A middleweight contender from Detroit


(Photo courtesy of Chevrolet)
Warren Brown
Columnist December 23, 2011

I told you so.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

I told you the federal money used to save General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 was well worth the cost.

Besides the thousands of jobs saved, both companies are now turning out highly desirable, globally competitive products.

They are rolling toward sustained profitability, based on product quality and innovation as much as anything else.

The United Automobile Workers, of course, should receive much credit. In labor negotiations this year, the union exercised restraint in seeking compensation instead of yielding to the natural tendency to get “paybacks” after years of making concessions to help keep U.S. carmakers alive.

It was a necessary strategy on the part of the union. Detroit’s car companies and the UAW are competing against foreign-based manufacturers of high-quality vehicles that operate without unions in the United States and, largely as a result, develop and assemble cars and trucks with distinctly lower manufacturing costs than their American peers.

Americans who buy Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima or Toyota Camry family sedans are not looking for the union label. Nor are they looking for “Made in America.” They simply want the best car for the best price — a boon to consumers, often at the income-and-benefits expense of factory workers. (Just ask grumbling Hyundai employees in South Korea, as well as some at Hyundai’s new plant in Alabama.)

But most U.S. consumers don’t care as long as they get the cars they want for the price they are willing to pay.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have learned this. The proof is in the metal, as opposed to nationalistic bias or other ideology.

Labor costs inevitably will change. Workers, union or nonunion, tend to demand more in compensation as corporate profits — and executive paychecks — rise. Again, consumers tend not to care much about other people’s pay as long as products are offered at a fair price.

With that, I present one of the industry’s most critical face-offs of 2012-13: the battle for hearts, minds and dollars in the midsize-family-sedan segment. The Toyota Camry continues to lead the pack, but a challenger is rapidly growing in popularity — the Chevrolet Malibu.

Prediction: The Malibu stands a good chance of eclipsing the Camry in U.S. sales over the next two years. This has nothing to do with “Buy America” nationalism. Heck, nearly all of the Camry sedans sold in this country are built here at Toyota’s plant by red-blooded Americans in Georgetown, Ky.

What I’m saying is that the 2012-13 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, which I drove in Austin, is much better than “good enough” to win a sales race with the 2012-13 Camry Hybrid and other Camry models that I drove at home in Northern Virginia.

The new Malibu is arguably better-looking. It’s well sculpted, more consistent in appearance from front to rear. Aerodynamic efficiency — speed-adjustable front grille for better air flow beneath the car’s body (similar to automatic front-grille shutters in the new Ford Focus) — is well integrated into the front design.

The Malibu’s interior beats the Camry’s in overall feel — more pleasantly touchable surfaces, in supple vinyl and, where optional, leather; easier-to-use and more ergonomically pleasing instrument panel; design more in tune with the exterior. The new Camry, for example, looks rounded and sleek on the outside but is more square and seemingly out of sorts on the inside — oddly like an old GM car.

As for overall fit and finish, Chevrolet’s engineers claim to have achieved a 20 percent improvement in structural rigidity in the 2012-13 Malibu over previous models. It feels that way. The new Malibu feels tighter and lighter than its Camry counterpart.

In Austin, I drove the front-wheel-drive 2013 Malibu Eco equipped with a 2.4-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing and GM’s “eAssist” ion-battery-powered electric assistance package (182 horsepower, 170 foot-pounds of torque). The battery gets the car engine going from “stop” and it helps to keep the car going at low speeds and with light loads. The engine is mated to GM’s new six-speed automatic transmission, which can also be shifted manually.

The Malibu Eco promises 25 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway using a modest application of gas-electric hybrid technology at a starting price nearly $700 less than that of the comparable front-wheel-drive gas-electric Camry (43 mpg in the city, where the Camry’s electric system does more of the work; 39 on the highway, where the Camry’s 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter gasoline engine takes over).

From one perspective, looking strictly at the numbers and throwing in the Camry’s long-standing reputation for reliability, the Camry might appear to retain an edge. But car sales are not made by numbers alone. There’s also raw emotion — appearance, feel, fit and finish, amenities, overall road performance, and safety all fit into the buyer’s decision. The new Chevrolet Malibu Eco ably captures that emotion. The Camry does not.

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