Context is everything. Because TTAC has never tried to operate as another entry in the press-car sweepstakes, our context for the industry tends to be based more on news from the business end of things than on a regular sampling of the latest vehicles to hit the market. This basic truth about our perspective goes a long way towards explaining our obsession with the travails of the domestic car industry, and the resulting accusations that we are institutionally biased against Detroit. If we do harbor such biases (and our commitment to the truth won’t let us pretend that true objectivity exists anywhere), it is because we are products of the steady flow of bad news that has bled out of Detroit for the past decades. But this is no excuse: we owe it to you, our readers, to be ever mindful of our own shortcomings. With this in mind, I set out on a quiet weekday afternoon in search of more real-world context about the automaker we are most often accused of harboring bias against.
To be perfectly honest, I actually set out to drive a Buick LaCrosse in order to get a little more context for my forthcoming road test of the Buick Regal. After an unsuccessful five minutes at my nearest Buick dealer, the worst prejudices of my TTAC-bred GM worldview were only confirmed. Mired in dealer arbitration, this Buick showroom was a ghost town populated only by one LaCrosse, one Pontiac Solstice, one friendly receptionist and one profoundly depressed and antagonistic “salesman.” Caught between “Old GM” and oblivion (thanks to ongoing dealer cull arbitration), it was impossible to begrudge the dealer a little depression or blame GM itself for my unsavory experience with him. Still, as anyone’s mother will tell you, courtesy costs nothing, and you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
After the rudeness and crushing sense of defeat and uncertainty at the Buick dealer, and not immediately knowing the location of the next nearest un-culled (or not) Tri-Shield peddler, I made tracks for a centrally-located Chevy dealership. Posing as a potential Malibu customer, I was quickly introduced to a friendly, personable salesman who ushered me to a waiting 2LT-trimmed ‘bu.
Because of TTAC’s belief in the importance of sampling vehicles as they’re available on dealer lots, I’ve lied to more car salesmen than I care to think about in order to get time behind the wheel. Suffice it to say that this was the first time I’ve ever felt bad about the subterfuge. This guy was that good. As unscientific as the sample size was, these two visits proved in dramatic fashion that GM is neither “good” nor “bad,” but a company of contrasts: in terms of dealer experience anyway, true excellence exists just down the road from abject misery.
And so it is with GM’s cars. The handsome Malibu I drove was nestled between those two icons of “old GM,” the Cobalt and Impala, and the contrast could hardly have been more dramatic: the Malibu’s clean, graceful lines made it look like the single name-brand interloper on a shelf filled with off-brand crap. If, as some industry types like to suggest, the car business is no different than the fashion business, the Malibu would be GM’s best-selling car hands-down. In reality though, it’s been consistently outsold by the Impala, and those styling-über-alles insiders are superficial fools. So much for looks then.
Settled inside the Malibu, the favorable impressions continue. Having been previously turned off the ‘bu’s interior by the garish top-spec LTZ trim’s two-tone interior, the 2LT was a refreshing, if somewhat more somber reintroduction. Acres of softish black plastic isn’t everyone’s cup of 10W-30, but it conceals the occasionally awkward intersections of dash/console panels and uninspiring material texture pattern far better than the lighter-colored interior options. As a result, the design comes across as less busy, and the overall impression of quality is much improved.
The 2LT’s power-adjustable, heated driver’s seat is a comfortable place to spend time, with only a slight feeling of shoulder-up claustrophobia compared to the more generous real estate offered by competitors. Ergonomics are similarly up-to-snuff, offering far more intuitive controls than the button-jammed IPs of other latter-day Chevy offerings. Despite getting a leather-wrapped steering wheel with the 2LT trim level, the steering wheel is the only real disappointment lurking in the Malibu’s front row. Tiller-mounted audio and cruise control switches are densely clustered and take time to learn, and the wheel itself felt small, slightly loose and generally detracted from the overall quality impression.
Similarly, the rear seats seem like almost an afterthought compared to the well-appointed front row. Low seat height, a relatively narrow bench,and unsupportive seating make for a poor combination, and the contrast here with the Impala is unmistakable. Sure, the suede-alike seat inserts look and feel nice, but the impression of quality doesn’t approach the level of the preconception-banishing cockpit. Here’s hoping that GM’s success in the rear-seat-obsessed Chinese market eventually leads to improvements in the US-market Malibu. A D-Segment sedan should be designed to satisfy and impress more than just the driver and front passenger.
This is doubly true, given how refined the Malibu’s ride is. The interior is quiet and rattle-free, and the suspension wafts with well-damped grace, unsettled only by direct pothole strikes and some tire rumble on poor surfaces. Though tuned for comfort, the ‘bu’s suspension feels well-poised, and and keeps the driver feeling in control at all times. Perhaps too in-control: the super-light electric power steering feels effortless in the parking lot, but almost silly-overboosted at speed. Feedback may be AWOL, but at least there’s no attempt to hide the fact with confusing, artificial wheel feedback. This test didn’t provide an opportunity to tackle much in the way of curves, but nothing indicates that a perception-altering experience was missed.
On the other hand, GM’s 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine did impress greatly. Thanks to a low first gear, the four-pot Malibu covers up a weak-ish tip-in, and quickly reaches peak torque. By the time it reaches 160 lb-ft at 4500 RPMs, the engine provides surprisingly generous shove, accompanied by a muted, grinding growl reminiscent of gas direct injection engines. Performance would best be called adequate, but refinement lives up to the Malibu’s overall impression of quality.
The autobox’s six speeds make up for a lack of rev-happiness, and encourages a fuel-efficient driving style defined by brisk acceleration and easy light-throttle coasting. The major downside here is that the drivetrain tries to be too efficient for its own good: approaching a yellowing light while cruising at light throttle, the right foot didn’t find the torque needed to effortlessly power through until it was on the floor and the transmission got the hint. This would have been more disconcerting if the Malibu’s brakes weren’t strong, consistent and confidence-inspiring.
For around $27,000 including an uprated, USB port-equipped stereo, this Malibu 2LT seems like the kind of car that should be driving GM’s sales as well as its image as an automaker that can build competitive mass-market cars when it puts its mind to it. Strangely though, the Malibu hasn’t convincingly outsold its far less competitive predecessor, let alone its double-cheeseburger-value-meal Impala cousin. This is all the more surprising considering that GM is offering $3,000 cashback on the image-busting sedan.
Context gained, it’s impossible to not be impressed by both the Malibu and my random sample of the Chevy dealer experience. Still, the bad old Buick dealer and the Malibu’s lamentable lot-mates, as well as the few niggling annoyances with the ‘bu itself were enough to give pause. GM execs have recently taken to publicly stating the goal of “making every new model a home run,” a line that inevitably draws some eye-rolling from longtime GM watchers. But the Malibu and its context really reinforce the seeming truism. It’s a truly good car, especially by the standards of past GM sedans, but it needs a context that quells any fear that this quality might be a mere fluke. Unfortunately, it appears that the already old-school Impala will still be providing context to the Malibu, even after the ‘bu’s planned 2013 redesign. Even with more refinement and development, the Malibu will still be judged in its context. Nothing can escape its context.
General Motors and TTAC’s long-standing animosity provided the psycho-drama and digressions for this review.