General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. 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 won't debut until next fall, are critical to the survival of their makers, which lost billions of dollars in 2006 as consumers shifted away from trucks and sport utility vehicles to more fuel efficient cars made by the competition.
Perhaps the most important model is the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, which 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 can't 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, Kan., 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's 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 with 263,708 vehicles sold through the first 11 months of last year . The old Malibu amounted to only 37 percent of Camry's sales with152,465 vehicles sold.
Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company, has seen Malibu prototypes. She said its exterior has a more masculine appearance while its interior is more modern and made of better quality materials.
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 won't reveal how much it will cost 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 problem for GM is that Toyota and Honda aren't standing still. Honda is readying a new, futuristic looking Accord, while the redesigned Camry looks far sleeker than its 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.
He said the changes at GM are pressuring competitors and the Malibu 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.