Yes, we know. General Motors went from an industrial juggernaut with the lion’s share of the US car market, to tragic depths that led to bankruptcy. Yes, GM made a multitude of arrogant, short-sighted decisions and put out some shamelessly bad cars. Yes, GM required major assistance from the government. Frankly, though, the GM hate needs to be leveled at its past decisions and products and people, because although the reformed company is still trying to keep its head above water in some respects (its struggling European operations, for example), this sedan proves definitively that GM is alive and kicking. And if anybody tries to tell you the 2015 Malibu is a poor choice for a mid-size sedan, they are woefully misinformed.
Automotive journalists like to dredge up horrible cars like the Chevy Vega and Cadillac Cimarron in their reviews of new GM product. With each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant, and more and more annoying. By the 1990s, the almost Greek-tragic GM was starting to turn a corner in terms of product. Still, if you look at a 20-year old review of a Chevrolet Corsica, you would come across an extensive list of critiques. Plasticky interiors, indifferent assembly quality and an aged design all afflicted Chevy’s 1995 mid-sizer. GM cars like the Corsica competed generally on price because they were certainly built to one, and they earned the ire of critics.
Heading into the 2000s, GM mid-sizers were generally solid efforts – G6, first Epsilon Malibu, Aura – let down by minor flaws. They often lacked just a bit of polish in terms of engine refinement and interior quality, but although they weren’t class-leaders, they were within spitting distance.
The 2008 Malibu really bought Chevy a seat at the table. There were modern four- and six-cylinder engines with up-to-date transmissions, as well as sharp styling and distinctive interiors. With such promise, perhaps critics were expecting another game-changer in the 2013 Malibu, or at least something to vault Chevy to the top of the class; instead, the current Malibu received criticism.
Blame a bungled launch, with Chevy initially launching it only in Eco trim, with a direct-injected 2.4 four with an additional 15-hp electric motor; its gearing and reduced trunk space were called into question. Shifting the Malibu to the short-wheelbase Epsilon platform (107.8 vs 112.3 in) was also a head-scratcher, considering the previous generation of Epsilons all had the longer wheelbase. Still, the 2013 addressed criticisms of the 2008, chiefly the erstwhile Malibu’s narrow width – growing 3 inches wider – and the lack of an infotainment screen. The smooth V6 was replaced with a punchy turbo four with 259 hp and 260 lb-ft (8 hp and 9 lb-ft more than the V6), echoing a trend in the segment towards boosted fours instead of V6s. For 2015, Chevy released a refreshed Malibu with a revised front fascia and various interior improvements; the unpopular Eco was dropped.
When it came time for my visit to California, I reserved a full-size, holding out hope for a Charger, but knowing full well that it was more likely to be a four-cylinder mid-size. In the past, a full-size reservation has netted me a base Passat, Altima and 200 (twice). None of those were bad, but having become accustomed to driving six-cylinder cars, it is sometimes a letdown to receive a four.
Scoping out the rental lot, the only cars close to full-size were brand new 2015 Chevrolet Malibus. The friendly Enterprise manager confirmed that one of these would be my car. Hopes of it being a turbo were quickly dashed, but it was at least an LTZ. I noticed an “Eco” badge on the trunk lid and was confused, thinking the Eco was a separate model.
It wasn’t quite fully loaded, lacking parking sensors and a reversing camera. While that disappointed me, I was quite pleased with the other features. Like many GM cars, it came with remote start. The interior was hugely impressive. The first thing one notices in a new Malibu is how the doors close with a solid thunk. Sitting in the heated, black leather seats, you notice a neat centre stack with a sizable 7-inch touch screen. The dash plastics are soft and pleasant to the touch, and the ambient lighting is classy. Switchgear is nicely damped.
I initially found GM’s new, unusual wood trim jarring when I saw it at the New York Auto Show, but it quickly grew on me and it suits the Malibu’s black interior. The center console has a handy storage bin with an AUX jack and USB port. The dash screen also flips out to reveal a storage cubby.
Let’s get to the flaws. The overall interior quality is of a high standard, but there were two chintzy trim pieces. The binnacle over the gauges has a stitched-leather look, but surprisingly is not of the same high quality as the rest of the dash. It feels extremely brittle.
