Malibu woes detract from an attractive powertrain.
February 20, 2013
By: Alex Villani, Mark Rickan, Nick Saporito
At this point, everyone familiar with the automotive industry knows that the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu isn’t blowing up the sales charts. Instead, the car is already slated for an emergency revamp within the next several months, as sales remain stagnant and reviews mark it as a milquetoast effort.
That said, there is one iteration of the new Malibu that isn’t so bad. Following the industry trend, Chevy has dropped the V-6 from the Malibu in favor of GM’s all-new 2.0-liter turbo. The turbocharged power and high-end trim level combine to form a decent midsize sedan. However, some systemic issues remain.
This week we tasked our three senior editors to give us the lowdown on the Malibu LTZ.
In moving to the global dimensions of the Epsilon II platform, the wheelbase of the eighth generation Malibu was shortened by over four inches and the width was extended by close to three inches. The front fascia adopted a more aggressive variation of Chevrolet’s split horizontal grille, with the headlights now extended over the front wheel arches and more pronounced crease lines added to the hood. At the rear of the vehicle, the most noticeable changes are the updated Camaro-inspired tail lamps and a rear deck lid. The LTZ trim level gains 19-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights, dual chrome exhaust tips, a chrome grille and chrome door handles.
Alex: If the regular Malibu is your average guy, think of the LTZ trim as the metrosexual version. In a nutshell, the LTZ is the Malibu all Malibu's should be. The headlights, grille, larger wheels, dual exhaust and everything else is a little bit more stylish and attractive. It is amazing what little tweaks to small bits of this car can do, but it needs to go a bit further. While the Malibu has shrunk in some places, it looks like a much bigger car than its predecessor. Really, the turbo has very little to do with the exterior package of the car, outside of slightly larger wheels than an LTZ powered by the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Even the color, a rather mundane blue, looks better on this car - accentuating the curves and creases of the sheet metal. 
Mark: It's disconcerting that the Malibu is derived from the same DNA as the Regal, one of the more exemplary designs to emerge from GM in several years. The front clip is evolutionary, yet dated, and the profile and rear of the vehicle are uninspired afterthoughts. In a segment in which the Fusion, Mazda6 and Sonata have increasingly demonstrated that practical doesn't have to be dull, the Malibu lacks presence. The Impala-inspired face-lift previews look promising but the butt needs a lift as well. 
Nick: The LTZ trim level of the Malibu gives the car’s exterior appearance somewhat of a pass. The large five-spoke wheels and darkened headlamps do a lot to spruce up an otherwise bland exterior design. I find myself liking the front-end design, however the body and rear are still issues. The side panels are simple and the greenhouse almost has a Buick vibe to it. Lack of visual excitement must be addressed in the refresh. 
The interior of the Malibu LTZ turbo is similar to the one you would find in the bulk of Malibu's trims; a mixture of different surfaces, designs, and textures. The cockpit design of the last generation has been transformed into something different all together. Seemingly spanning door-to-door is a grate element that integrates the heating and cooling vents - a design element that many find polarizing. Sitting in front of the driver are two squared off gauge pods that draw their inspiration from the successful Camaro. A full-color driver information screen separates the two pods, supplying the driver with various bits of information from instantaneous gas mileage to navigational directions.
The center stack of the Malibu houses a very large array of knobs, buttons and a seven-inch color touch screen that can flip up to uncover a small storage area. Our tester was equipped with Chevrolet's easy to use MyLink system, but not the optional navigation system. Where the center stack meets the center console is another controversial piece of the interior: the fake wood. The gear leaver is trimmed nicely, with a manual shift button that sits atop the knob so that you can select the gears yourself.
The power-adjustable seats are comfortable for long trips, and nicely trimmed with contrast piping and stitching around the edges. While the interior lost a few inches due to the smaller wheelbase, the rear seat room is adequate for most average people. Rear seats are trimmed in a similar fashion to the front seats and gain a bit more hip room thanks to a wider stance from the new platform. The rest of the interior has a good assortment of quality materials and nice textures throughout, from door panels to armrest.
Alex: Malibu has a high quality interior, but it is wrought in various design themes and textures. The tester I had came with a very nice brown and tan set up, but once you plug in the blue stitching and ambient lighting, the dark gray plastic surround of the center stack and the various changes in textures, it can seem like too much. I do like the grate design element as it's something that separates the Malibu from everything else in its class, but streamlining and changing some of the other interior bits would be a good start.
As I'm sure my colleagues have talked about, the rear seat room is not that big of a deal, but the rest of the competition is going the other way. GM's problem is not wheelbase, but they lack the ability to come up with better packaging for the smaller space. The best part? That's coming with the revision; so if you really like the Malibu, but you want that inch of rear leg space back, hold on to that down payment. 
Mark: While I really like the dual cockpit layout and found the Camaroesque gauge clusters started to grow on me, the frugal materials and garish colors are areas that need to be addressed. It's difficult once again to appreciate the Malibu's interior in comparison to the sporty refinement of the Regal and the significant improvements coming from segment competitors.
