The new refreshed Chevy Malibu. (GM)
General Motors is giving its Chevrolet Malibu an emergency makeover less than two years after introducing the model because of its sluggish sales and reception that has caused it to fall behind its rivals from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Ford.

The 2014 Malibu, on sale this fall, gets a changed front-end, a bit more room inside and slightly more fuel efficient four-cylinder engine. The moves, about all the company can do in such a short window of time, address some of the most glaring criticisms from the automotive media since the car debuted in 2012.

Although it was a big improvement over the previous Malibu, the current one seemed lackluster when compared to some of the latest midsize family sedans.

But it's unlikely that it will be able to do much to move the sales needle. The Malibu has suffered from an interior and ride that does not stack up well against new rivals, especially the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The "Malibu" name is also seen as a handicap to the car, luring customers away from more popular mid-sized sedans.

GM's own testing, according to GM executives who spoke on background, of the product revealed that even when people who owned import models liked the Malibu, they rejected it when they were later told it was a "Chevy Malibu."

The Malibu, one of GM's best-selling cars overall but also one traditionally dependent on rental fleet sales to achieve that status, was extensively redesigned for release in early 2012 as a 2013 model.
A freshening just 18 months after introduction is unusual in an industry where such changes typically occur every three years. GM President Mark Reuss acknowledged that the Malibu was designed and "locked in" before GM went through bankruptcy in 2009 and new management was brought in to the company.

The front grille is shaped differently and sits lower than before, giving the Malibu a sportier look that is more in line with that of the Impala. The interior gets subtle improvements to make it more comfortable and practical, such as a longer center armrest and revised console between the front seats, which now has two cupholders and slots for a pair of cell phones. GM also added 1.25 inches of rear legroom by carving out the back of the front seats and re-sculpting the rear seat cushions so occupants sit lower in them.

The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu's suspension benefits from changes inspired by the 2014 Impala, designed to give a smoother, more controlled ride. The base 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine gains start-stop technology, which shuts down the engine during temporary stops to improve fuel economy in city driving by up to 5 percent.

Revisions to the 2.5-liter engine and six-speed transmission aim to give the 2014 Malibu added power at lower speeds, a welcome improvement considering the tepid acceleration we experienced during a test drive of the 2013 Malibu.

The optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has been recalibrated to produce significantly more torque, up by 35 foot-pounds over the previous engine. This 14-percent bump should noticeably improve acceleration at lower speeds.

A third engine option, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with electric assist, continues unchanged. This so-called "mild-hybrid" system uses an electric motor and battery pack to improve fuel economy. It's more affordable than other full hybrid systems but lacks an electric-only mode like in Toyota Prius, for example.

The steering and brakes on the 2014 Malibu have also been tweaked to give better feel. New blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert systems have been added to the Malibu's already impressive list of safety features. It received top safety scores from the National Highway Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu goes on sale this fall. Pricing hasn't been announced, but it should be very close to that of the current model, which starts at $22,805.

In the first four months of 2013, Malibu sales have dropped nearly 12 percent, and the car stands in fifth place among midsize sedans. Dealer inventories are high, and it has been the most heavily discounted sedan in the category.

Automakers on Monday will announce U.S. sales results for May.

AOL Autos writer Matthew de Paula contributed to this report.

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