Mating a six-speed automatic to a four-cylinder gives the Chevy Malibu an edge
We have sung the current-generation Chevy Malibu's praises multiple times on this site ever since we first drove the car late last year. It is one of the surest signs that there is life at General Motors, and that all the criticisms leveled at the company in recent months are reflections of the past, not its present or future. The 2009 Chevy Malibu LT we recently drove mostly reinforced those feelings.
We drove this car yet again for one simple reason: its drivetrain. For the next few months, the 2009 Chevy Malibu will be the only car in its class to offer up a six speed automatic transmission with a four-cylinder engine (Ford will offer one with the 2010 Fusion, due in the Spring). However, it was also our first experience with the mid-level LT trim, revealing to us more things about the 2009 Chevy Malibu that we didn't know.
The four-cylinder and six-speed combination is offered as standard equipment on the top-level 2009 Chevy Malibu LTZ and the LT2 trim package, and optional on LT1 cars like our tester. Base LS Malibus still get a four-speed automatic. The engine itself is the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder that's in the LS, producing the same 169 horsepower and 160 lb.-ft. of torque. It's a smooth and surprisingly quiet engine, benefiting from the extensive sound deadening measures Chevy undertook to quell the vibrations and noise from the four-banger. The upshot is that this may well be the quietest four-cylinder in the segment.
The six-speed works extremely well and is well worth the $695 Chevy asks for it. The gears are very well matched to the engine, and the combination deliver brisk acceleration. Well, brisk if you remember that the little four-banger has 3,400 pounds of Chevy Malibu to haul around. Still, we didn't find ourselves thinking that the 2009 Chevy Malibu with this combination was really lacking. The 26 mpg that we averaged (albeit with quite a bit of highway miles) was pretty nice, too.
The 2009 Chevy Malibu LT we drove had a very comfortable highway ride. The suspension is clearly tuned to absorb bumps, which it does admirably, but it also keeps the body under control as it does so. The result is smooth sailing over virtually anything; even railroad crossings were absorbed without complaint.
The handling is pretty good, considering the cushy ride. The Malibu hangs on, and though its limits aren't particularly high – this is no sport sedan, mind you – they're good enough to make the 2009 Chevy Malibu easily controllable in emergency maneuvers. The downside is the steering, which is numb and has a weak on-center feel. The brakes were fine though, but again, if you pick up a 2009 Chevy Malibu thinking you're getting a sport sedan, you really haven't done your research.
A year into its life, the 2009 Chevy Malibu is still a darn fine-looking automobile. Its exterior styling may be at the head of the class; the 2009 Mazda 6 gives it a run for its money in that regard, but the Malibu doesn't have that car's overly aggressive front fenders. Instead, the Malibu is subtly aggressive, with nifty details like the Chevy bowties stamped into the bulb shields on the headlights, or molded into the side marker lights on the rear. The wheels deserve special mention; they're actually chrome hubcaps, but integrated neatly enough that you'll have to give them a couple or three glances before you really notice.
We were a little more disappointed by the interior on this mid-level 2009 Chevy Malibu LT though. It still looks good, and we love the trim piece that sweeps from the doors onto the dash and under the audio controls. However, fit and finish were a step behind the other Malibus we've driven, and the same goes for some of the materials. The seat cloth in particular felt industrial, like something you'd find in a Chevy Silverado work truck.
Still, we were astonished by how quiet the Malibu was. The laminated front side glass does a great job of keeping out noises, so much so that the unlaminated glass on the rear doors make enough noise that you wonder if one of the windows is cracked open slightly. Regardless, at speed on the highway, the 2009 Chevy Malibu is whisper quiet, allowing you to hold conversations without shouting.
Since this was a mid-level model – and only $23,435 including the $650 destination charge – we weren't surprised to find that it lacked a 10,000 watt 20-speaker audio system or a personal masseuse. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the level of standard equipment, which included stability control and anti-lock brakes, a chrome exhaust tip, a decent sounding stereo with an auxiliary input, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with integrated cruise and audio controls, and keyless entry. Nothing entirely out of the ordinary, but still a nicely equipped package that can seat four comfortably, five in a pinch, and carry a ton of stuff in the big trunk.
Despite our complaints about this mid-level trim, we're still enamored with the 2009 Chevy Malibu. It offers up a compelling package that's comfortable to drive, easy on the wallet and with a class leading drivetrain combination. Our sole advice is that maybe buyers should simply step up to the LT2 option package, which offers up nicer seat fabric, the same six-speed transmission, Bluetooth cell phone link and standard power seats with heaters for just a couple hundred dollars more than our test car's as-equipped price.
2009 Chevy Malibu 1LT
Six-speed automatic ($695), Power Convenience Package ($445)
169 hp @ 6,400 rpm
160 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm
Six-speed automatic with manual shift control
22 city/33 hwy
42.2 in./ 37.6 in.
39.4 in./ 37.2 in.
15.1 cu. ft.
By Keith Buglewicz
Photo credit: Ron Perry