GM Death Watch 150: My Kingdom for a Malibu
GM touts their new Chevrolet Malibu as "The car you can't ignore." I've driven the new ‘Bu. It's a handsome, well-built, thoroughly competent machine. As good as it is, Chevrolet's mid-size sedan will only remain psychologically inescapable as long as GM sustains the car's $150m ad campaign. To suggest otherwise ignores the quality and strength of the ‘Bu's competition. It's yet another example of GM's mindless arrogance. In fact, Chevy's first hit in years is already in deep trouble, as I discovered down at the dealership.
Sitting in the salesman's cubicle, waiting for the Malibu demonstrator to return, I watched a customer vent his ire. "I am NOT satisfied," he yelled at a manager sheltering behind the reception desk. "It's a new car. I've been back here FIVE TIMES and I am NOT satisfied."
This confrontation could have happened at any dealership. J.D. Powers, Consumer Reports and TrueDelta have documented GM products' increased quality and reliability. But the way the dealer's staff glanced at each other during the customer's diatribe told me that the distraught buyer's remorse was neither unexpected nor unfamiliar. Worse, I observed a frisson of fear spread across my fellow customers, as they contemplated what could- maybe even has- occurred to them.
Even if we assume that the new ‘Bu represents a new dawn for the brand, Chevy's past is a recurring nightmare that will not fade away. Call it import bigotry or sensible self-protection, but GM's marketing campaign should have addressed this problem head-on. Instead, they sent a subliminal message that their latest next big thing is good enough to convince customers to ignore Chevy's ignoble legacy of customer alienations. It's an intellectual leap that GM's marketing maven are making on their own.
A minute later, I asked the middle-aged Mom emerging from her Malibu test drive what she thought about the car. She was all smiles. "We came down to look at an Impala," she said, pointing to a picture in a discarded ad resting on the salesman's desk. "But this is one sharp car."
Cannibalization is one of GM's less-discussed afflictions. For example, the domestic automaker basks in the success of its Lambda-platformed crossovers. Yet many if not most of these sales came straight out of the hide of their more profitable SUV business.
If the Impala intender above clicked over to TrueDelta to compare base vs. base, she'd find that the new 'Bu is $1568 cheaper than the Impala. With incentives, it could soon be a wash. She'd also discover that the new 'Bu is just $807 more than its sister-under-the-skin, the Saturn Aura, and $364 LESS than Pontiac's platform sib, the slow-selling G6. Clearly, the new, better-built, sharper-looking Malibu will steal sales from other corners of the GM empire.
Model and brand overlap is a luxury the Malibu's maker can't afford. If GM is to prosper/recover from its dramatic downsizing, it must attract NEW players to the table. Reshuffling the deck for the same old diehards won't do it- especially if the old cards were better stacked in GM's favor (i.e. more profitable) than the new ones.
Let's face it: the buyers most able to ignore the new Malibu- contented Accord, Camry and Altima buyers- are the ones GM needs the most. To be fair, the new Malibu is a highly credible alternative in a highly competitive genre. But…
GM didn't make enough Malibus. The dealer I visited had one Malibu. They'd sold another. Only two more were due this month. Next month, they MIGHT get four. Hell, even their own ad agency seems to be having trouble getting them; all the spots I've seen use computer-generated cars.
This is the Mother of All Screw-Ups. Imagine you're a transplant-type who suddenly decided to shop for a mid-size car. You stop by the Chevy dealer for the first time in a decade- or ever- to clock the new ‘Bu. No demo car. No cars on the lot. All (and by that I mean a handful) of the cars coming are pre-sold. What are the chances you'll wait?
The competition won't. Not only do Honda, Toyota and Nissan (not to mention Ford and Chrysler) already have plenty of stock at all trim levels and colors in this class (duh), but they aren't about to be caught flat-footed by GM's nifty newbie. Look for them to amp-up their marketing campaigns and/or offer discounts– as Chevy dealers charge full sticker (just because they can). And then, soon, the 'Bu's foes will counter-attack with even better cars.
You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Chevy's blown it. Given the aforementioned bad vibes dogging both GM and Chevy, this is an irrecoverable mistake. The Malibu hype will die down. The new Chevy will be a solid seller when supplies ease, but it will have lost the chance to capitalize on GM's $150m marketing mitzvah to build the momentum it needed to provide The General with a breakout success.
So, GM finally built a commercially viable car, yet failed to make a meaningful marketing campaign, sort out its model lineup or assure adequate supplies. The new ‘Bu reveals the fundamental problem plaguing GM, the deficiency we've highlighted since this series began: a bloated, unfocused and incompetent bureaucratic structure. Until and unless GM corrects this fault, they're doomed.
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