Chevrolet Malibu combines best of both worlds
The previous generation of the Malibu sedan was bland and boring and did not earn General Motors a lot of points. As was GM's practice at the time, the basic Epsilon platform (mid-size front-wheel drive automobile platform) was shared among a raft of models and brands, including Saab, Pontiac, Cadillac, Fiat, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall. It may have generated lots of variations, but not a lot of excitement.
But that changed with the current car. GM was determined to take on the hugely popular and successful Japanese carmakers in this crucial mid-sized sedan market, and benchmarked their new seventh-generation Malibu against the likes of the Accord, Altima and Camry.
GM's then vice chairman Robert Lutz and designer Bryan Nesbitt together oversaw the extensive development and re-engineering programme, and the result was a quantum leap in terms of performance, appearance and build quality over what had gone before. This latest Malibu shares a lot of design cues and exterior treatments that are more normally associated with the big German saloons.
The fit and finish of body parts, the precise consistency of seams and panel gaps are good enough to rival any of the European manufacturers, and the external appearance is sleek, modern and sophisticated, but also somewhat understated. Chevrolet's central bar across the radiator and the golden bow tie make a welcome return in the new corporate face.
The modern reworking also applies to the interior design of the Malibu, though the cabin is a place where you will feel instantly comfortable and at home, rather than riding the cutting edge. This interior is as cosseting and familiar as a favourite armchair.
Rich and classy
Everything is muted and calm, rich in feel and good quality to touch, a cocoon of wool, leather and wood. There's not a lot of bling or gadgetry, but everything you need is there, including Bluetooth and a USB connection. Underpinning the Malibu's platform is a long wheelbase with the wheels pushed out towards the corners, and a thoroughly modern chassis.
The fully independent suspension features MacPherson struts with aluminium L-shaped control arms up front, and a four-link arrangement at the rear. Our V6 engined LTZ also gets a slighter larger anti-roll bar as well, for better body control.
The steering is a very traditional rack-and-pinion design with variable assistance, and the hydraulic system delivers good on-road feel - firm and quick at highway speeds, but light enough to make parking at the mall a breeze.
Stopping is by disc brakes all round, with electronic anti-lock braking system (ABS) and StabiliTrak traction control. There's a comprehensive list of other safety equipment, including frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags for both front and rear.
Our top-of-the-range LTZ demonstrator comes with GM's new dual-cam 3.6-litre V6 engine, producing 252bhp at 6,300rpm and 340Nm torque. Drive goes through a standard six-speed automatic gearbox to the front wheels, and the 18" alloys are standard with this engine and trim level. You can switch gears with dual-action shift paddles that move with the steering wheel, though these only operate in ‘Manual' mode. ‘Automatic' seems to work perfectly well on its own, though, so we let it get on with the job and left the paddles alone.
On the move, our Malibu is a comfortable car. The MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension are soft enough to ride over speed bumps without breaking your back, yet firm enough to keep things interesting when you want to play. As seems to be the case with American cars these days, there is very little wind or road noise, thanks to the full-perimeter door seals and double-layer window glass at the front. Even the engine is very well isolated, offering only a muted hum when pressing on.
And press on you will, because the Malibu offers a pretty decent turn of speed. The engine may be ‘only' a V6, but it is a thoroughly modern one with dual overhead cams, variable valve timing and 4 valves per cylinder. The acceleration isn't neck-snapping, but it does have a lovely long-legged feel, surging strongly towards the horizon on a seemingly endless wave of power. Clearly this is a car designed for crossing continents, capable of running for prodigious distances and never feeling tired.
This is only to be expected, as American cars are known for straight line performance. However, it is in the twisty bits that the Malibu will most surprise you, for it is poised, taughtly controlled and unexpectedly nimble. In part, this is due to the front-wheel drive layout, but also to the independent suspension system.
Initial turn in is keen, and the car settles into your chosen line with determination. Mid-corner bumps don't deflect it, and it can carry significant speed through the exits.
A good mix
In many ways, the Malibu is a surprising car, a combination of old-fashioned and modern ina way that works surprisingly well. The interior is the traditional part, nicely trimmed here in coffee and tan leather, with a lovely strip of real wood wrapping itself right across the cabin and into the doors. The steering wheel is chunky and feels good in your hands, and both it and the pedals are adjustable to suit you. All very safe and familiar. Tradition may be taken a bit too far in the lack of a navigation system, meaning that all the vehicle settings are controlled through the dash and radio displays.
Yet this comfortably traditional car packs a thoroughly modern punch under the sleek new exterior. Fully independent suspension, front wheel drive, V6 rather than V8 - this is all state of the art, and it drives that way too. Forget the old Malibu, and drive the new one. You'll get an inkling into just how seismic a turnaround GM has achieved in recent years.
Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, mid-size 4-door sedan