DETROIT – The ’08 Chevrolet Malibu, with a base price of $20,000, is positioned to take on imports without cannibalizing sales from its brand sibling, the Impala, Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper says.

“We’ll have actually better ride and handling, and we think better exterior and interior styling than the Camry does,” he says as he introduces the revamped Malibu at the North American International Auto Show here. “So we’re looking forward to competing with (Toyota Motor Corp.)”

The base Camry starts at about $18,000.

The Impala is expected to move to a rear-wheel-drive configuration, possibly by ’09, allowing the model to exit from its fleet sales perch and provide more distinction from the Malibu.

Throughout the Detroit show, Peper and other GM executives have stressed the auto maker’s new focus on the midsize segment, where customers are demanding more for less.

“We want something that’s really stylish, (and) at the same time looks like it’s a $40,000 vehicle,” Peper says. A car that “provides great value that consumers can afford.”

There are no plans to bring back the under-performing Malibu Maxx 5-door, Peper says, noting the new Malibu sedan is about 3 ins. (8 cm) longer than its predecessor.

In an effort to position the Chevy brand as an “expressive value” leader, Peper says the Malibu will offer a wider range of trim options, such as 2-tone interiors, without requiring buyers to step up to a larger engine.

Malibu also with get a “mild hybrid” variant in first-quarter 2008, about three months after the ’08 model reaches dealerships.

Until then, Peper says Chevrolet will keep the momentum going. For example, the new Malibu be the star of the “Transformers” auto-based robots movie in the summer. Chevy also is preparing a large-scale advertising and Internet campaign around its midsize cars.

“The payoffs for the car campaign will be the Malibu at the end of this year and the (all-new) Camaro at the end of the following year,” he says.

However, the ongoing competition between Chevy and Ford for the title of the most popular brand in America may have ended. Ford beat Chevy in total 2006 sales by 17,000 units, Peper notes.

Ward's data shows Chevrolet sales finished last year 9.6% behind 2005, primarily due to 61,000 fewer rental sales and slumping demand for its midsize TrailBlazer SUV.

“A lot of people have stepped down in (the size of) utilities,” Peper says, noting Chevrolet gained 1.3 points of market share in the cross/utility segment with its HHR and Equinox.

“And we’re going to do some things with the TrailBlazer during the year in terms of option content, option package discounts and certain things to market it a bit more effectively.”

Peper says GM’s Fairfax, KS, plant has plenty of capacity to meet expected ’08 Malibu demand. The midsize sedan shares the assembly line with the Saturn Aura, also built on General Motors Corp.’s Global Midsize Architecture (Epsilon).

Peper expects Malibu’s annual production will be on par with 2006 levels. Malibu sales last year fell 33.3% from 2005 to 163,871 units, Ward's data show.

scanderson@wardsauto.com