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Big three to make comeback

2007-01-02 12:33

Tom Krisher

After years of ceding much of the car market to Asian competitors, Detroit's Big Three are preparing to roll out an array of new cars that they hope will bring buyers back to their showrooms to look for something other than trucks.

General Motors and Ford plan to unveil new versions of aging or unpopular models at the North American International Auto Show, which begins later this month in Detroit.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group will show off a concept car that likely will be the replacement for the once hot-selling Chrysler 300.

The new models, most of which will not debut until next fall, are critical to the survival of their makers, which have lost billions of dollars this year as consumers shifted away from trucks and sport utility vehicles to more fuel efficient cars made by the competition.

And perhaps the most important model is the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, which GM officials and many industry analysts predict will be good enough to take on the gorillas of the key mid-sized segment - Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

"The Malibu is one of the most important car launches really in the history of GM," Mike Jackson, GM's vice president for North American marketing and advertising, said in a recent interview. "We think it compares very favorably to Camry and Accord in a very competitive segment."

Analysts say a manufacturer cannot survive without a strong mid-sized entry, where Chevrolet, GM's largest brand, has cranked out ugly dogs for years.

But the new Malibu, to be built in Fairfax, Kansas, is radically different from the current model, generally regarded as boxy and boring. It has sloping, elegant lines. Its front grille is tough-looking and the tires are pushed to the edge of the fenders, giving it a wider stance.

It is designed to take a chunk of the market from Camry, the perennial top-selling car in America. Through November, Toyota sold 408,906 Camrys, a 2.6 percent increase over strong sales numbers for the first 11 months of 2005.

Although the domestics had trucks and vans on the list, the only car from the Big Three among the 20 top sellers this year is the Chevrolet Impala at 263 708. The old Malibu amounted to only 37 percent of Camry's sales at 152 465.

Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company, has seen Malibu prototypes. She said its exterior has a longer dash-to-axle ratio than the old one, making it appear more aggressive, and its interior is more modern and made of better quality materials.

Some versions have two-tone brown-and-brick colored dashes, seats and consoles.

The Malibu shows signs of GM returning to its roots, producing distinctly American cars that touch buyers' emotions rather giving them cheap copies of Toyotas or Hondas, Lindland said.

"GM understands that, trying to go back to appealing to the consumer that really wants the American vehicle," she said. "And there's plenty of them."

The Malibu will come with 2.4-liter four-cylinder or 3.6-liter V-6 engines. GM says both will be competitive with Camry on fuel economy. A four-cylinder Camry gets an estimated 34 miles per gallon on the highway.

GM also says the Malibu will compete with Camry on price, but it won't reveal how much the Malibu will cost just yet. The lowest-price Camry stickers at $18 720.

Jackson said that with the Malibu and the 2008 Cadillac CTS, which also will debut at the Detroit auto show, GM knows it must be best-in-class in looks, fit, finish, quality and performance. Japanese brands have led in many of those areas for years, with GM contending that the perception still exists even though it has closed gaps or passed Toyota and Honda.

"We do understand that in order to make this new Malibu really a success, we've got to go and really close the gap between perception and reality," Jackson said. "Addressing the perception and reality gap is part of the marketing challenge."

The Malibu marketing campaign will play on consumers' emotions, Jackson said, centering on songs written about Chevrolets. "People don't write songs about Toyota," he said.

The only problem for GM is that Toyota and Honda are not standing still. Honda is readying a new, futuristic looking Accord, while the redesigned Camry looks far sleeker than its dull predecessors.

"Toyota is starting to find this out, too, bringing some emotion to their cars," Lindland said.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said GM is starting to reap savings from building cars out of the same parts and the same way across the globe, and it is investing the savings in product development and higher-quality materials.

"Now you've got something that puts a tremendous amount of pain in the competitors," he said.

The Malibu, Cole said, is a symbol of a pending resurgence of GM.

For Jackson, the resurgence will come if he can manage to draw Camry and Accord buyers into his showrooms.

"What we're trying to do is get consumers to take a look at these vehicles," he said.


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