Chevrolet Malibu car reviews

Review Notes: Chevrolet Malibu LT
PersonalityToyota Camry with better handling and style, and more gadgets
Quirks Previous generation to continue for fleets as Chevrolet Classic
Unusual featuresOnStar, factory remote start
Above Average for PriceComfort, stereo
Needs Work InWhat, no manual shifter?
NotesPassed driveway test; written by David Zatz

The first front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Malibu was a fine car for the passengers, it wasn't the most pleasant to actually drive. The second generation Malibu is far better for everyone, with thrilling acceleration, a nicely damped ride, and the usual panoply of GM gadgetry, all in a well-styled package that presents some class.

Standard on the high-end LT model is a 3.5 liter engine, essentially a larger-displacement version of the reliable 3.4 V6. Producing 200 horsepower and 220 lb-feet of torque, the 3.5 is more than a match for the Malibu's light weight, making it zoom like a sports car, but without the noise. Indeed, this is a very quiet engine, with just a little noise making its way into the passenger compartment - and that noise sounds refined and classy. It's a well-tuned package. Zero-to-sixty sprints are a tad slower than some competitors, but responsiveness is quite good at all speeds, and cars with faster 0-60s aren't always responsive to sudden demands for speed.

The responsive four-speed automatic downshifts rapidly but gently when needed, greatly helping the engine to provide instant acceleration. There is also a manual control, placed on the stickshift itself, which lets you raise or lower a gear at the push of a button, but the transmission is just about always in the right gear anyway.

The base engine for lower models, GM's 2.2 liter Ecotec, produces 145 horsepower, but feels stronger, thanks partly to a good torque curve (this is not a Honda or Hyundai 145 horsepower, but a real 145 horsepower with 155 lb-ft of torque that doesn't require revving to 8,000 rpm). The Ecotec has slightly better EPA gas mileage (24 city, 34 highway, versus 23/32) and costs less; we suspect its real-world actual mileage beats the V6 by a greater margin but neither is bad.

The downside of the Malibu is that the soft suspension tuning, so pleasant on bumpy roads, is the way it sometimes seems that it wasn't designed to handle the full power of the engine. Taking off from a standing start brings tire chirps easily, even without preloading the engine, indicating that the tires are not well matched to the V6 engine. There is noticeable torque steer under hard acceleration, and fast powered turns bring considerably understeer and tire noise. The Malibu does handle better than its predecessor, and generally feels more confident than the Camry and many other cars. The suspension deals well with roads or potholes, insulating the driver and not losing control on bad surfaces, as some performance cars do.

Visibility is good in all directions, with only a little blind spot by the rear pillar, which is easy to overcome. The side mirrors seem small at first but provide good viewing without causing wind noise. The headlights are strong and well focused, the windshield wipers are effective and cover a wide area, and the demisters work well - though clearly focused on the area by the rear view mirrors, which is probably a good idea. Intelligent materials choices minimize window glare.

Clever tabs on the center vents allow total and visible closure; thanks to having large vents, the Malibu can quickly cool or heat the cabin without much noise. The thermostatic climate control system is easy to use and provides good control, with clear buttons for the a/c compressor, recirculation, and the rear defroster. Controls are sensibly clustered together. Our only grip, and it's a small one, is with the shifter, since there's no detent between the Drive and Manual settings; you go all the way back for manual control, and to move back to Drive, you have to move the shifter carefully to avoid going right back into Neutral. Other manufacturers have you change directions or press a button. Putting the up/down shift buttons onto the gearshift itself was clever. A subtle "dual cockpit" design tilts key gauges and controls towards the driver, while not making it hard for passengers to operate the stereo and climate control.

Clever new features for the Malibu include the world's first factory-installed remote starter, designed to be safer than aftermarket models through a more sensible activation process (press lock, then hold down the start button), an automatic timer to shut off the engine after a while, and various safeguards including a Park interlock (you can't drive the car until the key is in), and the inability to remote start if the doors, trunk, or hood are open.

A driver information center works through the stereo display, providing gas mileage, distance to empty, average speed, and other information (not compass heading) underneath the radio station or CD status. You can also program various options through clearly labelled buttons by the stereo, including automatic lock behavior, oil status (so you don't change the oil long before it's actually needed), English/metric dashboard displays (so the speedometer only needs one set of numbers and is easy to read in the US and in Canada), and other features. All can be set up via easily pushed and well labelled buttons by either the driver or the passenger, and since the status display is in the middle of the panel, pretty much anyone in the car can read it - a much better idea than having it right in front of the driver so nobody else can read it. There is also an outside temperature display, but to get to it, you have to push the stereo's information button (not the info center's information button!) four times. The first pushes get you the artist and track if you're listening to XM Radio. Now that most people use the remote control, it is helpful that the system will also warn you when your battery is low!

There are three downsides to the driver information system. First, GM chose to use a very reflective material for the LED panel, which means it is easily drowned out in daytime; perhaps they have already switched to a more appropriate surface. It doesn't help that the automatic headlights go on at the drop of a hat, which automatically dims the radio display. The second problem is that if you have a warning message, it takes the place of the status display - not a big deal unless, like us, you want to control your headlights, and use the manual override (which you have to do every time you start the engine). That gives you three warning bongs, and puts a message onto the status display. We don't understand GM's headlight fixation, but it's strange in an otherwise user-friendly vehicle. The final downside is that you are stuck with the admittedly-excellent factory stereo, unless you want to lose the driver information system.

