DETROIT -- General Motors is counting on a sportier Chevrolet Malibu to hold its own in the hypercompetitive market for mid-sized sedans.
The next-generation 2013 Malibu was unveiled today at the Shanghai auto show and in a webcast on Chevrolet's Facebook page. U.S. production is set to begin in early 2012 at GM's Fairfax, Kan., and Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plants.
Chevrolet is looking to extend the Malibu's comeback. It had been rental-fleet fodder before the current version was released in late 2007. Improved styling and refinement racked up many awards and made the Malibu GM's best-selling U.S. car, with 198,770 units sold last year. That's up 55 percent from 128,312 in 2007.
"We made such a big move with the current car to get ourselves solidly in the game in this segment," Russ Clark, Chevrolet product marketing director for mid-sized and performance cars, said in an interview last week.
"What we're doing here is saying, 'We want to push it even further,'" Clark said.
Chevrolet wants to chip away at import and domestic rivals in the mid-sized sedan segment.
The Toyota Camry is the top-selling car in the United States, with 327,804 units sold in 2010. That edged the Honda Accord (311,381). Other top-selling mid-sized sedans include the Nissan Altima (229,263 units sold in 2010) Ford Fusion (219,219) and Hyundai Sonata (196,623), which Malibu barely edged last year.
Rivals will be taking the wraps off redesigned versions, too. A new Camry is slated for later this year, to be followed by a redesigned Accord for the 2013 model year.
The market for mid-sized family sedans could grow even bigger as rising gasoline prices lure more buyers to cars with better fuel economy.
IHS analyst Aaron Bragman was impressed with the Malibu. The only flaw he sees is that the new version a bit smaller -- the wheelbase is 4.5 inches shorter -- which could turn off buyers who want ample space in the back seat.
"That could be an issue for people in business or a salesperson who needs to travel around with clients," Bragman said.
The new version has a wider stance and "broad shoulders," adding 2 inches of width, Chevrolet said. The more-athletic, sculpted build and the expectation of better fuel economy could attract some customers on the coasts who have traditionally favored import brands, Clark said.
Chevrolet plans to sell the next-generation Malibu in nearly 100 countries; the current version is sold in about 20 countries.
Greg Heinrich, a dealer with three Chevrolet stores in Nevada, said the new version can't arrive too soon. He noted that makers of other mid-sized sedans, such as Hyundai, which builds the Sonata, have "raised their game."
"It's a good sign when GM takes a product that's already successful and tries to refine it and make it even better," said Heinrich, Chevrolet's representative on GM's National Dealer Council. "That's something they didn't do much of in the past."