The last time I reviewed a Malibu it was a 2012, the outgoing edition of the model’s 7th generation. GM completely redesigned it for 2013, moving it to the new Opel-designed Epsilon II platform, same as the Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS, and its stablemate Impala. Right from the start you would expect a higher level of refinement in a world-class package, since Malibu is now a global vehicle and being sold in 100 countries. The new-for-2013 Malibu didn’t quite live up to sales expectations, so GM gave it a few tweaks for 2014 including a revised front end that resembles Impala (and Chevy’s current corporate look) and several improvements to the engine. The 2014 Malibu delivers on the new generation’s promises, but I did notice the old GM quality issue rearing its ugly head. More on that in a moment.
The bright spot of the new Malibu is its 4 cylinder engine & 6 speed automatic transaxle. The 2.5 liter Ecotec engine delivers 196hp and is very smooth throughout its power band. There’s a turbo powerplant available with 60 more horses but it’ll cost you at the pump. Fuel economy has been improved, now giving 25 city/29 highway in base form. One unique feature that I’m not completely sold on is the auto stop. Malibu is the first American midsize car that will shut off the engine when you are stopped in traffic and automatically start when you release the brake. The system is non-selectable and the computer determines when its more efficient to shut down. I noticed it would tend to shut down mostly after a moderate to hard stop. There’s a noticeable lurch as the engine comes back to life when you release the brake so don’t expect fast acceleration off the line. The system includes an auxiliary battery to keep the accessories powered when the alternator is not turning, and it has a twin solenoid starter motor for faster starts. Normally when you’re idling the spinning engine turns the transmission oil pump to keep fluid flowing; the auto-stop function features an electric oil pump for the transaxle to keep the gears juiced up for an instant start. The idea here is that if you have a long commute in stop-and-go traffic you won’t waste fuel when idling. Gas mileage has been improved slightly but I don’t feel its significant enough to justify the auto-stop feature, which adds extra components and more wear and tear on everything.
Malibu rides on a choice of 16 to 18 inch wheels depending on the trim level; this LTZ had a smooth quiet ride more fitting for a luxury cruiser. The electric steering assist doesn’t do a great job of providing good road feel. I would have to agree with Car and Driver’s assessment of Malibu’s ride being competent but not compelling.
Inside, the new generation Malibu adds all the modern features that were absent on the pre-2013 version including air bags all around, full Bluetooth & hands-free integration, and touch screen controls. The dual power seats were comfortable but not terribly supportive. One glaring omission was a backup camera. This model is the LTZ, the highest trim level with all the luxury appointments, but the backup camera is only available as part of the extra cost Power Convenience or Electronics & Entertainment packages. By 2018 all vehicles will be required to come with a camera; GM should have built it in to the new Malibu as many of its competitors already have.
The biggest feature that I dislike on this car is the MyLink touch screen system. This puts all of your audio and navigation (if equipped) controls on a touchscreen in addition to the normal buttons. The climate controls only appear on the screen when you change a setting (see picture, above right), and the temperature dial does not have a marker to let you know how far toward hot or cold it is set. Likewise, the fan control doesn’t have any marker to show you what level of fan speed you’ve selected – the markers are on the screen view which only shows up when you move any of the controls and will go away after a few seconds. Contrast this to Ford’s MyTouch system in which the screen is divided into 4 sections and all controls are always visible; you can tell at a glance what your climate settings are. Malibu’s system allows you to arrange your apps on 3 home screens. I find this system not very intuitive. Elsewhere in the Malibu cabin there is a lot of hard plastic and I did notice quite a bit of plastic squeaking sounds from around the cabin while driving. The woodgrain trim is shiny and very fake looking. The new Malibu has received excellent scores on the JD Power Initial Quality surveys but with 26,000 miles on this specimen I am definitely not impressed.
On the road, Malibu delivers a smooth ride thanks to its engine but otherwise is not very remarkable. The 2014 edition received numerous tweaks which is not typical for the 2nd model year of a vehicle but GM has been aggressive in trying to find the sweet spot for its Malibu in the crowded midsize market. Based on my experience, I would have to say that they have not quite hit the mark with this model.