Rental Review: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
rental review 2013 chevrolet malibu ltz

Well. How to begin? Perhaps by pointing to a positive review for the Malibu 2.0t from our own Michael Karesh. Alternately, I could refer you to a four-star recommendation for this car’s predecessor from illustrious former E-I-C, Ed Niedermeyer. I want you to understand that there are people on our editorial staff, including Derek, who have good, solid, well-founded, nice things to say about the Malibu. And why not? We’re out of the GM Deathwatch business now. There’s no longer anybody in the TTAC virtual office angling for a job with the Republican Party, General Motors itself, or some improbable combination of the two. I, personally, believe that GM is in the business of building outstanding automobiles, from the outgoing Tahoe in which I recently spent a few pleasant days as a passenger in New Mexico to the Corvette C7 I thrashed around the Road&Track “Motown Mile” last month.

But this rented 2013 Malibu LTZ, on which I recently moved the odometer from 14,010 to 14,574 miles in the course of a Midwestern day trip, isn’t even close to outstanding.

Let’s start by noting that there’s already a 2014 Malibu available, which offers a variety of detail improvements over the car I just drove. Autoblog confidently says that the 2014 Malibu “does the Camry thing better than the Camry does right now”, which I feel confident in dismissing as the sort of PR-pampering-fueled twaddle that ensures shortlist positioning on the next Cadillac trip to that Dubai indoor-skiing place. Some dealers have the 2014 in stock, but there’s still plenty of the old model to go around, with a $2,500 rebate and other incentives to ensure that the approximately $29,875 MSRP will be knocked down to at least the $25K range.

Before discussing the Malibu’s redeeming qualities, I might as well go through a list of things I hated about the car. Sit down, this is going to take a minute. Some of them will be rightly characterized as “trivial” by the Malibu’s defenders; others will be problematic for everyone.

  • If you’re too cheap to buy keyless entry, you’ll be given an ignition tumbler/key combination that places the key right where your right knee would like to go. In a crash, this would be more than a little painful. At all other times, it simply makes moving around in the car during long drives troubling. I drove from Powell, Ohio to Winchester, Kentucky and back (about 450 miles) without much of a stop and by the time I came to a halt I was completely sick of that ignition key’s desire to violate my kneecap.
  • In the name of cheapness, the automatic transmission “PRNDL” display to the left of the shifter is mechanical, not electronic. Because GM can’t help their urge to gimmick-up the car, the display is geared or mechanically scaled somehow, so that moving the shifter doesn’t exactly correlate to changing the display. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll notice it when you drive the Malibu. It also makes selecting “R” or “D” in a hurry troublesome because the detents in the shift motion appear to be out of sync with what the display is doing.
  • Placing a pizza and a two-liter bottle of soda on the passenger seat activates the seatbelt chime.
  • The position of the left-side temp knob guarantees that you’ll hit it when you move your knee to avoid hitting the ignition key. The HVAC system itself is remarkably uncouth and appears unable to summon impressive heat or cooling. Noise, however, is not in short supply when the fan winds up.
  • There’s a (presumably better) Pioneer nine-speaker sound system available as an option, but the base stereo is weak and muddy all at once. It’s remarkably poor by modern sedan standards.
  • My admittedly formidable 18,023-song iPod Classic proved to be almost unusable with the MyLink system, requiring up to ten minutes of indexing every time the car was started before any music would be available. A full index never occurred; during three hours of continuous operation, the MyLink climbed to 10,000 songs exactly and quit. When the Malibu was restarted, it locked-up the iPod, requiring a reset of the iPod and another indexing session. To be fair, Bluetooth integration was excellent and hands-free phone conversations were pleasant for all involved.
  • I don’t know how a color can feel cheap, but the blue-green illumination used in this Malibu somehow manages the trick. Although the interior itself has some interesting and respectable materials, (not to include the bizarre five-slot fake grille that sweeps across from door vent to door vent) the lighting is straight out of an old Cavalier or Grand Am.
  • Pressing the unlock key on the remote causes the Chevrolet to emit a chittering noise from the rear taillights that approximates the infamous “dead battery click” and therefore causes those of us with years’ worth of experience in mechanically compromised used cars to shudder briefly.
  • The cruise-control rocker switch is unforgivably crap-feeling and belongs on a ten-dollar handheld video game from the Eighties. No big deal except you will, you know, use it pretty much every day of your life.
  • The power-window switches for the passenger windows “click” like they have auto-up. They don’t. Every time you try it, you’ll feel just a little bit of disappointment.
  • It’s possible to change the idling speed of the engine by holding the aforementioned window switches up after the windows have closed. This is just one of the ways in which this Malibu is surprisingly reminiscent of a ’93 Tempo.

