2012 Chevrolet Malibu- Finally, A Car That’s Found Its Place In The World

Manufacturers love to name boring cars after exciting places.  The Dodge Monaco, Mercury Monterey, Kia Rio, Suzuki Verona, and Chevy Corsica come to mind.  They may be fascinating destinations, but all of those cars  have the sex appeal of a rainy Wednesday in Buffalo.  The Corsica’s replacement, the Malibu, faced a similar problem when it debuted in 1997.  The town of Malibu is known for its 27 miles of sandy beaches and being home to many of Hollywood’s movie stars.  That four-door family sedan didn’t quite conjure up mental images of such an upscale area.

Now, don’t think that I have a grudge against the Malibu.  On the contrary, I personally have a soft spot for the car.  My parents had a 1999 Malibu while I was in college and the car proved to be reliable and served its intended purpose as a family hauler well.  I grew to really like the car and it became my vehicle of choice to cruise around in.  However, my folks didn’t quite warm up to it and I ended up driving it more than they did.  Why?  In the generic white color that it was graced in, the only thing missing on our Malibu was a city or public works logo on the side.  It wasn’t exciting to look at, and if my parents were to ever visit Buffalo, they would be reminded of that car.

But this Malibu is different from the dowdy one we had.  It’s the seventh generation that debuted in 2008 under the direction of GM Vice Chairman and car guru, Bob Lutz.  It was to be as good as the Japanese competitors and was awarded the highly revered title of North American Car of the Year.

Now in its fifth model year and about to be replaced by an all-new model, the current Malibu still looks good.  The car has a striking profile with a muscular front grill, a bulbous and sharply creased hood, flowing lines along the greenhouse that lead into a thick, sharply angled rear roof pillar complete with tasteful touches of chrome throughout.   The only aesthetic touch that I feel is questionable is the rear of the car- it ends abruptly and the tailights don’t seem to adhere with the rest of the car’s styling theme.  They look like an afterthought.  To compensate, the rear license plate surround has chrome trim and adds a touch of class to the back side.  The midsize market is full of dull cars, and this was one of the first models to break the generic mold.

Inside the car is as compelling as the exterior.  A dual cowl dash design flows from the doors and down into the center console- cocooning the front seat occupants.  It’s an attractive cabin and shows some creativity without being distracting.  In front of the driver is a grippy three-spoke steering wheel that tilts and telescopes and frames bright green gauges housed in deep binnacles that are clear and prominent making them very easy to read. 

Along with supportive bucket seats that have aggressive side bolstering and lumbar support, it’s a very comfortable driving position.  Thick roof pillars and a high window sill create a claustrophobic feel though.  Leg room is abundant front and rear but headroom, in a word, is tight.  Taller passengers will be forced to look down at their knees.  It’s the price to pay for the sleek style.  Entry and exit are also compromised due to a low roof clearance, potentially causing some bruised noggins (and pride). 

 The radio and ventilation controls are well-marked, intuitive, and straightforward to operate.  Storage space is abundant with large door pockets housing cupholders and the rear passengers are provided both storage in the doors and map pockets on the back of the front seats.  The center console cover retracts with a press of a lever to reveal cupholders, but feels flimsy and like it’ll eventually where out.  Near the base of the windshield is another handy storage area perfect for sunglasses and easily within the driver’s reach.  The cabin is a mixed bag of materials- the top of the dash and the console are cloaked in high quality, soft-touch plastics, but the doors and the underside of the dash are covered in hard, low-rent materials.  That being said, most of the surfaces customers will touch feel pleasing and upscale. The cabin is extremely quiet and also exudes a feeling of solidity.  Only a little bit of tire roar can be heard at higher speeds.  Wind and engine noise are impressively well muted.

Driving the Malibu is a pleasant experience.  The 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine develops 169 horsepower and never felt out of breath.  It’s a smooth running engine and is strong enough to haul the hefty 3600 lb. car over mountain grades without feeling lethargic.  Off the line it felt sprightly and only when passing on country roads did it ever feel sluggish.

Part of the blame for that goes to the 6-speed automatic transmission.  It’s smooth and non-intruisve in its operation.  Shifts are almost invisible and it’s well matched to the engine.  It’s only when a downshift is needed that it feels somewhat hesitant, making the car seem less potent when power is needed.  It’s probably geared this way to maximize fuel economy but changes the energetic demeanor of the car under full throttle.

The ride is firm without being harsh and doesn’t feel cushy either.  It’s a well tuned MacPherson strut and 4-link setup that absorbs most bumps well.  Only a major pothole would upset the Malibu’s passengers.

Handling is compliant and the car feels stable during tight turns.  There’s a slight touch of oversteer and a little bit tail swinging, but nothing too serious.  However, the 17 in. Firestone tires scream bloody murder in any manuever faster than at parking lot speeds.  They squeal like the race cars in “San Francisco Rush” through any tight cornering.  If you’re looking to make an entrance and be heard- these are the tires to get.  Sound effects aside, handling is safe, secure, and well-planted.  Steering feel is a tad numb on center, but there’s still enough communication to inspire confidence.

On a downside, the turning circle on the Malibu is huge.  Parking in tight spots could pose a problem and there were several times a two-point turn was needed.  Also, as a result of the styling, the thick rear roof pillars and long rear shelf create impaired rear visibility when reversing.  Luckily the side mirrors are large and provide a decent view. 

Another victim of form over function was the trunk.  The 15.1 cu ft. capacity is good for this class, but the short trunk lid creates a small opening.  Large objects would be difficult to squeeze in.  Luckily, Chevy invested in scissor-hinged gas struts to utilize as much space as possible.  The back seat folds down 60/40.

Fuel economy is very impressive for a family car.  The EPA rates this Malibu at 22mpg city/33 highway.  In a mix of driving I averaged 28mpg, but achieved an astonishing 37mpg during a 200 mile freeway run.  At freeway speeds, the engine rpms hover around 2000 and the engine isn’t straining to move this car.  It’s reflected with those fuel consumption results.

The Malibu I tested was in the LS trim and had an MSRP of $24,230.  Since a new model is coming out in the coming weeks, rebates are high and dealer’s will be anxious to get the car off their lots.  There are bargains to be had and GM is openly pushing a $3,000 discount at this time.  This car is a good value for that price.

The model I tested had 12k miles on it and there were no noticeable quality issues. 

One of my favorite hobbies as a Disney fanatic is to spot “Hidden Mickeys” at the Disneyland Resort.  For the readers who are unaware of this term- throughout the park are latent shapes that form mouse ears.  They’re not obvious until you look for them.  The Malibu is all about what I call “hidden bowties.”  In the tailamps, headlights, parking lights and probably other places I couldn’t find are ambiguous Chevy symbols.  It doesn’t make the car any better, but it’s just a fun little detail.

The Malibu’s main purpose in life is to carry families and their gear.  It compromises a lot of space and utility in the name of style.  It looks fantastic, drives nicely, and is very fuel-efficient, but could fall short of what families are really looking for.  Overall, it gets 3.5/5.0 boomerangs.

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