Ed Welburn, who retired as GM's design chief after the Malibu's launch, said looks have become more important for cars as many consumers gravitate to crossovers and SUVs instead.
"The only sedans that will survive have got to be very striking designs," Welburn told Automotive News this month. "They can't just be vanilla four-door sedans."
In addition to vastly improved styling, the Malibu is packed with high-tech features such as wireless Internet and parental controls for teenage drivers that rival sedans don't offer.
"It's got some of the best technology out there. Those are things people really care about," said Jay Moore, new-car sales manager at Jeff Wyler Chevrolet in Columbus, Ohio. "At the price point for a Malibu LS, you can get a loaded Cruze, but you're getting a lot of technology in the Malibu, so people are more willing to go up to the midsize."
Chevy has helped improve the Malibu's image through its "Real People, Not Actors" marketing campaign, in which members of focus groups give unscripted opinions. In one TV spot this year, a Malibu is shown stripped of its Chevy bow ties. "It reminds me of the inside of my friend's Lexus," a woman muses from the driver's seat. Others guess that it costs $50,000 to $80,000.
GM first used the Malibu name more than 50 years ago as a trim level of the 1964 Chevy Chevelle. It became a separate nameplate in 1978, with sales in the same neighborhood as today's Camry. GM killed the Malibu in 1983, then revived the name in 1996 for Chevy's new front-wheel-drive sedan.
A 2007 redesign championed by then-product development chief Bob Lutz showed promise at first but fizzled in the wake of the Great Recession and GM's 2009 bankruptcy. GM took another swing at the Malibu in 2012, but when critics panned it and sales declined, it rushed a modest update to market a year later and accelerated work on the next generation.
Through November of this year, GM sold 205,117 Malibus in the U.S., a 12 percent increase from a year earlier. Sales for the rest of the midsize-car segment fell 14 percent, including a 9.4 percent drop for the Camry, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
At the same time, incentive spending on the Malibu declined 15 percent from a year ago to $3,697 per vehicle in November, figures compiled by Autodata show. In contrast, industrywide incentives rose 21 percent.
Malibu fleet sales are down 18 percent this year, according to data provided by GM. About 27 percent of Malibus sold in 2016 through November went to fleet buyers, the lowest level since the nameplate came back on the market 20 years ago. From 2005 through 2007, fleet accounted for more than half of Malibu sales, making it one of the most ubiquitous denizens of airport rental-car lots.