Does Detroit Finally Have a Car To De-Throne Toyota Camry?

The Chevy Malibu can compete with Camry and Accord. But will the popularity of the Asian family sedans wane?

It quietly galls Detroit auto industry executives that Toyota and Honda have had the best selling family sedans in the U.S. since the 1990s. The last U.S. car to hold the title was the Ford Taurus in 1996.

Can Detroit, fresh off two bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, come up with a design that can recapture the hearts and wallets of American families? Reclaim the title?

The answers are: maybe and eventually. The first of Detroit's best shots at knocking off the Toyota Camry as number-one passenger car sold in America is the 2013 Chevy Malibu. The second is the next design of the Ford Fusion, which is believed to be coming in 2012 some time after the Malibu hits showrooms in spring of next year.

So, let's focus on the Malibu. What's it got? A far better looking design and interior than the current Malibu, which is no dog by any means -- having earned North American Car of the Year from a jury of 50 journalists in its debut year of 2007.

The Malibu sold 175,599 units last year. That's a long way from knocking off the Toyota Camry, which sold 327,804, or the Honda Accord, which sold 311,381. The Nissan Altima sold 229,263 and the Fusion sold 219,219. But the new car shows plenty of potential to climb the ladder of popularity.

While most mid-sized sedans get bigger from one design cycle to the next, the Malibu has gotten a bit smaller. That's because Chevy wants to put some size and distance between the new Malibu and the upcoming Impala sedan. The slightly smaller size is most felt in the backseat where leg room is a smidge tight, but hip and shoulder room has been augmented -- no doubt to accommodate American's broadening waistlines. We tend not to put fat in our lower legs. The other reason to keep the car from getting too big is that GM wants the Malibu to be a "world car," and if it gets to big, it won't do well in countries like India, or even in Europe.

Bryan Nesbitt, General Motors exterior design director, says the Malibu was redesigned for someone, or a couple, who wants "some style and sportiness in their mid-sized sedan." Indeed, the tail-lights and a few other styling touches were inspired by the new Chevy Camaro.

While the changes should boost Malibu sales, it could hold the car back from toppling Camry for a while. The recent history of the mid-sized "family sedan" category is that "bland" sells. The former head of Toyota in the U.S., James Press, was often heard, while defending the plain styling of the Camry, to say, "Just remember...vanilla is the top selling flavor of ice cream in the world."

There is a trend in this category of eliminating 6 cylinder engines in favor of better performing and more fuel efficient four-cylinder engines. The Malibu has joined Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima in that strategy. The 2.5 liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine will produce more than 190 horsepower, plenty for this kind of car.

Believe it or not, the mid-sized "family" sedan is a hot segment. Detroit used to get much more excited about the launches of trucks and SUVs with big auto show celebrations, and leave family car launches for the equivalent of the backyard party with the balloon-tying guy.

No more. Not only is the Malibu key for GM and Chevy capturing car owners trading out of SUVs, but it has global importance as the company tries to sell it in over 100 countries. GM is especially hoping for a big splash in China where it introduced the car this week at the Shanghai Auto Show.

Malibu competitors Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and VW Passat (Toyota, Hyundai, VW).

So what is happening with Malibu's competition? There is plenty more on the way. The new Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are already out, and will probably getting improvements next year when the Malibu arrives. An all new Toyota Camry is expected to arrive this Fall, though Toyota has not shown it to the media yet. And Volkswagen, never a real threat in this segment, is launching an all-new less-expensive Passat sedan later this year. VW has built a new Tennessee factory dedicated to mid-sized vehicles, with the Passat as the first entry. "We are very serious about competing in this category like we never have before," said VW of America President Jonathan Browning at this week's media preview at the New York International Auto Show.

But Toyota's leadership position is not set in stone. The company has endured 18 months of bad publicity over more than ten million recalled vehicles, including the Camry, and fines by the U.S. government for not being forthcoming about quality and safety problems it knew about. And despite its top-selling status last year, the Camry's interior today is sub-par, and outclassed by even the Kia Optima.

Toyota could also have production delays and eventual shortages due to the damaged parts factories in Japan resulting from last month's Earthquake and tsunami.

All of that spells opportunity for Malibu to climb the sales ladder with U.S. car buyers. But it will also have plenty of company on the rungs trying to shake Toyota off the top.

See more photos and information about the 2013 Malibu at Autoblog.

View Gallery: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu

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