Rental Review: The 2023 Chevrolet Malibu, Last Domestic Midsize Standing

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rental review the 2023 chevrolet malibu last domestic midsize standing

In its current guise since 2016, the ninth-gen Chevrolet Malibu is no spring chicken; the rumor is an all-new model will arrive in 2025. And after three days and some 700 miles behind the wheel of a 2023 example, your author has a few observations and a strong overall opinion on the very last domestic midsize sedan in production. Let’s hop in and journey east, through the Appalachian Plateau.

The “full-size” rental received at the counter was a 1LT trim, second only to the 2LT in the lineup. Below it are the lesser-equipped RS and 1LS. The midrange Malibu includes a bevy of standard equipment, wrapped in a low-key body nobody notices. In this case, Mosaic Black Metallic paint pairs with a black interior. The only option fitted is a Driver Confidence Package (rear park assist, blind spot alert, lane change alert) for $545. Add the destination charge, subtract GM Cash, and we arrive at $28,990.

On approach the Malibu’s familiar shape looks current-ish but in no way fresh or particularly remarkable. The “metallic” paint has minimum flake in it, and looks flat and without much depth. Applied evenly on the hood and front clip, plentiful orange peel is found on the rest of the body. Notably uneven panel gaps combine with door trim that doesn’t line up and makes for a somewhat sloppy exterior appearance. Faring better is the trunk capacity, which is generous on a car of this size at 15.7 cubic feet.

Door handles pull and retract with a quality action, though the plastic handle doesn’t have the best feel. The doors shut with a reassuring, quality sound. Like other GM cars (even high-end Yukon Denalis) the Malibu does not have touch-sensitive keyless entry, but relies on the 2006-era door Chiclet to lock and unlock. Once inside, driver and passengers are greeted by a sea of black, low-gloss materials. 

There are hard plastics most everywhere, and the dash is trimmed with a padded cloth of a diamond pattern rather than traditional trim. While this likely helps reduce creaks and rattles, the fabric on the 14K mile example already shows dust and dirt collection, and may not fare well as a black fabric under long-term sun exposure. The Center console trim is a faux gray “metal” done up in shiny plastic, flanked by darker plastics. 

A storage cubby in front of the shifter draws the eye to a poorly fitted plastic trim piece against the center stack, which flexes with the gentlest of finger touches. Traditional gauges for the driver are clear and easy to read. Minus points go to the old-school LCD screen in the center of the gauges, which could easily be from 2002.

Seats are covered with a somewhat rough black cloth, with a diamond pattern insert to match the dash. Once seated inside, hands fall to a rubber steering wheel with a ridge sculpted into it for visual interest. Said ridge is not pleasant to the touch, and most owners will likely fit a steering wheel cover. In the center is a screen that’s of average size for the class, with resolution that’s a bit lacking. 

On the screen are basic icons that are easy to read and understand, with a dedicated volume knob for the audio, as well as climate controls underneath. Importantly, wireless Android Auto and Apple Carplay are included as standard. Once paired, the phone connects to the car seamlessly as long as the phone’s Bluetooth is turned on.

The screen is quick to react to swipes and button presses, and is configurable into a split-screen setting for navigation and selected music app. With a dedicated Home button, it’s never difficult to back out to the main screen if a user gets a bit lost. However, the screen is not adjustable for brightness and is limited to automatic, day, or night modes. I’d like some flexibility to tone down the screen brightness during the day.

A backup camera is supplemented with rear park assist, and its image is clear enough and without lag. The screen presents guidelines that turn with the wheel, and show where the rear of the car is headed. Lacking are front parking sensors which seem a given in this day and age, especially in a car fitted with collision avoidance and lane keep assist.

That’s worth a mention especially because of the Malibu’s design. It has door panels that are quite tall, a very thick C-pillar, heavy trim around the rear side window, and a high rear window that’s rather narrow. Parking the Malibu in tight spaces or against curbs is an exercise in frustration, and would be assisted with sensors. More than once your author stuck their head out the window to park. More on visibility later.

No matter the trim, the 2023 Malibu is fitted with a 1.5-liter inline-four from the Ecotec family which manages 160 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds. The EPA says owners can expect to manage 27 city and 35 highway. Paired to a CVT, in most situations the engine provides plenty of power and is fully supported by the transmission. The CVT feels far better than one in a prior-generation Altima, for instance. The engine is generally quiet and barely audible unless pressed. 

