2011 Chevrolet Malibu Expert Review:Autoblog
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
New Car Test Drive
A solid midsize sedan as good as Toyota and Honda.
The Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan blends a smooth ride with responsive handling, a quiet interior, effective crash performance and noteworthy build quality. We think the Malibu stands up well against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the benchmarks for midsize sedans.
Malibu offers a choice of four-cylinder and V6 engines. A new fuel-saving 6-speed automatic transmission with TAPShift manual control is standard on all 2011 Malibu models. OnStar 9.0, the latest version with improved voice recognition, comes standard with six months of Directions and Connections service with Turn-by-Turn Navigation. Other upgrades for 2011 Malibu models include 17-inch bright aluminum wheels on the Malibu 1LT, and 18-inch Chrome Tech aluminum wheels for the Malibu 2LT V6.
Malibu offers value, with a lower purchase price, and good fuel economy: EPA City/Highway ratings of 22/33 mpg for the four-cylinder, 17/26 mpg for the V6.
The cabin is nicely designed, attractive, and everything is easy to operate, though there are some hard plastics that detract from an otherwise first-rate interior. The seats are very comfortable, with plenty of front-seat room. The back seats offer generous legroom. Trunk space is tight, however.
We found the Malibu pleasant to drive. It's smooth and comfortable, striking a nice balance between well-controlled handling and an even ride. It has with plenty of power when equipped with the V6.
Choosing among the best midsize sedans largely comes down to nitpicking, splitting hairs and personal preferences. The Camry and Accord may have an edge on resale value, but they're also likely to come with higher price tags. In any case, we don't see the gap between this Chevrolet and the imports that we used to see. Malibu, Camry and Accord, and the Ford Fusion are all superb midsize sedans. The Chevrolet Malibu was last redesigned for the 2008 model year.
The 2011 Chevrolet Malibu range includes the Malibu LS, Malibu LT, and Malibu LTZ. (The mild-hybrid model is no longer available.) The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 6-speed automatic are standard and come with electric power steering. A 3.6-liter V6 is optional and it comes with hydraulic power steering.
Malibu LS ($21,975) comes with air conditioning, cloth upholstery, power height-adjustable driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, cruise control, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, remote keyless entry, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with XM satellite radio and auxiliary input jack, outside temperature display, automatic headlights, six months of OnStar 9.0 Directions and Connections service with Turn-by-Turn navigation, and P225/50R17 tires on steel wheels.
Malibu LT ($22,825) adds steering-wheel audio controls, ambient lighting, body-color mirrors, more bright trim, carpeted floor mats, new- for-2011 bright aluminum wheels, and a longer option list. Malibu 2LT ($25,235) makes more options available (including faux suede upholstery), and adds a standard bright exhaust tip and Chrome Tech wheels.
Malibu LTZ ($27,015) upgrades to automatic climate control, leather upholstery and steering wheel, eight-way power driver's seat, six-way power passenger's seat, heated front seats, heated power mirrors, auto-dimming inside mirror, iPod adapter, eight-speaker 210-watt stereo system, Bluetooth, remote engine starting, fog lights, a manual rear sunshade, clear-lens LED taillamps and P225/50R18 tires on alloy wheels.
Options include a power sunroof ($850), a dual-screen DVD rear entertainment system ($1,740), a 110-volt power outlet ($150), paint upgrades, and additional convenience features.
Safety features are comprehensive, with front, side and side-curtain airbags, tire-pressure monitoring, ABS with brake assist, and StabiliTrak electronic stability control with traction control.
The Malibu makes good use of its space, and also has an attractive wheels-at-the-corners look that is substantial, yet clean and crisp. A long wheelbase provides ample interior room for occupants and a smooth, quiet ride.
The body design is bold, long and sleek, with an especially appealing roofline that looks like it belongs on a luxury car. The bodysides are completely clean and uncluttered, and the twin round taillamps pay homage to the Corvette. The dual-port grille is a contemporary Chevrolet design cue, which gives the Malibu a distinctive look, and distinction is an important goal of the midsize sedan designer. Look closely and you'll see tiny bowtie emblems imbedded in the headlights.
The Malibu rides on a MacPherson strut front suspension and a multi-link rear suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars of varying diameters, depending on the model.
The Chevrolet Malibu cabin is beautifully done, with tight fits and no gaps. Everything is within arm's reach and easy to operate. The instruments are easy on the eyes.
The most noticeable interior feature of the Malibu, other than the roominess front and rear, is the dual-cowl dashboard and instrument panel layout inspired by vintage Corvettes. This design is brought into the 21st century with wood and metallic trim and a very pleasing blue-on-white instrumentation graphic treatment that's flooded with blue light at night.
Less noticeable are thoughtful features such as ambient lighting. A feature associated with expensive luxury cars, and recently popularized by Mercedes and BMW, ambient lighting helps the driver and front passenger find secondary controls and items around the center console. A cubby on top of the dash is convenient for smaller items and is a very useful feature.
Cloth, faux-suede and leather interior options are available. The standard interiors are monotone, but several two-tone interior combinations are available, including a dramatic black-and-saddle leather combination that's very attractive.
We found the leather seats in the Malibu LTZ quite comfortable. Piping in a contrasting tone dresses them up. The front bucket seats are somewhere between sumptuous and luscious in the way they look and the way they sit, and are very comfortable and supportive.
The long wheelbase affords each occupant plenty of room, and there is ample headroom and legroom in the rear compartment for six-foot-plus passengers. The backs of the front seats are dished out to add knee room. The rear seatbacks flip down to provide a pass-through to the trunk.
While the trunk has 15.1 cubic feet of cargo volume, the stylish rear pillars are pushed to the far back of the car, creating a small trunk opening that won't accept large boxes.
Cubby storage includes a dashtop storage bin, door cubbies, and seatback pockets. We've never cared for roll-up sliding covers on center consoles due to their ability to attract crumbs, dust and debris. Ambient lighting for the overhead console and door-pull pockets adds convenience.
Overall, the Malibu interior is attractive and comfortable. The quality of the interior materials is good. It doesn't bowl you over, nor does it reek of cheap plastic. We think the Malibu's interior compares well to the cabin of the Honda Accord. In fact, it may be more attractive, though the material on the steering wheel hub and the hard plastic on the lower dash aren't as nice. However, the Malibu has an attractive leather shift boot when the leather upholstery is chosen, and the Accord does not.
Every Malibu comes with satellite radio and the latest version of OnStar with Turn-by-Turn navigation. However, there's no GPS navigation system, nor is there a back-up camera. Chevrolet says many people prefer to use their portable GPS units and relatively few want to pay for an OEM navigation system. We've heard that view from respectable drivers, but we prefer in-dash units. We've found OnStar works well, however, and we encourage owners to try it.
Big knobs and buttons and an elegant design make operating the audio and climate functions easy. In fact, we found it easier and less confusing to make adjustments in the Malibu than in a comparably equipped (without navigation) Honda Accord. The Honda seemed less intuitive and convenient, the Chevrolet seemed more intuitive and convenient. Unlike the Accord, the Malibu has the audio controls at the top, which is better because people tend to fiddle with sound systems more than temperature controls.
Remote starting is available. This lets the driver start the car by pressing a button on the key fob from the comfort of the house on wintry mornings, allowing the car to warm up while the driver sits inside sipping coffee. That same feature can be used with air conditioning on sweltering summer afternoons.
The suspension soaked up rough Mississippi farm roads with grace and competence, and kept the car straight and flat without a lot of pitching and body roll. On pockmarked Chicago streets, though, we did experience some jolts in the rear suspension, but they were pretty rough streets.
The steering is reasonably quick and precise, but without much real road feel. The steering wheel is a bit too large in diameter for our preferences; a smaller steering wheel would give a sportier feel.
The V6 is smooth and quiet and very pleasant, indeed. The thoroughly modern V6 has 252 horsepower and delivers performance that is good, if not sparkling. Most families will find no shortage of power or performance. With the V6, the 6-speed automatic is quick to shift, up and down, smooth, lurch-free and quiet.
With the V6 engine, the driveline exhibits some torque-steer at full throttle: Stand on the gas when turning at low speed, turning right from a stop sign, for example, and you'll feel a tug on the steering wheel.
The Ecotec 2.4-liter four-cylinder is not as sprightly as the four-cylinder engines offered by Honda or Nissan, lacking their torque. However, the Malibu's four-cylinder is aided greatly from having the 6-speed automatic.
The 6-speed automatic works well with the four-cylinder engine. Having six gears increases fuel economy and improves acceleration. Plus, it comes with GM’s TAPshift manual shift control, controlled by rocker switch on shift knob, allowing drivers to shift down to a lower gear manually when planning to pass.
The four-cylinder engine comes with electric power steering, to save drag on the engine, which helps both fuel economy and performance, while the V6-powered models come with hydraulic power steering. A no-cost option makes the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine E85-compatible, meaning it can operate on either gasoline or a mixture that includes up to 85 percent ethanol.
The Chevrolet Malibu has the size, room, features and conveniences a family sedan needs. The rear seats are roomy. Fit and finish inside and out are world-class. We think the Malibu stands up well to the best in its class, including the Camry and Accord.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report after test driving Malibu models around Memphis and down into Mississippi; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles, and Kirk Bell in Chicago.
Chevrolet Malibu LS ($21,975); 1LT ($22,825), 2LT ($25,235); LTZ ($27,015).
Kansas City, Kansas.
Options As Tested
power sunroof ($850).
Chevrolet Malibu LTZ ($27,015).
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