NEW YORK – Chevrolet Malibu sales soared 62% in February, despite insufficient dealer inventory, says Cheryl Catton, director of Chevrolet marketing.

Cobalt deliveries jumped 24% in the month, also bolstering GM’s passenger-car volume at the same time light-truck sales took another spill.

Catton is expecting greater gains in Chevy’s small-car sales once the new 5-door Aveo debuts in July, sporting a more contemporary exterior and other enhancements.

She attributes much of Chevrolet’s sales climb to a change in consumer perception of the brand’s fuel-thrifty car portfolio (minus the Corvette). “Most of our cars deliver 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) or better,” she says.

Plus, surveys conducted by Chevrolet suggest car buyers are more aware of the Malibu’s improved quality, compared with Asian competitors that long have dominated the midsize segment.

“We knew we had to get the word out on this,” Catton says. “The Internet has generated a lot of interest, and we’ve received good third-party reviews on the Malibu.

“The ’08 Malibu is running significantly ahead of its 2007 sales volume, even though we’re constrained by an inability to get more stock.”

Catton says Chevrolet sold 12,460 Malibus in February, bringing the year-to-date total to 27,001 units. That puts the Malibu on track for an annual rate of 154,000 units.

Two GM plants produce the Malibu: The Orion Twp., MI, facility builds the midsize model on the same line as the Pontiac G6. Fairfax, KS, assembles the car on a line shared with the Saturn Aura.

Catton admits there has been a small erosion of Impala sales due to demand for the ’08 Malibu. But that’s mainly on the coasts, she says. “Impala is stronger in the Midwest.”

Another new Chevrolet that should help offset the brand’s slumping truck sales is the Traverse cross/utility vehicle that joins the lineup in October.

“We’ve got a good wave of new product in high-volume segments (coming),” Catton adds.

Overall, Chevy’s car/truck ratio will shift more to the smaller vehicles. “But I don’t believe we’ll give up truck share, despite the arrival of a new Ford F150 and a Dodge Ram in the fall,” says Catton. “We’ve got solid market share now, and we’ll stay focused on trucks.”

There are 9 million Chevrolet owners today, including truck buyers. “We’re a value brand, and we offer an affordable option,” she says.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet continues to significantly reduce its reliance on fleet sales, but that likely will level off this year, Catton says. In addition, the division is mimicking the overall retail ratio of Malibu sales when it sells to rental-car companies.

“We’re selling fewer base models to rental fleets,” she says. “That will have a huge impact on the profitability of fleet sales.”

The average retail price of Malibu sales is slightly more than $21,000, Catton says, with the base LS model accounting for better than 25% of sales. The mid-range 1 LT and 2 LT models, combined, account for 50%, while the top-of-the-line LTZ is running over 18%. Some 70% of Malibu customers are buying 4-cyl. engines.

Current Malibu conquest sales are running in the high 40-percentile range in California and Florida, Catton says, noting the prior-generation Malibu’s conquest rate was 30%-32%.