In a crowded, competitive, field, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu stands out for its technology, power and quietness — but its handling and interior space fail to impress.
Chevrolet had a genuine hit on its hands when it launched the seventh-generation Malibu back in 2008 — a spacious, stylish midsize family car with decent handling and fuel economy. But a switch in 2013 to a platform shared with other GM divisions around the world saw the Malibu shrink a bit just as competitors were getting larger, and sales suffered. An unprecedented emergency redesign was instituted, and 18 months later the result is the car we have here — the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu. It features a different nose than the 2013 model, as well as a slightly revised cabin and resculpted backseat aimed at delivering more room for passengers. You can compare the 2013 and 2014 models here. Despite the emergency refresh, the Malibu still faces stiff competition as its rivals bring new models to market, like the brand-new Hyundai Sonata, updated Toyota Camry, ever-popular Honda Accord and the undeniably attractive Ford Fusion. Can the new Malibu's updates keep it relevant in this collection of cutthroat competitors?
The Malibu received a mild front-end freshening during the last redesign, to bring the look more in line with the Chevrolet family, and it was mildly successful — the attractive nose does resemble the Cruze, Traverse and Impala. But the tail end of the car is less appealing. The four separated taillights are meant to be a Chevrolet design feature, but their squared-off look doesn't mesh well with the true sleekness of the rest of the car. It's more stylish than the completely generic looks of the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord (or even the newly generic 2015 Hyundai Sonata), but not so out there that it will be shunned for its sheet metal. The Mazda6 is still the best-looking car in this category, and the Malibu isn't going to take that status away from it with this generation.
How It Drives
The new Malibu has a choice of two powertrains, but the V-6 engine is no more — it's been replaced by a powerful, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making a healthy 259 horsepower. That's easily as much as many smaller V-6 engines, and it moves the Malibu with surprising speed in a turbo-whooshing rush that fills the cabin, but not in an unpleasant way. Zero to 60 mph happens in just a hair over 6 seconds. Get aggressive with the go-pedal, however, and the six-speed automatic transmission handles that power with abrupt, banging upshifts that give you pause, making you wonder if you really want to accelerate that hard again. GM transmissions are usually quite smooth, but the one in my Malibu LTZ was not, at least not when put to strenuous use. Under less aggressive driving behavior and highway cruising, the transmission is perfectly adequate and well-tuned, presenting no clunky behavioral issues.
Ride and handling are best described as ''springy.'' The electric power steering feels imprecise and loose, causing the car to wander all over its lane, especially on the highway. The front end feels light in twisty situations, not planted and solid but vague in terms of communicating what the suspension is doing to the driver, both through the steering wheel and the seats themselves. The suspension's springiness also impacts ride quality, which was on the firm side thanks to the big 19-inch wheels that came with the LTZ trim package on my test car. Some taller-sidewall tires might make a difference in smoothing out the ride peculiarities. At least it's quiet in the cabin, with impressive sound insulation allowing for conversations at normal levels, even at highway speeds.
As far as competitors go, the Malibu struggles against some of the more popular models, like the Accord and Sonata. Both of those sedans feature excellent driving dynamics all around; neither one is sporty, but both exhibit a precision that's lacking in the Malibu's driving dynamics. The Ford Fusion beats all of them in terms of driving dynamics, with a European sophistication and excellent feedback, adding admirable quietness to the driving experience, as well.
Fuel economy is acceptable, but not best-in-class. The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine in the car I drove is rated 21/30/24 mpg city/highway/combined, and I achieved the rated 24 mpg in five days of mixed-use driving. The problem is that these numbers are bested by the V-6-powered Honda Accord, which comes in at 21/32/25 mpg, leading one to wonder where the advantage is in getting a downsized turbocharged engine over a well-tuned V-6. Both the Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion have turbo-fours as their top engines, and both beat the Malibu: 23/32/26 mpg for the new 2015 Sonata and 22/33/26 mpg for the Fusion 2.0-liter EcoBoost. This fuel economy deficiency can't even be explained by comparing weight: The Malibu weighs nearly 100 to 150 pounds less than its closest competitors.
