The Chevrolet Malibu is a superb midsize sedan. Fitting in the lineup just below the larger Impala, the Malibu competes with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion.
The Malibu benefits from a completely re-engineered platform introduced for 2008 that resulted in smooth ride, quiet cabin, responsive handling, and effective crash performance.
All Malibu models are four-door sedans with front-wheel drive.
It's an attractive car with attractive pricing and good fuel economy: EPA ratings of 22/33 mpg for the four-cylinder with six-speed automatic, 17/26 mpg for the V6 engine and six-speed automatic, and 26/34 mpg for the Hybrid.
For 2009, the Malibu Hybrid improved by two miles per gallon, thanks to better control of the battery charging/discharging system and new low rolling-resistance tires.
We found the Malibu to be a smooth, comfortable sedan with plenty of power when equipped with the V6. It strikes a nice balance between well-controlled handling and a smooth ride. Overall, the new Malibu feels smooth and is pleasant to drive.
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 comfortable, with plenty of front seat room and a generous rear seat.
In short, we think the Chevy Malibu stands up well when held against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord gold standards. Choosing among them largely comes down to nitpicking, splitting hairs and personal preference. 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.
The 2009 Malibu gets some new equipment. A six-speed automatic transmission is now offered for the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The four-cylinder engine comes standard on the 2009 Malibu LTZ. StabiliTrak electronic stability control is standard on all 2009 models. The base model comes standard with 17-inch wheels instead of 16s, and a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link is offered.
Chevrolet has followed an industry-wide trend with the Malibu, giving it a long wheelbase (a full six inches longer than the last model) to provide ample interior room for the occupants and a smooth, quiet ride. The Malibu makes good use of its space. Despite the longer wheelbase, the car is only three inches longer than the 2007 model, giving it an attractive wheels-at-the-corners look.
The Malibu looks masculine, brawny, yet clean and crisp. In our opinion, this is one of the best overall designs that GM design boss Ed Welburn has supervised since he's had the top design job.
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. We think it works better on the Silverado, but it gives the Malibu a distinctive look, and distinction is the goal of the midsize sedan designer. Look closely and you'll see tiny bowtie emblems imbedded in the headlights, one of several small surprise-and-delight features the designers included in the hope owners will discover them one pleasant day while washing the car.
Malibu rides on GM's midsize Epsilon platform, with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a multi-link rear suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars of varying diameters, depending on model.
The Chevy Malibu cabin is beautifully done, with tight fits and no gaps. Everything within arm's reach and easy to operate. The instruments are very easy on the eyes.
The most noticeable interior feature of the Chevrolet 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 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 wallets and such, a useful feature Subaru has used for years.
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 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, very comfortable and supportive.
The stretch in 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 that trunk has 15.1 cubic feet of cargo volume, the rear pillars are pushed to the far back of the car, creating a small trunk opening that won't accept large boxes.
The cabin includes a dashtop storage bin, door cubbies, and seatback pockets, plus standard ambient lighting for the overhead console and door-pull pockets. We've never cared for the look of rolled-up sliding covers on center consoles due to their ability to attract crumbs.
Overall, the Malibu interior is attractive and comfortable. The quality of the interior materials is good. It doesn't bowl you over but nor does it reek of cheap plastic, though we did experience a rattle from the dash in one test car. We think the Malibu's interior compares well to the cabin of the Honda Accord. In fact, it may be more attractive, though the quality of the material on the steering wheel hub and the hard plastic on the lower dash aren't as nice. However, the Chevrolet has an attractive leather shift boot when the leather upholstery is chosen, and the Accord can't make that claim.
Every Malibu comes with XM 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 people prefer to use their portable GPS units and relatively few want to pay for an OEM navigation system, but we're a little skeptical of that claim.
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 (non-navi) Honda Accord; the Honda seems less intuitive and convenient. Unlike the Honda, the Chevrolet has the audio controls at the top, better because people tend to fiddle with their stereos more than their temperature controls.
The climate controls in the Malibu are very easy to operate utilizing big knobs for fan and vent modes and simple, clearly labeled buttons. Honda splits the climate controls up, forcing the driver to examine them more closely before pressing a button. In short, the Malibu's audio and climate controls are, in our opinion, better than the controls in the Accord. Window switches are conveniently mounted on the doors. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel are available.
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 use with air conditioning on sweltering summer afternoons.
We drove all four versions of the Malibu, the four-cylinder four-speed automatic, the four-cylinder six-speed automatic, the hybrid, and the V6 with the six-speed automatic. Most of our time was spent in the V6 and the four-cylinder with the six-speed.
The 2LT V6 we drove was very pleasant, indeed. Acceleration was good, if not sparkling. The V6 boats a little over 250 horsepower from the V6 engine. While that's 19 horses less than the Accord and Camry, the 3.6-liter V6 is a modern engine that offers more power than most families will ever need. We never felt there was a lack of power here.
With the V6, the six-speed automatic is quick to shift, up and down, smooth, lurch-free and quiet. The engine, which has nine different sound attenuators in the air intake system, never sounds anything but powerful and smooth.
In fact, everything about the 2LT V6 is quiet and smooth. The suspension soaked up rough Mississippi cotton-farm roads with aplomb, 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. This has been a problem with the Epsilon platform, but it is better controlled in the Malibu than in the notably harsh Saturn Aura.
The steering is reasonably quick and precise, but without much real road feel. We also find that the steering wheel itself is a bit too large in diameter. A smaller steering wheel would give a sportier feel.
With the V6 engine, the driveline exhibits some torque-steer at full throttle. Stand on the gas when turning at low speed and you'll feel a tug on the steering wheel.
Braking action and performance is on par with anything else in the class of vehicles and trustworthy in panic situations.
The hybrid is considered a mild hybrid and uses a belt-alternator-starter, or BAS system, to stop and start the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine when needed. It shuts down completely at stoplights, and can add 3-4 kilowatts or about seven horsepower to the gasoline engine's output when needed. We found it works as advertised. The engine restarts immediately when you hit the throttle, and it does so smoothly. While the motor adds only seven horsepower, electric motors offer a lot of low-rpm torque, so the hybrid has a little more power from a stop than the base four-cylinder.
That base engine is the Ecotec 2.4-liter. In base trim, it comes with an old four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, an economical alternative that promises cheap insurance and low operating costs. The base model also comes with electric power steering, to save drag on the engine, while the V6-powered models come with hydraulic power steering.
The newly offered six-speed automatic is a much better choice with the four-cylinder. It increased fuel economy by three mpg on the highway, and the shorter gear ratios allow the engine to operate in its power band more often. Plus, it comes with steering wheel shift paddles that allow drivers to kick down to a lower gear manually when planning to pass. That's a nice option, because the four-cylinder is no world beater. It's not as torquey or spritely as the fours offered by Honda or Nissan.
The Chevrolet Malibu has all the size, room, features and conveniences a middle-of-the-market sedan needs to be competitive, and the fits and finishes inside and out are world-class. Chevrolet has indeed built a car we can't ignore. We think the new Chevy Malibu stands up well to the best in its class, including the Toyota Camry and Honda 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 from Chicago.