Although lacking in the way of emotional engagement, the Chevy Malibu drives easy, and it gets the MyLink cabin tech interface, which emulates the style of smartphones.
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.
The Malibu's easy driving character left me free to use the touch screen-based MyLink infotainment system. MyLink shows all its functions as icons, much like a smartphone, and even lets the driver mark some as favorites to be shown on the initial home screen. Augmenting the icons on the touch screen, the bezel has capacitive touch areas for quick access to navigation, phone, and audio sources.
I found the MyLink interface to be very responsive, quickly launching whichever app I chose, just as I would expect from my phone.
The icons themselves can seem a bit of a jumble, with navigation, each audio source, telephone, configurations, and even weather, spread over three screens. However, the ability to set up icons as favorites, so that they populate the first screen, saves MyLink.
The Malibu includes full-featured voice command, as well. With an iOS device or USB drive plugged into the car's USB port, I could request music by artist name, album, or song title. Of course I could also place calls by contact name; and destination entry let me say an entire address string at once. However, I struggled to make the Malibu understand the street name Tehama, and eventually had to give up.
Augmenting Chevy's embedded voice command is Siri's Eyes Free feature. With my phone connected to the car via Bluetooth, I could hold down the voice command button on the steering wheel, longer than I would with the car's native voice command, and have it pass through to Siri. That feature came in handy when was using Bluetooth audio streaming to listen to music, as it let me request any song in my iPhone's library. As with most Bluetooth audio streaming, the interface didn't let me select music using the touch screen or Chevy's embedded voice command.
Music played through a Pioneer nine-speaker audio system, an upgrade courtesy of this car's Electronics and Entertainment package. The sound quality was good, especially with acoustic songs, but tracks with deep bass and strong highs caused distortion and panel rattle. The different frequencies weren't produced with the distinction of a really high-end audiophile system.
Chevy hasn't dropped the CD player in the Malibu, as it has in the Spark and Sonic. The USB port provides more digital music connections, and satellite radio is included. Chevy also integrates Pandora and Stitcher, each with their own icon, into MyLink. Android users can just push these icons to launch the apps on their phones, but I couldn't use the integration without first launching the apps on my iPhone.
Navigation worked well in the Malibu, with voice prompts reading out full street names. I liked that I could see the maps in plan and perspective views. The MyLink interface also let me view the map on half the screen, with upcoming turn or stereo information on the other half. While the route recalculation was quick, I found the system really pushed for its original route as I took alternate routes to destinations. That can be a little frustrating.
Among the destination entry options, Chevy includes one called Travel Guide. Tapping this icon brought up a list of nearby locations that could prove of interest to tourists. Each entry included a good description.
Missing from navigation was an online search tool. However, Chevy will be adding something it calls App Shop to its MyLink-equipped cars, along with built-in 4G connections, and I would expect online search within the year.
To make the in-cabin tech a little safer, the Electronics and Entertainment package also adds a rear view camera to aids in parking, although it lacks distance or trajectory lines. With the Advanced Safety package, side sensors are included which enable blind spot monitors and light up icons in the side mirrors when a car is traveling in the next lane over.
More intriguing was a forward-facing camera positioned in front of the rear-view mirror. This camera aids in lane departure and collision warnings. When I drifted over a lane line, the car beeped at me, and when I approached cars ahead too fast, the Malibu let me know with both an audible alert and red flashing lights on the windshield. For collision warning, I could set the sensitivity and even turn it off if I found it annoying. These systems are only alerts, and don't actually steer or brake the car, but the first time the collision warning gets you to stop before hitting another car, it will have paid for itself.
The driving character of the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu is not what I would call exciting, or even engaging, but it is just about perfect for a mid-size sedan. It was comfortable and easy to drive, never putting up a fight for what I wanted to do, and never threatening to get out of control. The power is enough for typical driving and it handles the turns with comfortable stability.
The fuel economy from the EPA tests looks good, but if you deal with a lot of stop-and-go traffic or hills, expect the average to come in significantly lower than estimated.
The exterior styling is a bit boring, but Chevy's MyLink infotainment system is a high point, and serves to give the Malibu an edge over the competition. Using a smartphone paradigm for the icon-based interface makes it feel familiar, and gives Chevy room to expand functionality in the future, although I can't confirm whether the company will update existing cars.
The driver alert features are also quite nice, although I would have liked adaptive cruise control as an option.
|Model||2014 Chevrolet Malibu|
|Powertrain||Direct injection 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||25 mpg city/36 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet radio, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Pioneer 250-watt nine-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot monitor, rear view camera|
|Price as tested||$30,125|