Also, the overhead console with the map lights looks like it belongs in a different, cheaper car. The tinted rear-view mirror was an excellent feature, though, and significantly cut down on headlight glare.
The infotainment system, Chevrolet’s MyLink, is decently intuitive, with clear graphics and a large screen. Still, I prefer the interface of MyFordTouch and Chrysler’s uConnect, as they are easier to navigate between different functions. Sadly, this Malibu was not equipped with satellite navigation, although LTZ Malibus do have OnStar. We had a cable and an iPhone, though, and that was enough for us on our long road trip.
One of the chief criticisms of the current Malibu is the rear seat room, or lack thereof. For 2015, Chevrolet changed the shape of the front seatbacks to maximise leg room. Although I never rode in the back, I did sit in there once behind a driver’s seat adjusted for my height (5’11’’) and I had no complaints. It’s not the roomiest back seat, but it is acceptable if you’re not being chauffeured by a Harlem Globetrotter.
On the road, the Malibu impressed me. For a four-cylinder, it was decently powerful and not at all buzzy. The Malibu’s 2.5 four puts out 197 hp and 191 lb-ft, while returning 25/36 mpg. The cabin is silent, and the Malibu’s ride is excellent at blotting out road imperfections while still feeling planted. The automatic transmission shifts seamlessly; there is a manual mode, but I didn’t even bother using it. The one time I pressed it, it came up with a “Shift Denied” message, so I presume it’s one of the more restrictive manual modes that doesn’t let you rev to the redline before upshifting.
The steering was a little light, but it still had plenty of feel. The leather-wrapped wheel was a delight to hold, although the intersection of spoke and rim at the bottom made it difficult for me to hold the wheel at the six o’clock position (probably for the best, as one’s wrist would snap in a crash).
The aforementioned Eco badge indicated my Malibu was equipped with Stop/Start technology. It was barely perceptible, switching the engine off when the car was stopped but instantly bringing it to life when you pressed on the gas. It’s an excellent application of a handy efficiency feature, although unusually it didn’t always work and I couldn’t figure out why this was the case. Also, the remote start feature on the key fob should have worked far more often than it actually did. We would press the button on the key fob, with the doors locked as is required, and it worked perhaps 50% of the time. Other than this issue, the Malibu was reliable and very well screwed together.
Driving the new Malibu, it’s kind of hard to fathom how another mid-sizer could be better. After all, the Malibu has a high-quality interior, excellent refinement and smooth power delivery and ride. The Passat I drove had sportier handling, but it had a dated interior. The Altima was more spacious and fuel-efficient than the Malibu, but had a buzzier engine and an inferior transmission. The class leaders appear to be the Fusion and Accord, but the level of competence in the mid-size segment is fairly consistent. It’s hard to find a bad car for sale these days, and the mid-size segment is probably the strongest overall.
Malibu sales have slumped and this generation has never received the critical acclaim of its predecessor. Yes, the rear seat is less spacious but surely there’s another reason why the Malibu doesn’t seem to be on people’s radar. Although it is growing on me, the Chevy’s styling may be to blame. The previous generation had sharp lines and a surprising amount of visual presence for a mid-sizer. This generation suffers from new-Altima syndrome: lumpy contours and fussy fasciae. Styling sells, even in a generally conservative segment; look at the success of the new Fusion with its European lines.
One could argue that the Malibu doesn’t have a unique selling point, but you could say the same about much of the segment’s offerings, which are fairly consistently excellent and follow similar templates. After all, a Sonata has similar engines and a similarly high-quality interior and feel, with styling scarcely more exciting. Its sales figures are neck-and-neck with the Malibu so far in 2015. The segment sales leaders, Camry and Accord, are both competitive but other than a slightly sportier feel in the latter and greater rear cabin space in both, you can’t argue they are considerably better. The consumer is spoilt for choice in the mid-size segment.
GM fans would previously have had to make excuses for the company’s mid-size offerings. You don’t have to make excuses for the 2015 Malibu, a car whose only flaw is a slightly snug rear seat. And even if the Malibu was an inferior offering, GM’s development times have yielded something unprecedented: a replacement is being unveiled this year. The sins of the father are becoming more and more of a distant memory. Glad to see you back, GM.