Test Drive--2012 Chevrolet Malibu LT
At the beginning of last month, a 60-foot tree in my yard was shredded by high winds, dropping a couple thousand board-feet of lumber on the four cars then parked in my driveway. When it came time for my wife's Mazda 5 to go into the shop for roof repairs, the insurance company procured a rental car for her, a 2012 Chevrolet Malibu LT sedan.
Our subject is 191.8" long on a 112.3" wheelbase, with seating for five--bucket seats up front, three-across bench in the back. The styling is fiftieth-percentile aerodynamic modern: rounded nose, high, upswept belt line, arched roofline, high tail.
This gives it a nice low drag coefficient, but that slickness comes at a considerable price. The headliner and the upper window frames are disturbingly close to your eye level if you're anywhere around six feet tall. The back window, despite being a rather large piece of glass, looks awfully narrow in the rear view mirror. The thickish A-pillars and wide C-pillars cut into the driver's outward vision. There's actually more rear-seat headroom in the back of my GTI than in the much larger Malibu. Add in the high beltline and dark colored interior, and it feels more like you're riding in the "Landmaster" armored truck from Damnation Alley than in a family sedan.
The assembly quality is a strong point; everything lines up correctly, and there are no rattles to be heard. The front seats are reasonably comfortable, with good support. The dashboard is attractive, and the way it slants away from you provides a little visual spaciousness to counteract the closed-in feeling you get from the windows. The dash is made of a nice soft-touch material, but the door panels and armrests are a low-rent hard plastic that's a throwback to base-model Chevettes of the 1970s. The level of trim is actually quite nice for a fleet-special rental car, apart from the pseudo-upholstered door panels.
The ergonomics of the driver's position are excellent, all controls properly within reach, and whoever did the gauge pods was having a really good day at the office. I do have one complaint, though: the placement of controls on the steering wheel. GM put the cruise control on the left hand side of the wheel, where every other manufacturer on the face of the Earth puts the volume control for the stereo--and put the volume control on the right. This took some getting used to.
While the front row is pretty good, the back seat is a whole 'nother story. Despite having a wheelbase eleven inches longer than the GTI's, the Malibu has less rear-seat legroom. It's a distinctly hostile environment for full-sized adults. The eighth-generation 'Bu has a wheelbase about six inches shorter than this car's, which...well, that can't be making things any better back there, that's for sure.
The prime mover is a 2.4L "Ecotec" SOHC inline four producing 169 HP at 6,300 RPM and 162 pounds of torque at 4,500 RPM. It's mated to a 6T70 six-speed automatic transaxle. The tranny's gear ratios range from a stump-pulling 4.484:1 in first to a 0.742:1 overdrive in sixth. That tall top gear gives you 33 MPG highway according to the EPA; city mileage is officially a much more modest 22 MPG. Judging from our non-systematic observations, that highway number seems about right, and the car probably outperforms the in-town MPG rating by a mile or two per gallon.
Because the six-speed is programmed for fuel economy, it shifts to keep the revs down below 2,500 as a matter of course. This is adequate for most normal driving, but if you need to speed up to merge into freeway traffic or get around slower traffic on a two-lane road, or just need to keep from losing speed on a long grade, you have to smack the gas pedal into the floor and hold it there. The software pauses for a moment, just to make certain--You want to accelerate, eh? You're sure of this? You mean now? Well-l-l-l, okay, if you insist...--and only then does it open up the throttle and downshift the slushbox and get the engine up into the powerband where it belongs. Needless to say, straight-line acceleration is not this car's strong point.
You could come up with a better shift pattern in those situations than the software gives you, but GM does its level best to discourage that. The six-speed has a "manual override" mode in which you shift the gears yourself by means of a rocker switch on the side of the gear selector, which is worked with your thumb. Let the record show that this is an utterly unsatisfying user interface.
As for the rest of the driving dynamics: the good news is that GM has finally gotten beyond its traditional no-feel power steering. The bad news is that GM didn't get very far beyond it. The Malibu's steering gear seems to have a centering spring or a detent of some sort, so that when you move it off dead center there's some tactile sensation, though it's unrelated to what the front tires are actually doing. Once you've rotated the wheel about ten or fifteen degrees to either side, the Novocain cuts in and, as the Everly Brothers might have put it, you've lost that steerin' feelin', now it's gone.
The suspension tuning is family-car soft, favoring ride over handling. The Malibu soaks up most of the bumps rather well, but there are some strange inconsistencies. On older asphalt you can distinctly feel the "tire tracks"--those shallow strips on either side of the lane which traffic has worn down. Apart from that, you're very much isolated from the road, almost too isolated.
This makes spirited driving on squiggly roads a bit of a letdown. The car has no obvious handling vices, the roadholding is adequate, and it does go where you point it in spite of the steering gear. It will go charging through the twisties, but it's not happy about it and it makes sure you know that.
So how do I sum it up? On the plus side, it's a competent car, properly assembled, with no deal-breaking deficiencies. Given GM's history over the last forty or fifty years, that's no small thing. If they had somehow found a way to offer a car this well executed in 1980 or even 1990, there would never have been a bailout.
Thing is, guys, it's not 1980 (or even 1990) any more, and by modern standards the Malibu comes up short.
My strongest impression of the car is that it's a frustrating mashup of good with mediocre. There are elements to the design (like the dashboard ) where it's clear that the person responsible gave 110% and left nothing on the field. Those are right next to other things (like the door panels) that were either phoned in from the start or dumbed down by the bean counters. The Malibu gives off such an unmistakable air of "close enough for government work" that it's hard for me to believe that this is the same car that had the buff books and pistonhead websites cheering so wildly back in 2007 when it first hit the streets. You can see a dozen or more places where a little more attention to detail would have turned the car into something far better.
In today's world, where even low-end Hyundais and Kias have an air of competence all out of proportion to their MSRP, merely attaining "close enough for government work" is not going to be close to good enough.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner