Chevy's venerable mid-size Malibu is all new for 2013, but it's facing tough competition from Japan and Korea. Is the new Malibu the car that will put Chevrolet back on the map as America's brand of choice? Read on.
First Glance: Great expectations
What you are about to read is not a terribly fair review. I'm always harder on domestics than I am on foreign-branded cars, not because of any bias against the Big Three, but because American cars simply have to be better in order to be competitive. It's been decades since the Japanese won over American buyers by building better products; today, the gap between American and Asian cars is narrow enough to step over. But we now have legions of buyers who see no need to step away from the proven quality of Japanese cars. The only way to get them to buy American is for the American manufacturers to build something truly compelling.
I always thought the outgoing (2008-2012) Malibu was the car that would have done just that. It was attractively styled (aside from those hideous taillights) and very nicely designed inside. Unfortunately, not long after the Malibu stepped up its game, so did the Mazda6, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat, and Toyota Camry, and the Malibu found itself facing an uphill battle.
For 2013, the 'Bu is all new. It now shares a platform with the Buick Regal, and it's been resized a bit (smaller wheelbase, wider body) to suit buyers in countries outside of our own. The styling is an update of the old Malibu; the Chevy grille is now more prominent, although the bulbous nose, designed for European pedestrian-protection standards, gives it somewhat awkward proportions, and the Camaro-ish taillights (link goes to photo) seem out of place (unless ugly taillights are supposed be be some sort of Malibu tradition). It's an okay-looking car, but anonymous. Not an auspicious start.
In the Driver's Seat: What happened?
If the Malibu is dull on the outside, it's downright confusing on the inside. I am convinced the interior design is the result of some oddball Photoshop accident. How else do you explain that giant grille that bisects the dash on the passenger's side? And could the Camaro-inspired gauges look any more out of place? Go to the interior photo section on Chevy's web site and you'll see lots of detail shots, but only one photo of the whole dash -- and it's a night shot. That should tell you something.
Weirdness aside, I did like the layout of the center stack; there are an awful lot of buttons, but they are big and well marked, and the optional display stereo, which features Chevy's Internet-enabled MyLink apps, has a big, clear and crisp screen with excellent graphics. Material quality is very good, with switchgear that feels like it's built to last and lots of soft-touch surfaces to cradle wandering body parts.
I found the front seats supportive and comfortable, and the Malibu's extra width gives a bit of extra elbow room. But the back seat was less impressive: Shoulder and headroom are fine, but legroom is cramped -- it trails the Toyota Camry by two inches and the Volkswagen Passat by two and a half. At least the trunk doesn't embarrass itself; at 16.3 cubic feet, it's one of the biggest in the biz. And I'd be remiss if I didn't give Chevy credit for their commitment to occupant protection: There are ten airbags hiding in the Malibu's cabin, same as the smaller Cruze and Sonic. Kudos to Chevy for not skimping on safety.
On the Road: Snoozalicious
Chevy offers the Malibu with three powertrain choices: A 197 hp 2.5 liter 4-cylinder with a 6-speed automatic, the 2.4 liter eAssist "mild hybrid" powertrain, and a 259 hp 2-liter turbo which replaces the traditional V6. For this test, I drove the all-new 2.5 liter engine, and was really impressed by both the power and the level of refinement. This thing is quiet -- I'm talking Lexus quiet, the kind of quiet that makes driving a Honda Accord feel like standing out in a hurricane.
Unfortunately, that's the only thing that really stands out about the Malibu. It's a great highway cruiser, but there's little driver involvement. The steering is direct, though not particularly communicative, and the suspension is set up to keep you comfortable, but not engaged. If I was going to drive across the country on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, the Malibu would be the perfect match for such a bland, boring drive. But I'm a back-roads kind of guy, and I prefer a car that's a bit more involving to drive. Granted, my tastes aren't necessarily identical to those of John Q. Public -- but there are plenty of mid-size cars that combine good handling with a comfortable ride, and I can't recall ever hearing anyone complain that their car was too enjoyable to drive.