approaches to the midsized segment. The Malibu is fighting an uphill battle to convince now-loyal Toyota and Honda customers that the bowtie brand can offer quality, and sales momentum isn’t helping. And with GM pricing a fleet version of the Malibu considerably cheaper than the Impala, it’s also only a matter of time before that model loses its luster to the fleet residuals curse. And since its sales and profitability are already worse, the damage has already been done.