Exterior photography by Rachel Gibbs
What did the American people get for the fifty billion dollars they spent and the eleven billion they lost on the General Motors bailout? Well, they got stability, they got the retention of perhaps a million jobs, they avoided what might have been a last straw in what a posterity unblinded by the contemporaneous media’s Obama-as-messiah drumbeat will recognize as the greatest depression since the Great one, and they got the C7 Corvette.
All good things, if you ask me.
But they also got garbage like this.
I thought the original Malibu was pretty okay. Its replacement, I felt, was worse, but I held out the possibility that a round of 2014-model-year changes might improve the situation somewhat. It has to be said that General Motors did a good job of getting its tame mouthpieces to spread the word about the “new” Eco drivetrain being just as efficient as the old-for-2013 edition despite the fact that it loses eAssist in favor of a simple stop-start system. For that reason I thought that perhaps the 2014 Malibu wouldn’t be a disaster.
Well, here’s the good news up front, for what it’s worth: I couldn’t get the 2013 Malibu LTZ four-cylinder to exceed 27mpg average. The 2015 Malibu Eco LS that I drove from Columbus to Evansville, IN and back did this:
over this distance:
That’s approximately what I saw in a 2014 Accord EX-L CVT. It’s not a surprise that General Motors, a company which has focused on the raw numbers when measuring competitiveness to a sometimes embarrassing extent, (cf.: the ads for the Pontiac 6000 where they compared it with the BMW 533i) has managed to come within striking distance of Honda’s four-cylinder fuel economy. It’s also not a surprise that the experience of operating the Malibu powertrain is, subjectively speaking, monstrously unpleasant in contrast to the Accord setup.
On the move, the Malibu is spectacularly gutless, digging deep into the transmission with a herk and a jerk for the mildest grades. The Accord four is a rocketship compared to this. I’m not going to say it’s dangerously slow because it isn’t. However, we’ve come to take a certain amount of, shall we say, adjustability via the throttle in a modern car. As in: “If this merge is dicey I can jam the throttle and just get in front of this truck.” In the Malibu, you won’t have that adjustability. You’d better plan ahead. Not like you would in a 240D, but like you would in a three-liter Taurus from 1995. If your current car is an old four-cylinder Malibu, you’re unlikely to have any complaints. If it’s a four-cylinder Camry of recent vintage, you’re going to be unpleasantly surprised.
Everyone else will be unpleasantly surprised by the unbelievably cack-handed stop-start. Whatever nonsense you thought about stop-start when you first heard about in reference to the Insight or Prius or AMG E63 wagon or whatever — it isn’t reliable, it takes a bit of time to start, it’s noisy, it sounds like you’re wearing the car out — is actually true in the case of the Malibu Eco.
Most of the time, coming to a halt in the ‘Bu will cause the engine to fall dead and the tach needle to fall to “auto stop”. So far so good and other than a discernible drop in the efficacy of the A/C there’s not much about which you could complain. Release the brakes and the engine immediately spins up and delivers power, and off you go.
That’s how it works in other cars.
In the Malibu it goes WHIRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEAAARRRRRRRRGH and the engine reluctantly coughs into life like a freakin’ 1982 Citation Iron Duke and the car briefly shudders with the violence of it and THEN the car moves forward. It’s easily the least confidence-inspiring powertrain I’ve experienced in a post-Millennium automobile. In what should be perfect weather for this sort of system — eighty degrees and sunny — I had genuine concerns that the Malibu just wouldn’t come back to life at a given stop. Performing left turns across traffic and whatnot were made frightening, so I developed the “Malibu Pokey”:
You put your right foot in
You take your right foot out
It makes the stop-start start up
and run the engine
That’s what it’s all about!
As satisfying as the Malibu Pokey was while driving around downtown Louisville, I resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t do it very often because it wouldn’t let the Chevrolet post its best possible fuel economy. Left turns became exciting again.
The removal of the eAssist from the Malibu Eco was supposed to give us the trunk back, but if that’s the case I’d hate to see what it was like before. This has to be the smallest trunk in a mid-sized car by some amount; it’s significantly less useful than the cargo area in my Accord Coupe and the Altima I drove immediately after this Malibu shamed it in that regard. A normal-sized guitar hard case fits very awkwardly in this Malibu, to the point that I gave up and started putting everything in the back seat. I was willing to accept the old Malibu’s restricted storage room because I dug the minimalist aesthetic of the whole car, but this thing is to its predecessor like a ’77 Colonnade Monte Carlo is to a ’68 Chevelle, styling-wise. GM Design pulled out all the Malaise stops on this indifferently flame-surfaced disaster and the result is an odd combination of a Silverado, a Camaro, and a Pinewood Derby car. It literally couldn’t have any more front end on it, likely because GM wanted it to share “design DNA” with the trucks, and therefore it tapers to the back like one of those nightmare lantern-jaw fish of the unfathomable deep.
Things don’t improve once you get inside, particularly at night, where the trademark “GM Aqua LCD” color is extended to some, ahem, mood lighting. The General’s managed to do something unprecedented in human history: they’ve managed to make a color feel cheap. After well over two decades of indifferently-backlit aqua-esque instrument panels in cars that committed sins from subterranean resale value all the way to attempted-murder-via-ignition-switch-was-the-case-that-they-gave-me, the use of this color should require a “trigger warning” on the door jamb.
The seats are uncomfortable, the steering’s dead, the brakes are touchy, and everything you touch in this LS variant has the mark of cost-cutting Cain all over it.
In other words, this heavily-revised Malibu is significantly less pleasant to operate than an old Cruze. I cannot imagine than anybody would test-drive this and Ye Olde Daewoo Laecetti back-to-back and pick this. I cannot imagine that anybody would test-drive this and an Altima, Camry, or Accord back-to-back and pick this. I have no idea why anybody would buy this car. As tested, it’s $23,165. For that money you can get any number of decent cars, including a Cruze 2LT. If you can wait a few months, you can get the revised Cruze, even. Or you could take advantage of whatever incentives can be had now and you can buy a Cruze LTZ. There is no way in which a Cruze LTZ is not preferable to this Malibu.
That’s disappointing as hell because the Cruze is a Daewoo, excuse me, GM Korea, and the Malibu is a product of the home team and it’s a half-decade newer. We should be able to do better. We can do better. Go try out a C7 Corvette. It’s brilliant in ways I can’t describe without sounding like Dan Neil desperately firing the third spasm of the day into his battered thesaurus. Go check out a Cadillac ATS. The interior’s cramped and sucky but they’ve completely cracked the handling code. Take a look at a current Tahoe; it’s the finest, fastest, most spacious station wagon in history.