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.
Chevrolet Malibu LS ($21,975); 1LT ($22,825), 2LT ($25,235); LTZ ($27,015)
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.