I could go on. And I will. About just one more little thing that serves as a nice little metaphor for the vehicle as a whole. Here’s the infotainment stack:

What’s that slider underneath the MyLink display do? Let’s find out:

Whoa. This is one of those showroom-customer-shocker features for which dealer principals across the nation are continually begging. And its true that you could fit all sorts of fun things in there: your wallet, a small-caliber pistol, a half-kilogram of cocaine, your house keys. It’s just a great idea. But the execution isn’t good. The hinges are weak, the fold-up screen feels flimsy and doesn’t click back into place convincingly. Also, doing it repeatedly can lock up your iPod. It’s hard to shake the feeling that, one of the times you pull this party trick, the whole thing’s going to break. Not a bad idea, but it should have been fully-baked before release.

We might as well get the rear seat space issue out of the way. I’m told by automotive journalists that the short wheelbase and concurrent cramped back seat of the 2013 Malibu was an unavoidable consequence of moving to a new platform that happened to have a shorter wheelbase. Remember, GM is the same company that built a long-wheelbase Cadillac SLS for the Chinese after the tame journos repeatedly told us that the pathetic rear seat of the SLS/STS was an unavoidable consequence of platform blah blah. Color me unconvinced. The Malibu is effectively the same size on the inside as the Cruze, which means that one of the two is probably a redundant product. So what. I don’t normally drive adults around in the back seat of my car anyway. However, I do take a child seat around:

That’s with the front seat about halfway forward, so that a 5’8″ woman would be only barely comfortable in it. However, I think the kid’s hamming it up a bit.

Better, but not much. I can make more room than this in my Porsche 993 if I’m willing to make the front passenger suffer a bit.

My long I-75 trip in the LTZ showed off the Chevy’s greatest strength: its quiet, compliant, trouble-free demeanor on divided highways. This is what Chevrolets were once expected to do in the Biscayne era and there are no disappointments here. It’s the one area where you get your money’s worth and it’s the one area where it really does outdo the Camry and Fusion. You can have conversations with all the passengers at 80mph and none of them will need to raise her voice. And it rides at least as well as the Camry and slightly better than the Fusion. This is probably all wheel/tire/package dependent, but that’s my impression.

The 196-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder makes good numbers in theory, but in the real world it’s a bit of a disaster. It’s slow pretty much all the time. Even during a long freeway trip, the ‘Bu never self-reported more than 29 miles per gallon, eventually settling in the 27-mpg range. With any acceleration input, even going up mild hills, the instant mileage fell off the face of the earth:

The claimed mileage at the end of my trip was a 26.5mpg average. In those same situations, on that same trip, my Town Car returns 22.1 and my Boxster S thinks it’s getting 27.5. Where’s the payoff for this mouse motor?

Perhaps the transmission is to blame; it’s without a doubt the most stupid self-shifter I’ve driven lately. It continuously throws incompetent, jarring change-downs in during deceleration. Ironic, since GM was the first company to make the shift-to-high during off-throttle standard equipment, way back before I was born. Whatever the Malibu is supposedly doing better than the Camry, shifting ain’t it. It should be noted that other TTAC testers reported a better experience with the higher-capacity automatic used in the Turbo. I believe that one is the combined GM/Ford transmission; I believe this one is the combined Daewoo/Daewoo transmission. I didn’t drop it out from under the car, so I can’t say for sure.

I liked the looks of the previous Malibu: clean, distinctive, tasteful, unique. It was the ’68 A-Body of FWD mid-sizers. Well, this one’s the Colonnade. Seriously. It looks like nothing so much as a ’77 Monte Carlo, from the bluff front end and wavy-gravy bonnet to the overwrought hippy hindquarters. At least the Monte had a graceful tail, which this does not. Styling analysis here at TTAC is properly done by Sajeev Mehta so I’ll shut up on this, but not before I note that I cannot think of a single visual aspect of this automobile that improves on its predecessor.

It’s hard to make any argument for the hapless Chevrolet. Aesthetically, it is repugnant. Operationally, it is deficient in multiple areas. It is short on passenger room front and rear. The electronics are subpar. The climate control is subpar. It is not particularly economical to purchase or operate, nor is it likely to retain any value. The Chevrolet and Malibu names, when uttered together, have not impressed anyone, anywhere, since about 1974. It is not fast. It does not handle particularly well. It’s quiet, but it needs to be quiet so you can hear the stereo.

It is possible, likely even, that the 2014 refresh addresses some of these issues. I’ll know as soon as somebody rents me one. But this car should never have been released. GM is where Toyota was circa 1972: fighting a horrendous public image and in need of some brilliant cars to earn points with the buying public. This Malibu was a failure of vision, planning, and execution. It is not recommended.

Join the conversation
2 of 142 comments
  • Jwalker55 Jwalker55 on Feb 28, 2014

    Ah, you're one of those tools that drives 90 on the interstate. When I read reviews like this, I have to wonder what it must be like to be such a miserable human being. 1. If you have to look at the shifter to shift, you're a freakin moron. You've already proved that by taking a picture of yourself doing 90 while hitting the gas pedal to exaggerate the poor instantaneous mileage reading at a speed at which you are significantly breaking the law. 2. You're either 7' tall, drive with the steering wheel in your lap, or you're so short you have to move the seat insanely forward. I'm average height and my knee doesn't come close to rubbing the key or the temp knob. 3. It actually surprised me that you didn't mention the poor rear-view visibility due to the high profile of the rear-end. 4. I have over 10,000 songs on a flash drive, works fine. 5. I especially love all your little followers above that would probably suck your nuts if you told them to. 6. I can nitpick the hell out of any vehicle.

  • Nedthafed Nedthafed on Dec 11, 2014

    You guys all suck! Are you all menstruating or what? Seriously…your crazy is showing and everyone can see it. I own the 2013 Malibu LTZ 1 and I love it. I've had ZERO problems with it. You can't have the perfect car, something will always be compromised in one way or another for something else. So it doesn't get 40 miles to the gallon, is it really surprising that you get worse gas/mileage ratio while accelerating? I love my LTZ trim package. I never use the parking brake and never had the need to so who cares. Its a 4 cylinder car. What do you expect??!! I can barely feel the transmission shift unless I'm driving erratically for some reason, which I love. In the Focus and Fusion I felt every shift. The interior is a dream, All black with a nice blue ambient light. Leather seats. The backseat is a little smaller than some cars for sure but not to the point where we're all uncomfortable! The stock radio in MOST cars is lame. I've changed out all my cars' head units for better models so I'm not surprised. I just bought a L.O.C. and better speakers/amp and kept the touch screen. The cars profile looks mean from the front. Like a big body Chevy is supposed to. I'll admit, I'm not in love with the rear view but a spoiler fixed that. Seriously guys, I love my Malibu.

  • MaintenanceCosts This class of car competes hard with Chargers/Challengers and modded diesel pickups for the douchey-driving crown.
  • 28-Cars-Later Corey - I think I am going to issue a fatwa demanding a cool kids car meetup in July somewhere in the Ohio region.
  • Master Baiter Might as well light 50 $100 bills on fire.
  • Mike1041 At $300K per copy they may secure as much as 2 or 3 deposits of $1,000
  • Sgeffe Why on Earth can’t you just get the torque specs and do it yourself if you’re so-inclined?!