When pressing, however, an Achilles heel is revealed: The engine is rough and sounds fairly nasty when over 2,500 RPM. Above those revs it sort of runs out of steam, and high-speed passing maneuvers are slower (and louder) than desired. This is especially evident when proceeding uphill, which happens often in the general Appalachian area. The engine drones and the CVT physically judders up an incline. It’s much less than confidence-inspiring.

While drowning in a sea of cheapo plastics, Malibu occupants will notice plentiful head, leg, and shoulder room. The sedan sits four six-foot adults easily with generous legroom front and rear. Headroom up front is expansive and would be fine for someone who is 6’4” or so. Note the 1LT does not come with a panoramic roof, but it’s a $1,000 option and will reduce headroom. Head and legroom generosity is marred by the inclusion of less-than-great seats.

While they can be adequately described as “OK,” the Malibu’s seats don’t offer enough lumbar support. The driver has a full power seat with lumbar adjustment, but it moves only fore and aft, not up and down. If it’s in the wrong place for your lumbar needs, too bad, and after a couple of hours some lower back pain arrives. It’s also worth noting that long-legged front passengers enjoying all the room won’t have enough lower cushion support for their legs.

Another interior environmental factor worth mentioning is the air conditioning. After personal experience with many GM vehicles of sturdy and strong AC characteristics over the years, the Malibu isn’t one of them. The HVAC seemed to struggle on a sunny 70-degree day with moderate humidity, requiring the lowest “Lo” temperature setting, and medium fan. This sort of performance is not excusable on a modern vehicle, whether it’s painted black or not. Bare skin will stick to the pleather center armrest, which is located slightly too high for comfort (just like the door panel armrest).

Equally irritating is the stop/start system, which is rough, and sluggish to react. Attempting a quick left turn from a side road reveals an engine that’s a step behind, and a moment where nothing happens after the accelerator is pressed. It’s easily defeated for each drive via a prominent button next to the hazard flasher.

Underway and in normal (non-incline) driving, the Malibu is easy to drive. The steering provides no feedback but points the car in the expected direction. The accelerator is simple enough to modulate, though a bit softly sprung overall. Brakes come on very strong, very quickly: About 80 percent of stopping power arrives in the first inch of travel. They’re touchy, take some effort to learn, and should be softened up a bit. 

The lack of interior noise at speed is especially pleasant, and the cabin is quieter than other cars in this class. There’s little wind noise even at freeway speed, with a minimal rattle near the right windshield wiper that may be limited to this example. Factory tires are Hankook Kinergy GTs, and they’re quiet too. 

16-inch aluminum wheels are standard on the 1LT, with chunkier tires making for better ride quality. The suspension itself is tuned for comfort above most other considerations and soaks up big potholes (like around Pittsburgh, for example) easily. Rough surfaces don’t result in interior jiggles, and despite the softness the Malibu is not wallowy when cornering. Not that it inspires one to drive faster or press onward, it certainly doesn’t.

Maneuvering and lane changes at speed are compromised by the previously mentioned poor visibility. High sills, a thick C-pillar, and a narrow, high rear window push the experience away from confident motoring. Blind spot assist works as intended, but the collision avoidance returns a couple of false positives over hills in bright sunlight. 

The rearview mirror is of poor quality and distorts vehicles, making them all look like tall vans. It’s curved upward along its lower edge, which is the opposite of the rear window’s shape and makes for an unpleasant visual conflict. Lane keep assist does what it should without overcorrecting and causing the car to “ping-pong” between the lane like a certain Golf Sportwagen of the past. Still, it’s odd that a car with a collision avoidance system skips radar cruise, a natural complement. 

After 720 miles to Pennsylvania and back, the Malibu returned 33.1 miles per gallon. While that’s not bad, it’s not stunning either. And that sums up most of the Malibu’s personality.

Quite literally all its competition is newer, has 30-40 more horsepower, and has a better fuel economy rating for the same or slightly less money. The only reason to buy this Malibu in its late stage in life is if you absolutely need the domestic brand in your driveway. Anyway, enjoy the best photo from the trip.

[Images © 2023 Corey Lewis/]

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3 of 59 comments
  • Art_Vandelay Art_Vandelay on Sep 13, 2023

    What a pile of sheite

  • Ronin Ronin on Sep 14, 2023

    I rented one of these in Los Angeles for a 2400 mile one-way trip to an Eastern state, doing lots of site-seeing and diversions along the way. By comparison, my daily driver is a late model Accord with the 2.0T.

    I found the Chevy surprisingly competent for what it was designed to do. Sufficient power and comfort. Boring in the best way- no surprises, no major shortfalls. Completely able rental transportation.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Sep 16, 2023

      Yes, but "able rental transportation" isn't the kind of praise you want when selling a $30k sedan, is it?

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