One of the automotive trends I've been tracking lately is the way traditional mainstream brands are moving their lineups upscale, with MSRPs naturally going along for the ride. The problem: As more and more automakers chase premium buyers, there will be fewer and fewer choices left for the customer who wants basic, affordable transportation. For example, I just spent a week being pampered by a Chevrolet Malibu'”provided to me by General Motors'”and that was long enough to discover Chevy has stopped building family-friendly low-cost mid-size sedans. Whether that's good or bad in itself I'll deal at another time.
The Chevy Malibu Spec Sheet
Consider: My Malibu was a relatively low-level 1LT model, yet it was packed with the kind of cues and content that'”back in the day'”one would have hoped to see on a Buick. The two-tone cabin was modern and showed nice levels of fit and finish, with a an effective use of "wood" and "chrome" accents, a sophisticated-looking center stack, a multi-function steering wheel, fancy door sills, generally easy-to-use controls, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3/Satellite sound system. Also included were six months of GM's OnStar service and a three-month Sirius/XM subscription.
For motivation, the car relied on GM's 2.4-liter Ecotec engine, capable of 169 hp and 160 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic. It was a competent combination that provided exactly enough power for daily driving, although the I4 did get a bit loud under acceleration. It had "tapshift" manual-shifting functionality as well, but, as I'll detail below, this really isn't the kind of car that will have you wanting to row your way through the gears.
I've often complimented the Malibu on its exterior, and living with one for seven days hasn't changed my opinion. There are some nice chrome accents here, too, with a particularly engaging front fascia that is aggressive without being over the top. Overall, I'll again use the word "sophisticated" to describe the Malibu's appearance, especially in contrast to the overly busy exterior of something like the Hyundai Sonata. Heck, even my 17-year-old daughter said it was "stylish" and attractive.
The Chevy Malibu Experience
If you think that by the way I've described that Malibu so far that it would coddle its owner during his/her daily routine, you're right on'”but that's the problem. The car provides a nice, comfortable cocoon for the driver, but not much road feedback gets through. The steering was exceedingly light and disconnected, and the very stiff brakes engaged quite high off the floor without much of a linear response to pressure. Combined with a lot of automation'”exterior lighting came off and on automatically, the sound system had that annoying speed-sensitive volume functionality, etc.'”there just wasn't a lot to engage the driver in the actual task of driving.
The steering issue was particularly noticeable during highway driving, and the car pulled to the left. (That, along with a noisy heater fan, were the only two quality issues I had with the car, and because the vehicle had been through some 5,000 miles of driving by GM's press fleet, I'll have to withhold judgement as to whether these are significant concerns.)
On the other hand, the Malibu's backseat is a less inviting place to spend time, which is another reason I think it fails as a family car. Yes, the front seat backs are scooped out for extra leg room, but I still got complaints, even from the 8- and 10-year-olds who sat there during the morning car pool. Both of my younger daughters said it felt cramped, which probably also had to do with the car's high beltline and short back-door windows. Also, it would have been nice to have a fold-down armrest in the back to act as a sort of demilitarized zone between the girls when necessary.
The Bottom Line on the Malibu
The MSRP on the Malibu was $22,825, and it was optioned-up with the "interface package" that added a USB port and rear-seat 120-volt outlet for $250. With a $720 destination charge, the total before taxes came out to $23,795, which, in my humble opinion, allows the Malibu to score highly on the ol' value meter: I certainly got the feeling the car provided more than its money's worth'”at least for the owner who rates a near-luxe environment above either family practicality or a dynamic driving experience.