I maintain that rear seat legroom is an area where the Malibu has been unfairly demonized, particularly when some volume leaders have even less available space. Thankfully, the leather seats in the LTZ offer exceptional comfort - something that can't be said for the rump-ripping textured cloth found in some of the base models. 
Nick: Chevy deserves a few points for trying something different inside the Malibu. While material quality is very acceptable, the design is busy. The textures are deeply grained and the “ribbed” panel across the dashboard only looks good at night when the ambient lighting is reflecting off it. Chevrolet’s use of very large, quality switchgear is a welcomed departure from the industry norm, and I hope that sticks around after the refresh.
In back is where the car’s smaller wheelbase becomes an issue. Rear legroom is significantly less than the old Malibu and less than most of the competition. That said; seat comfort is fantastic in front and back, and the wider chassis gives the cabin an open feel that its predecessor lacked. 
The Malibu borrows its 2.0-liter turbo from the Cadillac ATS, only with some minor power differences. In the front wheel drive Malibu the engine generates 259 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is paired with GM’s 6T70 six-speed automatic transmission, the only available transmission.
The combination makes for a decent marriage, with fuel economy ratings coming in at 21 MPG city and 30 MPG highway. More importantly, the EPA ratings are actually attainable and it isn’t out of line to assume drivers will be able to meet or exceed those ratings.
Chevrolet put a sharp focus on making the Malibu quiet and it's evident given the lack of engine noise in the cabin. The 2.0-liter turbo is fairly polished sounding, but can get raspy near the top of the rev range. The engine note is also somewhat reserved, despite the fairly sporty looking dual chrome exhaust outlets.
Alex: The Malibu's potent little turbo engine can surely put a smile on your face just as quickly as the torque builds up. Chevy did a great job of keeping most of the engine's rasp down, especially when compared to the same engine in the ATS, which has a rather sharp and rough sounding exhaust note. Power ramps up nice and strong, feeling much stronger than the 3.6-liter version in the last generation, thanks to the mesa-like torque band. The transmission shifted solid and allowed the engine to build up some boost, keeping that power delivery a nice liner experience. Gas mileage was decent, hitting the higher end of the spectrum despite 80-percent of the driving being in town. At mid 20 MPGs, it won't set any records, but it was much higher than I had imagined. This engine is the best part of the car. 
Mark: Driving the Malibu equipped with the 2.0-liter turbo is a significant upgrade over the 2.4 liter mills in the ECO models. Acceleration is excellent, with minimal turbo lag and power that arguably surpasses both the segment competitors and the 2.0-liter turbocharged Regals. Fuel economy numbers are surprisingly good given spirited driving and the exhaust note adds distinctive character.
Gear hunting can be evident but I didn't experience any jarring episodes that would set the Malibu apart from any other vehicle attempting to balance power and fuel economy. 
Nick: Those upset that the Malibu no longer offers GM’s 3.6-liter V-6 should drive a turbo-equipped Malibu before jumping to conclusions. Most buyers will never find themselves wanting the 3.6-liter after driving the turbo. Power delivery is smooth with a far greater off-the-line performance and mid-range acceleration than the 3.6-liter could provide. I’d also argue that the 2.0-liter is smoother as well.
The one questionable area with Malibu’s powertrain is the transmission. This same transmission is in many GM products, however in the Malibu Turbo it often seemed confused and unsure of whether or not to downshift. Coming to an abrupt halt typically left the transmission harshly downshifting to the point that the car would shudder. 
Malibu's shorter wheelbase means that the car is slightly more maneuverable than its predecessor. The car's suspension hardware is identical to the Buick Regal, though everything has been softened a bit for mainstream duty. This softening means that we have a more athletic chassis, but with softer bits and pieces. The combination largely means that the Malibu is a nudge closer to the Buick LaCrosse in terms of ride and handling on the scale between the athletic Regal and comfy LaCrosse.
The 2013 Malibu is more athletic than the car it replaces, with an overall sportier feel and improved steering. Turbo LTZ models come equipped with 19-inch wheels, wearing Goodyear Eagle RS-A2 all-season rubber.
Alex: While the turbo gets an upgraded suspension and steering tuning, sharing a wheelbase with the Buick Regal, it does not have the same athletic balance on the road. It is an upgrade over the Eco we tested a little less than a year ago, but that isn't saying much. Pushing the Malibu to the limit, the numbness of the electric steering kills whatever fun you thought you were going to have, and the under steer leaves you disappointed. It is poised during highway blasts showing fantastic highway stability and can soak up bumps at all speeds. I guess that is the rub: give up a little handling for a more compliant ride. At the price my Malibu tester came in at, I would rather spend the few extra bucks for a Regal GS. 
Mark: Having the Regal as a platform stablemate provided the Malibu with suspension and steering systems of excellent pedigree. Road feedback is engaging and for a car of this magnitude you can confidently maneuver the vehicle with increased power. The word "fun" isn't often a word often associated with mid-size sedans but it does apply to the Malibu. 
