It looks like the Malibu is finally outselling the Impala. There’s been a lot of discussion, here on TTAC and elsewhere, as to why that hasn’t been the case all along. After all, the Malibu is the shining example of New GM’s ability to compete on an even footing in the marketplace with relevant, modern product, while the Impala was originally engineered in 1986 and has an interior made entirely of recycled Tupperware. Every “car person” in your life, from the neighbor kid who drives a slammed Civic EX Coupe to your IMSA Patron GT3 Cup-racing podiatrist, knows the Malibu is the smart choice.
I’ve been driving GM10 and W-body cars since I first rented a 1990 Cutlass Supreme sedan for a Spring Break trip (to Chicago, dammit, not Daytona Beach) twenty years ago, and I know them pretty well. It had been a while since I’d driven a ‘Bu, however, so I snagged an el-cheapo 1LT 2.4L/six-speed from Budget Rent-A-Car and put 1100 miles on it over the course of four days. Perhaps the Malibu would explain to me why it hasn’t left its ancient showroom mate in the dust.
This is the basic Malibu interior. The materials and execution aren’t terribly different from what you would find in the base Fusion. There’s that same combination of dark-grey plastic and silver-finish accent, but the Malibu is more obviously “designed”.
This is the Impala interior. It’s clearly from a different school of design. What stands out to me is that the Malibu interior, combined with the significantly more narrow passenger compartment, works to “envelop” the occupant. The Impala, by contrast, offers far more room to maneuver one’s body. When properly seated and adjusted in the vehicle, neither car impinges on me personally (I’m 6’2″ and 225lbs) but the Malibu doesn’t give me the impression of room to spare, while the Impala does. The same is true of the back seat; the Malibu has enough room, while the Impala has more than enough.
One particular gripe about the way the Malibu “fits”: the rather fast windshield line brings the intersection of the roof and windshield uncomfortably close to my head. It doesn’t touch, it isn’t really cramped, it just feels cramped.
Now let’s talk transmissions. The Malibu’s standard 2.4L/six-speed tranny combo is just fine for very slow-paced driving, and it returns more than 30mpg any time you’re on the freeway. Up the pace a bit, and it becomes easily confused. I ended up really disliking this transmission over the course of a few days running around downtown Toronto. It’s almost always in the wrong gear and the throttle/gearchange synchronization is miserable, leading to bucking and odd behavior on the fly.
The Impala has two fewer gears and benefits from base and optional engines that deliver much more torque than the Malibu’s. As a result, there’s less transmission work going on and it’s rarely confused on the move. The Malibu has less wind noise, while the Impala is mechanically quieter. Your choice.
Nobody’s going to buy a Malibu for cargo room, that’s for sure. Trunk space is another Impala strong suit, as is trunk access through a decklid that is longer and taller than than of the smaller Chevrolet. The Impala is just large enough to be a cramped police car and/or taxi, which opens it up to fleet and municipal sales opportunities denied the Malibu.
I prefer the far more modern stying of the Malibu; it just looks so much more modern in its proportions and detailing. The revised Impala isn’t hideous, however, merely generic in a kind of previous-gen-Accord way. I liked the previous model better, style-wise, but this one is okay, and your opinion may differ.
In the real world, the cars are priced pretty closely. There’s almost always more money on the hood of the Impala, and when you correct for equipment (V6 et al) the Impala is probably cheaper. If you’re simply looking for the proverbial most car for the money, don’t bother with the Malibu.
Let’s sum up. In the Impala’s corner, we have
- More spacious
- More cargo room
- More standard power
- Mechanically quieter
In the Malibu’s, we have
- Far more “modern” inside and out
- Better fuel economy
- Available four-cylinder and six-speed transmissions
I would also suggest that the Impala will be more reliable in the long run, being made of simpler components that have seen far more real-world mileage. When we look at the lists above, it seems to be to be a conflict of tangible versus intangible. The Impala has more and does more, but the Malibu is simply better somehow.
I have a few theories about why the Impala refuses to fade away.
Theory #1: The Malibu is designed to appeal to “import intenders”. Those people end up buying imports. The Impala is designed to appeal to “domestic intenders”. Those people end up buying an Impala.
Theory #2: The design superiority of the Malibu doesn’t impress people as much as automotive journalists think it should. Real buyers prefer interior space to Motor Trend’s endorsement.
Theory #3: The Impala has been a generally decent car for a long time, and it’s been more or less the same car for over a decade. The Malibu was a dead nameplate before being resurrected on a straight-to-rental yawner and a chrome-faced oddity. It will take a few years for the nameplate equity to come back.
Of the three theories, only #3 helps explain why the Malibu is finally pulling away from the Impala in the sales race. I’d be interested in hearing your theories, but I suspect it comes down to this: No matter what the people from the color rags and big websites say, people will still buy the product that appeals to them. For better or worse, the Impala continues to appeal. You can call it a case of stupid flyover country hillbillies buying the crappy old throwback, or you can call it a case of smart consumers buying a tried-and-true product with their hard-earned money, but it’s still a case of consumers making their own decisions. How can that be bad?