The General’s Chevrolet Malibu LS won this competition versus the Chrysler Sebring LX and Ford Fusion S because it’s a complete car with no manifest weaknesses. For less than $18K, I could have driven away from the Chevy dealership in the only vehicle capable of going head to head with the very best entry level cars in its class. In a prior competition, I compared the Honda Accord LX, Toyota Camry (base model), Nissan Altima 2.5 and Mazda Mazda6i Sport. Neither the dismally shameful Sebring nor the uninspired Fusion compares well to even the weakest of these Japanese models. On the other hand, this Malibu fully deserves serious consideration by cost conscious consumers.
The mission of the new Chevrolet Malibu is to fight, penetrating the market dominated by Camcords. Designing the seventh-generation Malibu to be more attractive than its predecessor was, let’s face it, an easy task. The unfortunate design made the old Malibu look like a fat guy who carries his weight low on his abdomen so that it bulges out below his belt. All the engineers had to do: strike the heavy chrome band across the Gen 6 ug-mobile’s front below the bug-eyed headlights and above the bumper. The worst that can be said for the new Bu is that it might be bland. On the other hand, you could say the conservative look saves it from the gaffes Toyota and Honda made with the latest Camrys and Accords.
Malibu’s front-end carries Cadillac’s bone structure without the harsh edges and up-market bling. Otherwise, the new ’Bu’s expansive steeply raked windshield, expansive door panels under small sidelights, and beefy rear quarters are positively Lexusian. Of the three cars in this comparison, the Malibu is the only one with standard alloy wheels and exclusive touring tires, which helps make the Chevrolet Malibu look like it costs $10K more than it does.
The attractive classic lines carry over to Malibu’s inner confines. The Chevy’s switches and buttons have the look and feel of those found in the current Camry. That is not really a compliment. But it does indicate that the equipment is class-compliant. Front seats are comfortable and the grippy fabric offers decent lateral support. Again, the driver’s seat is the only of these three cars with standard power adjustment. Just be careful of the low bridge when you are climbing in and out of the car.
The Malibu is unabashedly tuned for comfort, floating over bumps the way creamy salad dressing pours over lettuce. My preference is normally for a chassis that feels a little more athletic, but Malibu’s ride is so well-refined that I had to give it top honors in this test over competitors that neither regally waft nor sportingly bob and weave. While the Chevrolet Malibu exhibited a bit more roll than the Ford Fusion, GM engineers have done a superb job quelling most unwanted motions. The ’Bu is nothing you would want to take to the track, but it does deliver safe and predictable handling.
The base Malibu is powered by GM’s LE5 Ecotec engine. The 2.4-liter DOHC mill utilized variable intake and exhaust valve timing to flatten the torque curve. Mated to GM’s workmanlike four-speed automatic transmission, which isn’t as primitive in the real world as it looks on paper, the car eeks past the Ford for power, while quietly delivering the best gas mileage of the three. The EPA predicts a thrifty 22 mpg in town and up to 30 mpg on the highway. (Buyers must pony up for Chevy’s optional six-speed cog swapper to realize the Malibu’s oft-advertised 32 mpg.)
When I coldly plug numbers for all seven entry level Japanese and American sedans that I have tested into the simple, non-scientific, rank-based evaluation tool I use, the Sebring stinks things up in dead last, well behind everyone else. The Fusion takes sixth place well ahead of the Sebring but posing no threat at surpassing the rest of the pack. Only three points separate the Accord, Altima and Camry in third, fourth and fifth places, respectively.
Surprisingly, the Mazda6 takes second closely behind the Malibu LS. This demonstrates a flaw in my un-weighted system. I would much sooner buy the Mazda because it is so much sportier to drive. To my 4-valve, 4-chamber, 1 hp (human power) pistonhead heart, this is worth more to me than the demerits the Mazda receives for having relatively a poor ride and gas mileage.
Nonetheless, I scored the Malibu in first or second place in six of ten evaluative categories; it did not rank last or next to last in any. In the final analysis, comfort-minded drivers will choose the strong-showing Malibu while those of us desiring a little more pizzazz in our commute will give a nod to the Mazda6.