Nick: Handling is one area on the new Malibu that deserves a bit of praise. For a midsize family sedan, the car handles decent. Braking, steering and the suspension hardware are all right in the middle of that happy medium between comfort and sport, right where they should be. In terms of issues with this car, handling dynamics is one of the least of its worries. The one area of complaint I had is that, under hard acceleration, the car will occasionally exhibit a bit of torque steer - meaning the addition of GM's HiPer Struts up front would be welcome. 
The Malibu LTZ has the full array electronic whiz-bangary, and even some features that are not available from its competition. Starting off with Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system, it serves as the main hub for connecting your smart phone and allowing it to be integrated into the car so that you can stream content from your phone to your car. There are also some new additions, such as finding local movie times and gas prices.
While streaming your favorite music, you can listen to it through the upgraded Pioneer stereo system; a solid set up for a midsized sedan. Keeping you safe on the road as it keeps an eye on the situation ahead is GM's lane departure and collision avoidance camera system. When turned on, the system can alert if you are veering out of your lane and can even warn you if you are approaching the vehicle in front too quickly with flashing lights and loud beeps.
Rounding out the safety and phone integration is the voice-activated Bluetooth system that is activated with a simple button on the steering wheel. No need to reach for the radio knobs to change the station, just pressing the button can pull up most of the commands with a few words. The Malibu LTZ also has the upgraded projector beam headlights spreading out the light from a set of high-intensity discharge bulbs.
Alex: The feature set in the Malibu is just as good as anyone else's, if not a little bit better. Everyone else seems to offer a more complicated system of dual-screens or worse: small, low-resolution screen below the driver's field of vision. The only thing I wish it had would be blind-spot awareness system, and that is only because the rake of the c-pillar can sometimes hide a car or two.
MyLink worked flawless, as usual, giving probably the best user interface without adding unnecessary complications with touch-sensitive buttons. Even the little ambient light bar that fades left and right when you raise or lower the volume is a cool little addition that gives you a nice visual indication of that you are doing something so that you do not have to take your eyes off the road. 
Mark: The base model Malibu has been lauded for including a wide range of features that encompass safety, comfort and infotainment. The problem isn't the lack of features, but the complex and often confounding way in which these amenities are bundled. Despite being the highest trim level; the LTZ still has three optional upgrade packages for electronics/entertainment, safety and other premium features. You need to add many of these features to build an LTZ that is comparably equipped and less costly than other offerings in this segment. 
Nick: The most obvious feature omissions on the new Malibu are massive: a proper full hybrid and all-wheel drive, but that’s for another story. The Malibu has a decent cross-section of features, and surprising details, such as a color driver’s information display and rearview mirrors that tilt down when the car is in reverse (to see curbing). However the car still lacks high-end features such as adaptive cruise control. 
The base Malibu trim levels come well equipped, with an extensive array of features that emphasize driver comfort, safety and infotainment. In addition to the 2.0-liter turbo engine, the LTZ model includes LED taillights, upgraded bright work, larger alloy wheels and leather-appointed seating. Available options include advanced safety features (lane departure warning, collision mitigation), premium package features (HID headlights, memory settings for seating, keyless entry) and convenience items (sunroof, rear vision camera).
Alex: Yikes, this is the part of the story where you find out that the hero dies. Sadly, at the price of the tester I had, I can think of a half-dozen other vehicles that offer a better value, and that is just within confines of GM. What first comes to mind is the Regal GS, offering a very similar package with way more performance credentials to boot. Sure, not every Malibu is going to be priced to the heavens like this one was, and I do not think that Chevy should shy away from Malibu hitting these kinds of levels, but they need to back it up with a car that can command it. The Malibu LTZ, even with its very good engine and very good looks just sadly falls short of the "gotta have it" factor that might be the difference between someone buying this over something else. 
Mark: While GM should be commended for not limiting the 2.0-liter turbo engine to the LTZ trim level, the cost of a well-equipped Malibu eclipses other sedans. In the unforgiving midsize segment, the problem is that an exception combination of design, packaging and features must be in place in to command a premium. The Malibu has many of the requisite pieces to produce a competitive option, but issues of quality and execution detract from overall value. 
Nick: There is no aspect of the Malibu least competitive than the value proposition, particularly on the loaded up LTZ trim. Wearing a sticker price of over $34,000 and still lacking navigation is a big problem, and factoring in that the Ford Fusion is not much higher in comparable trim—with more features—the value proposition of the Malibu is weak, at best. The Malibu is a decent family sedan, but what makes it a downright uncompetitive car is value. A decent car should command a decent price, not prices higher than the stronger competition. 
The new Malibu Turbo isn't a horrible car. In fact, in the court of public opinion the car has probably gotten an unfair abusing. The problem with the Malibu is that the overall effort exerted to bring the car to market appears to be but a fraction of most of GM's recent efforts. It has a solid foundation with the Epsilon II chassis, and a brand new powertrain to work with. Where the Malibu Turbo falls short is in aesthetics and that all-important value proposition.
Later this year Chevrolet will be rolling out an updated Malibu for 2014. The update is said to address the exterior and interior designs, as well as the overall packaging of the interior.
2013 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ specifications summary: