GM counts on Malibu to ignite Chevrolet

jlareau@crain.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — General Motors executives say they've put their very best into the new Chevrolet Malibu mid-sized sedan. If this car doesn't do it for Chevrolet, they say, GM is out of tricks for the moment.

The Malibu proves to be a worthy competitor. Chevrolet is positioning the mid-sized Malibu to win conquest sales from the segment-leading Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The basics: The Malibu comes in three trim levels: the base LS, LT and LTZ. All have head curtain side airbags, front-seat thorax airbags, OnStar, ABS, traction control and XM Satellite Radio. StabiliTrak stability control is standard on LT, LTZ and hybrid trim levels.

The Malibu LS has the Ecotec 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic transmission. It makes 169 hp and 160 pounds-feet of torque, and is rated at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

The Malibu LT comes with the same four-cylinder engine but also offers the 3.6-liter V-6 option and a six-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 makes 252 hp and 251 pounds-feet of torque.

The LTZ trim currently has only the V-6, but a four-cylinder version will be offered in spring.

Chevrolet expects the overall mix to be 70 percent four-cylinder models and 30 percent V-6 models, chief engineer Mike Meloeny said at an event here last month.

The hybrid variant is rated at 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. GM used its BAS — for "belt alternator system" — hybrid system on the Malibu. The system shuts the engine off every time a driver stops. It gets a boost from the battery when starting again but uses mostly gasoline, not electricity, to power the car.

Meloeny says the BAS hybrid is a better value for the mid-sized car segment than the costly Two Mode hybrid model. The BAS options costs $1,800.

Notable features: The interior of the new Malibu is gorgeous, and the seats are comfortable. Gone are the acres of plastic and boring center stack. Depending on the trim level, there is brushed-metal or wood laminate finishing across the instrument panel and even onto the side-door paneling. The instrument panel lighting has a blue-green tint — not the best lighting choice, but tolerable.

Compromises and shortcomings: The Malibu felt a bit overweight and underpowered at times. On some sharp winding turns, it felt like it might pull off the road. The hybrid variant lacks pep when it comes to passing, but most hybrid buyers probably aren't looking for performance.

Nuts and bolts: To win conquest customers, GM is narrowing its profit margin on the Malibu and has increased the content compared with the previous version.

The skinny: The Malibu is priced right, starting at $19,995, including shipping. It looks great and is surprisingly fun to drive. But the car has some drawbacks. It will have a tough time beating key competitors' residuals and overcoming the previous-generation's stigma of being a daily rental car.

Will the Malibu bring a huge increase in Chevrolet's conquest numbers? Probably not in this generation. But it will make a lot of import intenders take a second look.  c

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com

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