The Malibu's interior is a mixed bag — it has some style to it that's lacking in competitors like the Accord and the newest Sonata, but its overall plastic quality lags. Soft-touch plastic on the dashboard and doors is competitive and attractive, but the raft of flat black plastic buttons on the instrument panel — and its busy design — need some work. Interestingly, the exact same issues were present in the 2014 Buick Regal and were neatly corrected for the 2015 model, which needs to happen in the Malibu design studio pronto. One area in which the Malibu does well is providing some interesting colors for the interior; my test car's black and tan motif looked upscale and fresh. Like some of the Malibu's competitors, touch-sensitive panels are starting to creep onto the dash. My top-trim audio system's touch-screen had a touch-sensitive trim surround that would accidentally switch functions if you bumped it with your hand while trying to select something on the screen. Touch-sensitive panels just don't seem to be the answer for this industry, as many automakers are finding out. They need to be banished here, too.
Passenger comfort is very good, with large, well-bolstered seats providing plenty of support and a comfortable driving position with a wide range of adjustability. It's not the roomiest interior in the class, however, coming up on the short end for front passenger legroom (42.1 inches) versus nearly all its competitors, and backseat legroom feels tighter than most, even if it's midpack by the numbers (36.8 inches). At 100 cubic feet of passenger room overall, the Malibu is smaller inside than the Accord (101 cubic feet), Sonata (106), Fusion (103), Passat (102) and Chrysler 200C (101), but matches up exactly with the Nissan Altima.
Ergonomics & Electronics
My loaded LTZ test vehicle featured the top Chevrolet MyLink multimedia system option. Along with the aforementioned touch-screen and touch-sensitive black plastic panel surround, voice command and full connectivity with mobile devices are included. It seems to work only moderately well, however — one morning the entire multimedia system froze up solid after I plugged my iPhone into the USB port and wouldn't reset until the car was left to sit, key off, for more than an hour. When it worked, it worked reasonably well — aside from voice commands, which take an average of 6 to 8 seconds to process through the MyLink system — an interminably long time compared with much faster and more responsive systems from Chrysler, Ford and Hyundai. The premium audio does sound good, though, and the various streaming internet radio sites like Pandora hook up easily and work well.
Cargo & Storage
The Malibu has a roomy trunk thanks to that high tail, offering 16.3 cubic feet of room for luggage — and it's expandable thanks to standard fold-down rear seatbacks for bulky or longer items. This compares favorably to space offered by the Accord (15.5 cubic feet), Sonata (16.3), Fusion (16.0), Passat (15.9), Altima (15.4) and 200C (16.0).
The new 2014 Malibu has been given a nearly perfect five-star crash-test rating across the board by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It earned a score of good in almost every test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as well (it was rated acceptable in just one), good enough to earn it a Top Safety Pick Plus award. See how the Malibu did in crash tests here. The Malibu features 10 airbags standard, but more advanced safety systems are still optional even on the top, LTZ trim, including available blind spot and rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, forward collision alert and a backup camera. See all the Malibu's standard and optional safety equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The Chevy Malibu competes in the heart of the highly competitive midsize sedan market, and it's priced to compete well. The base LS sedan starts at $23,165 including destination charge, but my considerably better equipped LTZ model started at $30,775. That version includes standard features like the more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, a power moonroof, leather interior, front heated power seats, premium audio, remote start and ambient lighting. Options on my test car were an Electronics and Entertainment Package for $1,350 that included an even better premium audio system, a backup camera and 19-inch wheels; a Premium Package that upgraded the headlights to bi-xenon and added push-button start and memory seats for $1,000; an Advanced Safety Package for $890 that brought forward collision alert, lane departure warning, and blind spot and cross-traffic alert; navigation for $795; more ambient lighting for $500; $225 Black Granite paint; and $140 floormats. The grand total was a considerable $35,575. Option one up your way here.
Pricing is not at all out of line with the rest of the market, but it's above what a comparable Honda Accord will command. A basic Accord starts a little cheaper, at $22,745, with a fully loaded Touring model topping out at $34,270 with a more fuel-efficient V-6 engine. The new, totally redesigned Hyundai Sonata is even cheaper, at $21,960, climbing to $34,335 for a fully loaded Sport 2.0T with the Technology Package. The Sonata rides and handles better than the Malibu, but its new styling is rather boring. A more entertaining choice might be a Ford Fusion, which starts at $22,795 but can stretch all the way up to a whopping $41,195 for a completely loaded all-wheel-drive Titanium trim level. It has an impressive array of custom trim options and high-tech electronics, but that's still more than $5,500 more than a loaded Malibu. See the Malibu compared with just three of nearly a dozen competitors here.