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New York Auto Show: World Malibu Debut is a Must-Win for GM

General Motors (GM) sold more cars in China than in the U.S. in 2010, which explains why it's debuting its global 2013 Chevrolet Malibu in both New York and Shanghai next week. The Malibu is the top-selling GM vehicle in the U.S., and it's not surprising that the company wants to spread its popularity to as many markets as possible. The Malibu goes on sale early next year, in nearly 100 countries on six continents.

There's a lot at stake here, because GM has never before tried to market a mid-sized car globally, and the Malibu will have to compete with hit-it-out-of-the-park world cars like the Toyota Camry and the Hyundai Sonata. The Asians excel in this segment, and the Germans are very competitive, too.

Like the Cruze, only better?
GM has gotten at least part of where it needs to be on the world market with the compact Cruze. The Cruze is pretty good, but not stellar, and the competition is improving all the time -- the new ultra-sharp Hyundai Elantra was the one that came away with the recommended check mark from Consumer Reports in a recent head-to-head match-up.

With that in mind, I hope GM avoids the mistake Volkswagen made when it stripped features out of another world car, the Jetta, to arrive at an attractive global price point. Malibu marketing manager John Hahn assured me that the car won't be "de-contented" from the current model, which is equipped with electronic stability control and a six-speed automatic even in base LS form. I assume it will also offer the new MyLink infotainment system, so I hope they got the bugs out of the voice recognition.

The 2008 Malibu was GM's first successful comeback vehicle. It won North American Car of the Year, a much-needed morale booster for bankrupt GM at the time, and 600,000 have been sold since then. The hybrid version was poorly conceived and flopped, but you can't win them all. The 2010 sales were around 200,000, and the Malibu has actually picked up sales and market share since the model debuted.

A wider, "more aggressive" car
GM hasn't revealed many details about the Malibu, but it has shown a full-frontal picture (posted, apparently accidentally, at the media site Thursday in advance of the debut). It's not a big departure from the model introduced in 2008, but slightly wider and more aerodynamic -- designer Dan Gifford calls it "more athletic and aggressive" (see the video below). Luckily they didn't go overboard with that, because muscle cars are an American phenomenon not known for their worldwide translation.

The Malibu will have very similar interior and exterior styling in world markets, but there will be different engine offerings, Hahn told me. That means diesels for Europe, but the big news is that no V-6 will be offered. This is a big trend among American automakers (especially Ford). They're relying on turbocharging and direct-injection to make up for displacement. Engines are smaller, but horsepower isn't shrinking.

The Cruze is moving
The Cruze has sold more than 300,000 worldwide since its 2009 debut, but it hasn't reached near the global sales it could have if it was an extraordinary car. Its U.S. first quarter sales topped 50,000, which is triple last year's results for the lackluster Cobalt (which it replaced in 2009). But anything would have been better than the Cobalt. It would be interesting if, among the family of Malibu models, Chevrolet introduced something like the Cruze Eco, which makes an attractive package with 42 mpg on the highway.

The Cruze Eco isn't hybrid, but gets a fuel economy bump with better aerodynamics, some weight reduction, a small turbocharged four, and improved tires. It wouldn't take much to create a similar Malibu, and it might do well on world markets. Another try at a hybrid might make sense, too. Behind China and the U.S., big markets for GM include Brazil, Germany, Russia, Mexico and-- would you believe Uzbekistan at #10?

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Photo: GM