2014 Chevrolet Malibu LT First Test
Getting a Second Chance at 50
Those who take pleasure in overtly saluting your birthdays know there's bound to be a stinker here or there. But then you follow up the stinker(s) by forgetting about it, evading acquaintances proclaiming "(random age)" is the new (random age)," and ordering that dessert you really wanted. The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, now celebrating its 50th birthday, will be having all the desserts.
Apart from having one of the most spacious midsize-sedan trunks (16.3 cubic feet ties it with the 2015 Hyundai Sonata) with premium-looking recessed lid hinges, the eighth-generation Malibu is not recognized as a class standout. This is unfortunate, as the seventh gen was highly competitive against its contemporaries. In response, Chevy's powers that be hurried a major update for the Malibu after only a year, attempting to fend off fresh opposition in the cutthroat segment. Styling was touched up; a renovated center console was installed; the suspension and steering were given once-overs.
Did early, lukewarm-skewing-toward-negative critic reviews (including our own) play a role in spurring the sudden move? Even if the motive is never revealed, it's Motor Trend's 65th anniversary this year, so we'll think yes.
With an emergency refresh under its stretchy waistband, let's check the scorecard. Lagging fuel economy -- the '13 Malibu LT carried EPA ratings of 22/34/26 mpg city/highway/combined -- was an issue. The answer: a new engine (cribbed from the Impala) and transmission. The '14 LKW 2.5-liter I-4 shares major components with the previous year's LCV unit, but incorporates a start/stop system and a different cylinder head with a two-step intake-valve lift setup (unadventurously called Intake Valve Lift Control). Were it economically feasible to outfit every single engine on the market (especially small-displacement, naturally aspirated ones) with some form of variable valve lift, every automaker would do so.
An MNH six-speed transaxle latches onto the crank and makes use of a 9.5-percent shorter final-drive ratio (2.89:1 versus the old MH8's 2.64:1; individual gearing is the same). The electrically controlled, auxiliary hydraulic pump is a key difference-maker, enabling quick and shudder-free takeoffs after the engine restarts. The new powertrain fluffs the EPA numbers +3/+2/+3 to 25/36/29 mpg, thrusting the car into midsized fuel economy respectability and leveling it with the now-nixed mild-hybrid 2013 Malibu Eco (25/37/29 mpg).
For our part, we put the Malibu LT (a 1LT with $2160 Premium Package) to work in world-famous Los Angeles traffic and ended up with the display registering 26 mpg after 350 miles of mostly low-speed driving. The start/stop system never drew attention. It turns the engine off without rocking the interior, and the car never lurched from a standstill even with brusque transitions from the brake to gas.
The system can't be manually disabled. Why? Chevy says it works so seamlessly, "it did not require a defeat switch… Customers who want a Malibu, but don't want stop/start have the choice of ordering the Malibu Turbo."
When stopped, you can keep the engine running by shifting into Neutral or Manual, or by maintaining a light pressure on the brakes versus depressing the pedal fully.
Commuting brings the Malibu's strengths -- its big-car, comfort-tuned ride and quietness -- to the forefront. LT seats are sewn in comfortable cloth juxtaposed by hard leatherette borders, with the cloth material fashioning a great place to sit. The seat bottoms are flat, though whether this is a positive or negative trait is a matter of preference. Generally speaking, this is a car to relaxingly drive home after spending the day staring at a computer screen and tapping out words on said car; one to coast peacefully in while watching angry motorists jockey for a space ahead of the revised front end.
There's no overlooking the Malibu's big street presence. At 3495 pounds for a not extravagantly equipped model, its only challengers are the redesigned Chrysler 200 and Subaru Legacy.
With its soft brake and deliberate accelerator pedals, the Malibu is out of its element in tough super-urban combat zones such as downtown L.A. Shooting the gaps, if you're into it, takes a lot of preplanning. First, check that the side mirrors are properly adjusted, as the surface area is meager for the car's size. Next, make sure the transmission is in the right gear (first works well in these conditions). The six-speed auto constantly tries to shift into the highest gear possible and always seems taken aback when searching for more urgent acceleration. Then be prepared to mash the gas to go a short distance. The throttle response is on the slower end of the D segment and the best way to avoid being boxed in is to think far ahead. You'll hear the engine produce a bad buzz between 3500 and 4000 rpm, as if to relay it shouldn't be revving into this section of the powerband. Disregard these observations if you drive primarily on freeways and lightly trafficked roads, the Malibu's preferred habitat. At least the steering helps the cause, being precise enough to let you know how much input is needed at the wheel to get in front of the taxi that isn't letting you merge.
As you engage in urban warfare, back-seat riders will discover a slightly more accommodating setting. The '13 model was slammed for its tight quarters, and Chevy responded by having the cushions draw butts deeper into the bench and slimming the front seats' backsides for a precious extra 1.25 inches' worth of knee room. The changes are noticeable. But the narrow angle of approach into the cabin stays unchanged (the doors swinging open wider would be helpful). Add a high step-in height and thick center hump and you still get the feeling you've found the most cramped second row you can get in a midsize sedan. Headroom front and rear is not lacking, ideal for when attending the Convention of Big Hats.
In our book, the 2013 Malibu will be remembered as a throwaway year, the one used to test the always choppy midsized waters. Not only is the 2014 an improvement, it marks the Malibu's 50 years since the nameplate initially appeared on the Chevelle (minus the whole 1984 through 1996 period) and is a good sign that Chevy is earnestly listening to criticism. Admittedly, the car doesn't currently hold the well-rounded appeal of a 200 or a Ford Fusion. But maybe on a future birthday, it will.
Want more on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu? Stay tuned -- the midsize sedan competes in a Motor Trend Big Test comparison coming May 19.
|2014 Chevrolet Malibu LT|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$26,595|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.5L/196-hp*/186-lb-ft* DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3495 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||191.5 x 73.0 x 57.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.4 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.4 sec @ 86.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||125 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.81 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.8 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||25/36/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY/COMB||135/94/116 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMBINED||0.67 lb/mile|