ALPINE, CA –bets it can resuscitate a presently lifeless large-car segment with the new ’14 Chevrolet Impala and expects tweaks to the current-generation Chevrolet Malibu will boost that car’s fortunes in the industry’s more spirited middle-car division.
“We need to project some growth into the (large-car) segment,” says Russ Clark, director-marketing for Midsize and Performance Cars at GM.
“There hasn’t been a lot of product in there recently, and we think the new entries will attract people,” he tells WardsAuto during a media preview of the 10th-generation Impala here.
U.S. car buyers currently shun the segment.
According to WardsAuto data, large-car sales last year accounted for 236,848 units and 1.6% of new light-vehicle deliveries. In 2007, the last normal sales year before the onset of the recession, large cars sold 685,260 units for 4.3% of the U.S. LV market.
In the years between, entries in the segment shrunk to roughly six nameplates from 16, according to WardsAuto segmentation data.
Much of the sector’s deterioration can be blamed on the surge of cross/utility vehicles, which now account for one in four vehicles sold in the U.S. CUVs offer the same, or sometimes more, passenger-carrying capacity. They also boast more flexibility, more cargo space and better fuel economy than the traditional large car.
The middle- and luxury-car segments also have been pressuring large cars. Midsize models such as theSonata and Fusion now are bigger and carry more expressive styling and technology.
Entry-level luxury cars are becoming less expensive as competition in the space picks up, giving the typical large-car customer looking to express his status another option.
But things are heating up.
In addition to the new Impala, coming to dealers in mid-April as Chevrolet’s new flagship sedan, an all-newAvalon specifically tailored to the U.S. market arrived at dealers last fall. A revamped Azera just celebrated its 1-year anniversary on the market, and last year refreshed its Taurus with a pair of high-output EcoBoost engines. The Kia Cadenza comes this summer.
Styling remains a leading purchase consideration in the large-car segment, and GM expects the Impala’s radical design change to be the No.1 motivator for its buyers. The Impala’s long, low exterior proportions include an expressive front-end design much like the Chevy Camaro sports car.
The 5-passenger sedan’s interior receives a highly crafted instrument panel that flows into the doors, rich colors, wood-like inserts and next-generation technologies such as the brand’s latest MyLink infotainment system.
Improving fuel economy also has made large cars more competitive. The 4-cyl. turbocharged engine in the Taurus, for example, achieves 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Impala bows with a 3.6L V-6 engine featuring gasoline direct injection. It boasts a segment-leading 305 hp and in 2008 and 2009 earned a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award.
Mated to a next-generation 6-speed automatic transmission in the Impala, it will boast an estimated 19/29 mpg (12.4-8.1 L/100 km) city/highway, according to the EPA.
Later this year, GM will add to the Impala lineup a standard 196-hp 2.5L 4-cyl. engine and, as a third option, the auto maker’s eAssist mild-hybrid system expected to achieve a peak 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km).
Clark says the new offerings should shift more segment sales to the retail side of the business from fleet and commercial customers, such as rental-car companies and government agencies. Sales currently are split 50-50 between the two channels.
The Impala, specifically, should see its sales mix move from 70% fleet to 70% retail.
“With this car, we’ll flip it around,” Clark says. GM will continue to sell the current-generation Impala this year exclusively to fleet customers as a “Limited” model.
Impala also will be offered for lease for the first time in many years.
“We’ll need a lease program to go into the Northeast and Southeast, where leases are critically important,” Clark says.
Advertising for the ’14 Impala begins the first week of April with the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Final Four, building on themes in the 90-second, brand-wide television commercial that aired earlier this year during the telecast of the Grammy Awards, where the car made a cameo appearance.
About the same time, event-oriented marketing of the Impala will begin at Major League Baseball parks as part of opening day activities. Prime-time TV advertising will follow upon the sedan’s arrival at dealers in volume, with the spots emphasizing the Impala’s styling and technology, Clark says.
Clark also confirms plans to refresh the Malibu, which has not met sales expectations since the redesigned model launched.
GM rolled out the restyled-for-’13 Malibu in January 2012, pulling arrival of the midsize sedan ahead about six months to get the jump on new entries from rivals. But availability was restricted to the Eco version, which uses the same eAssist powertrain coming to the Impala.
Models with the volume 2.5L 4-cyl. engine and top-of-line 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. were not available until late in the year.
Malibu sales last year rose 3% to 210,951 units from 204,808 in 2011. But the industry surged 13.4% and Malibu’s share-of-segment declined to 7.0% from 8.3%. So far this year its share is down to 6.4%.
Clark says a fourth-quarter production adjustment last year has corrected the mix, and he declines to say if criticism over the car’s styling compared with more expressive entries such as the Sonata or Fusion played a role in refresh decision.
“It’s a competitive segment,” he says, “You can’t sit still.”
The redesigned car reportedly will bow before the end of the year. Clark does not provide a timetable or exactly what changes might be on tap.
“A little interior, a little exterior,” he says.