General Motors is counting on a sportier Chevrolet Malibu -- and a fuel-efficient Eco variant -- to extend the mid-sized sedan's successful run.
Last week Chevy unveiled the 2013 Malibu at the Shanghai auto show and followed that at the New York show with an Eco version GM says will get an estimated 38 mpg on the highway, a level that mid-sized cars usually reach only if they are hybrids.
Before the current Malibu debuted in late 2007, the previous generation had been rental-fleet fodder. The improved styling and refinement racked up awards and made the Malibu GM's best-selling U.S. car with 198,770 units sold last year, up 55 percent from 2007.
"We made such a big move with the current car to get ourselves solidly in the game in this segment," said Russ Clark, Chevrolet product marketing director for mid-sized and performance cars. "We want to push it even further."
The Malibu Eco will have GM's eAssist technology, a stop-start system to be introduced this year in the Buick LaCrosse and Regal sedans. The redesigned Malibu, which goes on sale early next year, will be the first Chevrolet to get the fuel-saving technology.
Mark Reuss, GM's North American president, said the relatively inexpensive technology gives buyers a moderately priced option to boost fuel economy significantly without having to buy a conventional hybrid or plug-in hybrid such as the Chevrolet Volt.
"Not everyone can afford those. We know that," Reuss said. "The customer base finds cars like this very attractive because they pay for themselves."
The 2013 Malibu is about 3 inches wider than the current model and a half-inch shorter. It has a wedge-like profile, with the hood line lower to the ground than the trunk lid.
Bryan Nesbitt, General Motors' executive director for North America exterior design and global architecture strategy, said, "The term I used on the last car was 'elegance,' elegance in the profile and the length." In contrast, the 2013 version "is definitely a sporty persona, not an elegant persona."
The Malibu will soon face revamped rivals. A redesigned Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the United States, is scheduled to arrive later this year, to be followed by a redesigned Honda Accord for the 2013 model year.
Greg Heinrich, a dealer with three Chevrolet stores in Nevada, said the redesigned Malibu 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."
Rick Kranz contributed to this report