And to address a key complaint against the 2013 model, GM used several tricks to squeeze an extra 1.25 inches of knee space for back seat passengers.
The speed and scope of the overhaul underscore GM's desire to quickly regain momentum in the mid-sized car segment, where the previous-generation Malibu had made some strides.
GM's so-called midcycle enhancements typically come three or four years after a vehicle hits the market.
This time, the changes are appearing about a year after the August launch of the highest-volume trim level of the 2013 Malibu, which features the base 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine.
"The mid-sized sedan segment is the most contested in the industry," GM North America President Mark Reuss said in a statement. "We're not sitting still with the 2014 Malibu."
The Malibu redo follows a similar express facelift for the Honda Civic compact car after early media reviews panned it for what critics called a cheap interior and bland exterior styling.
Although GM executives defend the 2013 Malibu as a solid entry, they have acknowledged that the car needed help to better compete against perennial leaders such as Toyota and Honda and improved offerings from Nissan and Ford.
Through April, Malibu sales for the year were down 12 percent from the same period a year earlier, to 70,913. It ranked fifth among mid-sized sedans, far behind the Toyota Camry (132,540), Honda Accord (121,965); Nissan Altima (108,943) and Ford Fusion (107,280).
Jim Hall, principal of consultancy 2953 Analytics Inc. in suburban Detroit, says the Malibu's spring 2012 launch got off to a slow start because, for about six months, it was available only in the Eco model, which features a pricier 2.4-liter engine and GM's eAssist mild hybrid system. That made the launch last summer of the higher-volume 2.5-liter model "twice as hard," Hall says.
Auto critics gave the 2013 Malibu mixed reviews, with some accentuating the positives, while others panned the sedan as a step backward from the previous generation, which ran from 2007 through 2012.
"How could the likable Malibu have fallen so far?" read a December 2012 review in Motor Trend, which ranked the car last of six top-selling family cars, with the Volkswagen Passat finishing on top. Among the reasons it cited: "a retrograde interior, a nearly useless rear seat, and the thirstiest powertrain in our group."
For 2014, the Malibu gets several key enhancements:
- The car gets an improved 2.5-liter engine, the base powertrain that also is used in the recently launched 2014 Impala. GM engineers added new valvetrain technology that saves fuel through a "low lift" mode, which allows the intake valves under light loads to open just enough for the engine to pump just enough air to meet driving demands, eliminating so-called pumping losses.
- Models with the 2.5-liter engine will get stop-start technology, which shuts off the engine when the car comes to a stop and restarts when the driver's foot lifts from the brake. GM says the 2.5-liter will get an estimated 23 mpg city/35 highway, up from 22/34 for the current Malibu.
- The optional 2.0-liter turbocharged engine will produce 295 pounds-feet of torque, 14 percent more than on the current car.
- GM improved the suspension with enhancements borrowed from the Impala, which it says will provide a "more refined" ride.
- The front end gets a version of the broader grille that debuted on the Impala and Chevy Traverse crossover. The wider grille openings are black with chrome accents.
- The rear seat cushions were altered to allow passengers to "sit deeper" in the rear seats, and the backs of the front seats were reshaped to allow for more knee room.
- A redesigned center console is longer and includes a pair of cupholders and dedicated storage for two cell phones.
Chevy loses ground
While mid-sized sedan demand has cooled this year, the segment remains the biggest in the United States with 2012 sales of more than 2.5 million. The segment also accounts for five of the 20 most popular vehicles sold in the U.S. market.
Partly because of weaker Malibu sales, Chevrolet's share of the U.S. car market has slipped to 11 percent from 11.7 percent through April, while the Ford division's share has jumped from 9.8 percent to 10.8 percent, within striking distance of Chevy.
Toyota's share of U.S. car deliveries has slipped to 14 percent from 14.5 percent, while Honda has gained share.
Reuss acknowledged that much of the current Malibu's development happened before GM's mid-2009 bankruptcy. He said product developers knew even before it was launched that the car would need an accelerated update.
"We were not aggressive enough styling-wise," Reuss told reporters today before the 2014 Malibu was unveiled.
The speedy restyling was "evidence of the new company. We're going to keep hammering," he said.
In the Old GM, Reuss said, "we would have defended it, justified it, and waited. We're not going to sit around and wait for validation in the marketplace. We're going to go right at it."
GM has taken other steps to help the struggling Malibu gain traction in a competitive segment. Malibu prices were trimmed by as much as $770 earlier this year so the car would compare more favorably in online research by shoppers. Base Malibu pricing starts at $21,995, excluding an $810 freight charge.
In a statement, Ken Kelzer, GM's executive chief engineer for full-sized and mid-sized cars, called the 18-month development time for the 2014 model "an unprecedented commitment to make the Malibu the best car it can be."
At Dimmitt Chevrolet in Clearwater, Fla., general manager Sam Pilato says Malibu sales have defied trends, rising at least 10 percent this year. He says that customers like the car, but that the enhancements should help lift sales further.
"That segment is so hot," Pilato said. "We need the best possible horse in that race."