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Ford is making much ado about the Mustang's 50th birthday this year, and yet Chevy isn't throwing the Malibu, which also launched in 1964, much of a party. Among the reasons for this lack of acclaim: the Malibu was more of a trim level than a distinct model when it launched; Chevy released a major update for the 2013 model rather than holding the update for a celebratory year; and the Malibu is a sedan rather than a more emotionally appealing coupe.
The 2014 Chevy Malibu, in its current styling, doesn't look like it's up for a party. The conservative styling suggests going to bed at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Compared to the Ford Fusion and the Mazda6, two more attractive designs in the mid-size sedan segment, the Malibu's styling works more as suburban camouflage. The Malibu won't stand out much in the parking lot, but then, some people prefer a less ostentatious ride.
Despite the mundane styling, the Malibu is a thoroughly modern car. Chevy took pains to increase its fuel economy with an efficient engine and weight reduction. The center stack boasts a 7-inch touch screen with the MyLink infotainment interface, one of the better systems in its segment.
The cabin impressed me with its curved dashboard space, defining the front driver and passenger areas. A $1,000 package in this 2LT trim model adds leather seats, with power adjustments and heating for the front seats. The glossy wood grain plastic on the console was less appealing.
As with any modern car, the Malibu uses electric power steering, and Chevy has definitely learned well how to tune these things. Older implementations by other carmakers sometimes resulted in overboosted steering you could turn with a single finger, along with an electric whirring sound as the motor lent its effort. In the Malibu, the steering wheel has exactly the right amount of heft. It turns easily enough for parking lot maneuvers but still retains a natural feel.
Taking a turn, the steering rack moves the Malibu with just the right amount of precision.
Chevy engineers built good riding comfort into the Malibu as well. Although not adaptive, the suspension handles rough roads extremely well -- it never jounced me against the seat. The ride isn't overly soft, either, and maintains a comfortable tautness. Chevy fits the rear with a four-point multilink architecture, while the front, driven wheels use traditional MacPherson struts. In additions, front and rear stabilizer bars limit sway.
Under the hood sits the Malibu's standard direct-injection 2.5-liter four cylinder, one of Chevy's Ecotec line engines, delivering 196 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Those are decent power numbers compared to other mid-size sedans, but Chevy also offers an upgraded engine for the Malibu, a turbocharged 2-liter also using direct injection, good for 259 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.
The trade-off? The less powerful engine boasts EPA numbers of 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, while the turbo engine gets 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. However, the city numbers I saw for the 2.5-liter were lower than the EPA estimate, resulting in an overall average of only 24.6 mpg.
The only transmission for the Malibu is a six-speed automatic swapping formerly low ranges for a manual mode below Drive. In manual mode, I could choose gears with a rocker switch on top of the shifter. That feature would come in handy for long hill descents or low speed slippery conditions when you don't want the transmission seeking gears and changing the torque abruptly.
The engine output numbers looked good, and Chevy had the curb weight down around 3,500 pounds, but the Malibu never felt powerful. When I floored it, there was a bit of hesitation before the car picked up speed. As the transmission let the rotations per minute climb, the engine made a tortured drone. The best I can say about the power output is that it didn't wheeze out at higher speeds. On what I felt were modest hill climbs, the car downshifted, bringing the engine speed up between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm.
Counteracting those gas gulping engine speeds, Chevy implemented an idle-stop feature. As I stopped at traffic lights, the engine shut down, the tachometer needle holding at an Auto-stop position of its gauge. As soon as I took my foot off the brake, the engine quietly powered on, before I could move my foot to the accelerator.
Chevy's idle-stop in the Malibu is so smooth I didn't even notice it at first.
Some of its smoothness comes down to how well Chevy deadened sound in the Malibu's cabin. The engine note may have been strained at high rpms, but in regular cruising it was barely a whisper. Even with the hood up, I couldn't hear the typical clatter of fuel injectors, as it seemed Chevy instituted sound deadening in the engine cladding itself.