The year was 2007. The top-selling mid-size sedan, the Toyota Camry, was garnering a lot of praise from its most recent refresh, and automakers were furiously scribbling on notepads trying to get their next round of competitive vehicles out the door. General Motors had been going through a long string of bad press due to lackluster quality on the vast majority of its vehicles, and a big change needed to take place.
Enter the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. When it launched, GM was proud not only of its design and engineering, but of the improved quality and higher-grade craftsmanship that had been put into its new mid-sizer. The new Malibu made a big splash – so much so that it was named the 2008 North American Car of the Year, and the well-to-do sedan started selling in droves.
But now it's 2010, and since the Malibu's launch we've seen new versions of the Mazda6, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Subaru Legacy, not to mention first-time entries into the segment like the Suzuki Kizashi. The initial praise that the Camry enjoyed in 2007 is now fading fast, and the Malibu has two more years left until an all-new model arrives. So with all the stiff new competition on the block, does the Malibu still lead the pack, simply keep up or something worse?
Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL
One thing we've always noticed about the current Chevrolet Malibu is how big the sedan looks compared to everything else in its class – odd, too, because at 191.8 inches long, it's actually shorter than the Honda Accord and Mazda6. This size illusion can mostly be chalked up to the fact that, of every car in the mid-size sedan segment, the Malibu's design is the one that could stand to flex its muscles a bit more. Still, we don't think GM made any mistakes by sticking to a more conservative design with perhaps its most important volume model – remember, this is a car that has to be attractive to the widest variety of shoppers. The Camry, for example, certainly won't win any beauty pageants, but those still sell like there's a winning lottery ticket locked in the trunk.
Our mid-grade 1LT tester wasn't loaded to the brim with exterior goodies like foglamps, large alloy wheels or the LED taillamps found on higher-spec Malibus, but it's still an attractive package (though we'd never order a tan/brown car with GM's 17-inch chrome-clad wheels). Our only real beef with the Malibu's design is the rear fascia – those pointed-tip taillamps slapped on a flat, upright surface don't exactly speak of stylishness. What starts as a clean, attractive car up front comes to a quick end out back, and we're interested to see what the 2012 Mailbu, with its reportedly Camaro-inspired rear end, will look like.
While the exterior styling is a conservative win for The General, the interior refinement speaks of old GM habits. There's no originality to the Malibu's cabin, and this hurts when compared to the competition. The Hyundai Sonata, for example, has an interior that doesn't look like anything else in the automaker's portfolio. Even the Ford Fusion's cabin looks unique within the Blue Oval lineup. You'll find the Malibu's steering wheel in the Chevrolet HHR and even the Corvette, as well as departed GM offerings like the Pontiac G6 and Chevy Cobalt. A similar story can be said about the radio head unit and HVAC controls. Granted, it makes the Malibu's interior feel familiar and intuitive, but that isn't a good thing in this instance. Upon first take, we found ourselves thinking, "Oh. You again."
Still, the simplistic, no-frills interior is easy to live with, especially if you're the type who is overwhelmed by buttons and technology. The dash plastics could be higher quality and we don't quite care for the two-tone brown-and-beige color scheme on our test car, but the latter can be fixed by ticking a different option box on your order sheet. Both the front and rear seats are comfortable with plenty of cushioning and support and all dials and gauges are easy to understand. It's very much rental car chic in the Malibu, and though it won't offend anyone, a wholly revamped interior can't come soon enough. By comparison, nearly every other car in the class looks and feels more upscale.
One area where the Malibu still excels, though, is its powertrain. Both an inline four-cylinder and V6 engine are available, but in a world where four-cylinders are becoming more and more refined, our tester's 2.4-liter engine is a real honey. 169 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque doesn't sound too impressive, but we never felt ourselves yearning for more power. What's more, the slick six-speed automatic transmission is nicely mated to this engine, and fuel economy is a respectable 22/33 miles per gallon city/highway. It isn't as impressive as the Sonata's 35 mpg highway claim, but this engine is one of the best four-cylinders in the segment. Too bad it isn't the direct-injected unit that GM currently uses it in the Buick LaCrosse and Regal, as well as the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain twins.
Having a smooth, sufficient powertrain on board means the Malibu goes down the road nicely, devoid of any harsh gear transitions or weird bursts of power at different points in the rev range. It's a piece of cake to drive, and while all of the sedan's dynamic points (steering, suspension, etc.) are bland in terms of driver involvement, you never feel too disconnected from what's going on. Moreover, we find the Malibu to just be easy to drive in any scenario. It doesn't slug along on the highway and it isn't tough to manage through stop-and-go city traffic.
Once you get used to the slightly too-large steering wheel, the action of turning takes little effort without feeling overboosted, especially at initial turn-in. The throttle is easy to modulate and doesn't deliver a jolt of power upon tip-in, and when it comes time to stop, the brake pedal is soft but never feels overwhelmed. The relatively soft suspension certainly won't inspire any confidence out on canyon roads, but this isn't what the Malibu was made for. Competitors like the Mazda6 or Subaru Legacy can get away with a more sporting feel because their respective brand images speak to that, and that's fine – if you're shopping sport sedans, the Malibu probably isn't on your list to begin with.
All in, the Malibu's biggest weakness is its failure to keep up with the latest changes to the mid-size sedan segment. It isn't particularly bad at anything it does (save interior refinement, perhaps), but it still isn't as good as the vast majority of the newer competition. It may sound degrading, but the Malibu is the sort of car created for people who don't care about cars – it's easy to use, non-offensive in every way and manages to remain pretty affordable within its class. Our 1LT four-cylinder test car with cloth seats, no navigation, no sunroof, and moderately sized alloy wheels only commands $23,545 – completely reasonable in 2010. Still, we can't overlook the fact that the base Hyundai Sonata GLS we recently tested undercuts the Malibu's price by $2,000, and for our money, we'd take the Hyundai, hands down and twice on Tuesdays.
The next-generation Malibu isn't too far down the pipeline, and with GM's effort to boost the image of its brands in full swing, we expect Chevy's next best-seller will be better poised to compete with the strong competition. After all, If GM managed to win us over in 2007 with this current Malibu, it's sure to be competitive in its next iteration.
Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL