General Motors recently made it official at the New York auto show: It is giving the all-new 2013 Chevy Malibu a makeover for 2014 — at least two years ahead of schedule. Customers were so unhappy with the car when it was launched that GM tore up its plans for scheduled updates and rushed some engineering and design changes. In the process, it probably forfeited a good chunk of change that it will hope to make up in lower incentives going forward. GM North America President Mark Reuss told Automotive News that the focus of the refresh will be the exterior and cleaning up “the complexity of the interior.” GM couldn’t wait to make the changes later in the product cycle, he added: “We need it now.”
GM (GM) thus became the latest manufacturer to acknowledge that the intensity of competition is leaving even smaller margins of error. “Given how well-informed consumers are these days, and how vocal social media is concerning cars on the road, having a substandard vehicle in the market is a very serious and expensive mistake,” says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a West Coast design and marketing consultancy. “Once consumers learn of the weaknesses of a particular vehicle, they can turn against it.”
The poster boy of do-overs is Honda, which enhanced the interior of the 2013 Civic after seeing how angrily customers and the media reacted to the bargain-basement original. Meanwhle, Fiat-Chrysler’s Sergio Marchionne is proving to be the master of the makeover. “The changes to the Sebring making it into the 200 has been a spectacular success, says Peterson. “Similarly, upgrades to 300, Charger, and Challenger have been right on the mark without spending billions of dollars. Very intelligent moves on the part of Chrysler.”
Marchionne’s next challenge is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. For it and other makeovers — some announced, others suggested — keep reading.
2012/2013 Honda Civic
The introduction of the 2012 Civic produced an uproar. Worried about tightening consumer budgets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Honda (HMC) delayed Civic’s introduction so it could slash its piece costs by substituting less expensive materials for the car’s interior. To make things worse, exterior changes were barely discernible. Instead of waiting three years to do a makeover, Honda rushed one in 18 months for the 2013 model year (seen above), upgrading interior materials, refining the instrument panel, and giving the hood and trunk a sportier look. Sales are still running below a year ago, though, partly due to an overall slump in small car sales.
2013 Chevy Malibu
Malibu sales are down 12% so far this year, and GM is going back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, it can’t do much with the Malibu’s cramped rear seat. Back in its bankruptcy days, product planners shrank the Malibu’s wheelbase by putting it on a platform it shares with a smaller car. Bad call. Growing it larger would be prohibitively expensive, leaving Malibu at a disadvantage in the important mid-size segment.
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee
With sales starting to slip for this big moneymaker, Chrysler shortened the Jeep’s 2013 model year so it could rush a 2014 model to market with an eight-speed automatic transmission, optional diesel engine, and cosmetic changes to the grille, wheels, and front and rear headlamps. Production started in January, and the made-over Jeep goes on sale this spring.
2014 Chevy Corvette Stingray
Unveiled with great ceremony at the Detroit auto show, the seventh-generation Corvette looked like a Christmas tree of styling cues, festooned with curves, cuts, and bulges. “The fussiness gives everyone a cluttered feel,” says veteran Edmunds.com analyst Bill Visnic. “This is one seriously over-designed car.” Somebody seems to have gotten the message. Mysteriously, the conspicuous rear vents in the coupe that Chevy said were needed for cooling have disappeared from the convertible version.
2014 Jeep Cherokee
Abandoning its historic square headlights, Jeep designers gave the new Cherokee crossover an entirely different front-end look that dismayed traditionalists. New York Times design critic Phil Patton described the lighting scheme as “protoplasmic: a paramecium of daytime running lamps and an amoeba of a headlight.” He added: “A broad lower grille evokes the ‘tiger mouth’ of recent Kias.” Those should not be interpreted as compliments. Time for a front-end facelift?
2014 Acura RLX
Acura has been stuck in a design funk the past few years, unable to develop a compelling theme beyond its beak-shaped front grille. The look of the long-awaited RLX, the brand’s flagship, did nothing to change that impression. “The shape is as somber as a medieval manuscript,” wrote Dan Neil in the Wall Street Journal, “and these wavering character lines induce moments of visual sag around the front quarter panels, making the car look like a suspension bridge that’s sprung a few cables.”
2014 Buick LaCrosse
GM’s retirement rocket emerged from its 2014 design makeover with its decorative hood portholes intact. Too bad, because the interior has been cleaned up, and the overall look is elegant. Whether the new interior will move the sales meter is another question. Full-size cars aren’t selling, and independent analyst Warren Browne points out that when market growth does not have a solid economic foundation, better bling may not lead to sales improvement. Buick could test that proposition by dropping the portholes, which have been around since the 1940s.
2014 Toyota Highlander
While new Toyota (TM) passenger cars like the Avalon easily earn the adjective “elegant,” its SUVs look like escapees from the set of a Transformers movie. Go face-to-face with the Highlander, and you feel you are looking at a Tundra pickup instead. “Sadly, its front end got hit with an ugly stick,” writes Automotive News‘ Mark Rechtin, and the gaudy taillights splayed across the back end make the vehicle look squat and fat.
2014 Acura MDX
It’s lighter, roomier, and more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and the entire design is new, but most customers won’t recognize the difference. Even the MDX’s most ardent fans will have a hard time picking it out of a lineup. Critics call the 2014 model a watered-down version of the 2013 version. Its lines have been softened to broaden its appeal, and there has been a corresponding loss of distinctiveness.
2015 Volkswagen Golf
Ditto for the Golf. The seventh generation of Europe’s most popular car may be a technological marvel. But to American customers, “new” usually means “different,” and there is nothing different enough about the Golf to distinguish it from earlier models, much less make buyers alter their long-held views about hatchbacks. Not due to arrive on the American market for another year, the Golf will appear even more ordinary when it finally gets here.
2013 Lincoln MKZ
Aside from adding the sweeping split-wave grille and tricking up the instrument panel and interior, Lincoln didn’t go very far in differentiating the MKZ from its Ford (F) antecedents. An Edmunds.com reviewer wrote, “Make no mistake, every other manufacturer that makes an entry-luxury sedan — from Acura to Volvo — is selling a superior product.” With brand sales down 24% this year, analyst Browne warns, “Better start praying for Lincoln.”