A narrow strip of asphalt strings for miles along ridges of the rugged Ouachita Mountains that stretch like plowed furrows across the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. This scenic highway, dubbed the Wilhelmina Trail after Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands who visited the area more than a century ago, follows contours of the lumpy hills over undulating pavement with dips and rises and strings of esses and sweepers. That's just the venue we seek to sample the enthused spirit of Malibu, Chevrolet's affordable mid-size sedan.
1. A 2.4L 4-cylinder makes 169-hp while the 3.6L V6 makes 252-hp.
2. Base LS models get a 4-speed automatic and less impressive fuel economy, while all other trim levels get a 6-speed auto and standard 4-cylinder to deliver 22/33-mpg (city/hwy).
3. The V6 is optional on the 2LT and LTZ trim levels.
4. Pricing starts at $21,825, with to $22,715 for the 1LT and $26,995 for the LTZ.
In twists and turns of the Wilhelmina Trail, our Malibu LTZ maintains a stable position with minimal lateral roll, the result of a stiffly braced unibody design with sophisticated independent suspension elements connected at every corner post. The larger 18-inch wheels don’t hurt either.
Surging power from the optional V6 engine, lurking below the right foot pedal, proves too much for some of the curve sets and occasionally requires a check through the left pedal, which links to four disc brakes and an on-board computer with anti-lock action as well as GM's high-tech StabiliTrak.
Steering is firm and precise due to speed-sensing variable assistance, reminding us of pricier Euro touring sedans. And this Malibu shows us in wiggles through right-left-right chicanes on the warped ridgeback road that it can waltz like a sporty machine, while offering plenty of power to get out of a corner thanks to a forceful and sophisticated 3.6-liter engine with variable valve timing.
Our impression of the enhanced ride and handling traits for the new generational design of Malibu brings to mind a cat-clawed touring car shipped over from Europe, but this mid-size model branded by Chevrolet comes together at GM's Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan.
Trims levels for the current Malibu include LS, 1LT, 2LT and the range-topping LTZ.
This latest Malibu mirrors the dressy exterior styling of several mega-bucks German touring sedans, while the fit and finish of body parts, the precise consistency of seams as body panels merge, also compares keenly to German cars. The stylish treatment carries over to the interior design of the Malibu, as the cabin looks handsome and deploys deluxe materials to cover dash, doors and seats.
The Malibu's unibody platform features a long wheelbase and wide track with world-class chassis dynamics to set up its superior handling traits. A fully independent suspension features MacPherson struts with aluminum L-shaped control arms up front with a four-link rear suspension. V6-models like our LTZ tester get a slighter larger rear sway bar as well.
Steering is a rack and pinion design with variable assistance and the steering ratio set to 16.4:1. It's important to point out that 4-cylinder models get an electric power steering system that improves fuel economy but at the expense of driving feel, while the hydraulic system with the V6 delivers good on-road feel, which is firm and quick at highway speed yet compliant and easy to work for slow-go in a parking lot.
Brakes include a large disc at every wheel and all linked to an electronic anti-lock brake system (ABS). All trim levels come standard with StabiliTrak with traction control.
All four Malibu trims pack aboard a carload of safety equipment including passive safety systems like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in front and back rows.
As for powertrains, Malibu LS and 1LT draw from GM's Ecotec dual-cam 2.4-liter VVT four-pack engine that generates a somewhat sluggish 169-hp at 6400 rpm plus torque of 160 ft-lbs at 4500 rpm. Base LS models get GM’s 4-speed automatic, while the 1LT upgrades to a six-speed unit.
Both the 2LT and top-level LTZ trim come standard with the same four-banger and six-speed, but offer an upgrade to GM's new dual-cam 3.6-liter V6 with 252 hp at 6300 rpm with the torque pitched to 251 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm. On the 2LT trim, that engine will cost you an extra $1,795; although it’s just $1,595 on the LTZ. The reason for the 2LT’s higher V6 price is because it also includes the LTZ’s standard 18-inch wheels.
As for fuel economy, the base LS with the 4-speed gets 22/30-mpg (city/highway), while the 6-speed automatic transmission ups the highway fuel economy to 33-mpg. Our V6 LTZ model is rated at a less-impressive 17/26-mpg.
Pricing for the 2010 ‘Bu starts at $21,825, although that’s for the LS model, which we don’t recommend. A slight increase to $22,715 will get you into a 1LT with improved fuel economy and nice trim. The LTZ starts at $26,995 – plus add on that $1,595 if you want the V6.
In an ideal world, Chevy would offer the Malibu with its new direct-injection 4-cylinder. At just over 180-hp it would provide adequate power and impressive fuel economy. The current choices leave you deciding between the two.
The Malibu's tastefully trimmed passenger compartment provides seats for five and lots of amenities. A solid track record of reliability and handsome (if forgettable) looks make Malibu a compelling buy in the midsize segment.
Fuel economy is good, but only for the 4-cylinder, which could do with a few more ponies.
Few changes are expected for 2011 (except the elimination of the outdated 4-speed automatic) so there’s little reason to hold off on your purchase waiting for something better. That is, unless you’re prepared to sit around until 2012 when a new generation Malibu arrives.
That being said, the current Malibu debuted back in 2008 as a huge leap forward for Chevrolet and all these years later it still manages to be decently competitive in the mid-size sedan segment.