As a GM the Malibu has XM Radio and OnStar as options. We should talk more about oil status - new General Motors vehicles have the computer provide estimates of remaining oil life, the result of research by GM engineers which showed that most people change their oil far more often than needed. The computer analyzes the type of driving you do, throws in oil and engine temperature, and figures out when you need to change it. This can mean changing oil more often, but it usually means doing it less often - instead of every 3,000 miles, going up to 7,000 miles, and, for some people, even 10,000 miles, without any damage to the engine. It's not just a way to save money, it's a way to help protect the environment (used oil is nasty stuff) and reduce our dependence on imported oil.

The OnStar system is, as usual, well integrated into the car, with the controls in the rearview mirror, and the microphone with the front map lights. It now includes automatic collision notification, a feature debuting on the Malibu, which detects the strength and type of accident and notifies emergency personnel accordingly.

Our LT had a sizable number of controls on the steering wheel. Unlike most GM vehicles, it had two control stalks - on one each side of the wheel - and neither had cruise control, which is on the wheel itself, along with stereo buttons, in a surprisingly usable setup. The stereo itself was much easier to operate than some other GM models, with a new face that separates out different functions (such as tone and balance/fade) so you don't have to press buttons so many times. It's easy to learn, easy to use, and has excellent sound. It also deals well with XM Radio, which is an afterthought on some other stereos.

All Malibus come with tilt and telescoping steering wheels, power locks, mirrors, and windows, and height-adjustable driver's seats. Unfortunately, the tilt wheel, like those on most Japanese and Korean cars, does not go up far enough for some, though it should be fine for most people. Shorter drives will probably appreciate the adjustable pedals, which zoom in and out at the touch of a button, while taller drivers and passengers will appreciate the headroom and generous rear seat room. The doors are well designed to make entry and exit easy, and the trunk doesn't have a tall ledge to lift objects over. The trunk is full sized, with cargo nets on each side to keep things from sliding everywhere.

The interior is well lit, with the kind of lights you press to turn on - both in the dome light area and up front. The door handles are unusually easy to use, both inside and out - the outside has the pull-to-open variety, which is about as ergonomic as they get, while the inside has large, easy-to-grab bars. The interior is as friendly on the eyes as it is on the body, with the sole possible exception of a push-to-release foot-operated emergency brake. Everything looks to be of high quality and has a good feel. Rear passengers will appreciate the design of the vents, which direct large amounts of air to the back seats.

The interior on our LT model was nicely done, with small patches of woodstyle trim providing hints of luxury among the light tan panels. Fit and finish seemed quite good, with no squeaks or rattles in our test car. The instrument panel looks better at night because of the odd pattern behind the gauges which seems to be pervasive on new Chevrolets, but is clear and sensible regardless. The speedometer and tachometer are nicely large, with smaller temperature and gas gauges. We liked the more upright windshield, the opposite of another company's "cab forward" designs, which somehow didn't interfere with a slippery drag coefficient of .30.

There are lots of storage spaces in the Malibu, including one exactly the right size for an EZPass or similar radio-frequency toll-payer, and all the storage spots had appropriate padding to prevent noise. There was even a small rubber bar underneath the ignition key (sensibly placed in the dash, not on the column) to prevent jangling while driving. The interior seemed very thoughtfully designed, right down to the map pockets built into the rear seats. A larger center console and door map pockets round out the storage package.

Our test car cost a little over $23,500, equipped with an automatic, V6, curtain airbags, ABS, traction control, alarm, 16" alloy wheels, heated mirrors, spoiler, automatic climate control, leather, driver information center, and other options mentioned earlier. Those with tighter budgets will find the base Malibu to be quite a nice package even without those amenities, especially with the unusually powerful four cylinder. Our LT also had OnStar ($700) and XM Stereo ($325).

An exciting new option is the Malibu Maxx, which, despite its name, is shorter - with a longer wheelbase to allow for bigger doors. What makes the Maxx interesting is its modern station wagon design, which combines hatchback with wagon to provide the best use of available space. It'll give competing wagons from Volvo and others a run for their money, at least partly because of its sedan-like styling. The Maxx has nearly 129 cubic feet of interior volume, an optional DVD rear-seat entertainment system, and a PT Cruiser-style multifunctional cargo panel.

Even in the standard Malibu, interior space is very flexible; both rear seats fold forward independently, and the front passenger seat, unusually, also flips forward to allow long, bulky objects. As a family car, either Malibu is hard to beat. Certainly, we have not driven any SUVs as pleasant as the Malibu; and only the larger ones offer any additional convenience in terms of interior space, which is immediately offset by inconvenience in price, economy, ride, and sheer bulk.

Overall, we were very pleasantly surprised by the new Malibu. The V6 engine is nice and strong but very quiet, the transmission well-behaved and responsive, handling capable of routine spirited driving if not outright performance, the ride lets you feel the road without being abused by it, and the sound insulation is so good we didn't even think about it. The Malibu has a luxury-car ride, along with luxury-car levels of sound insulation - but without a luxury-car price.

Like the Toyota Camry, the Chevrolet Malibu is made in the United States, has pleasant but not aggressive styling, has a very well-insulated interior, and is generally user-friendly and designed for those who are more interested in comfort, convenience, and adequate performance than those who are hard-core car buffs. The Malibu out-Camrys the Camry in comfort and convenience, and provides Accord-like handling without the firm Accord ride. In short, potential Accord and Camry drivers who road-test the Malibu may just think about switching back to Chevrolet with this one, especially if GM's improvements in quality have continued. If only it had a manual transmission option... but even without one, perhaps some people in Japan and Germany need to be thinking about the future. If this is a product of the new General Motors, the rest of the world is going to have some real challenges.