The new Chevrolet Malibu Turbo is interesting mostly because of the "turbo" part of the name. But not for the reasons you'd think. When most of us think of "turbo" we still think of it in terms of fast and sporty, since that's what we grew up with. If a car was turbocharged in the 80s, then it was a sports car that had the word "TURBO" badged or decal'd on it in at least 60 places. Plus, there was that turbo button on our old 486 PCs, and we know how fast that was.
But what's interesting about the Malibu is that, really, the turbo here isn't about speed— it's about letting a 2-liter 4 cylinder engine take a job usually given to a 3.6 L V6. And, with that in mind, it makes sense. But, as anyone who has had to decide between fireworks and an insurance payment, sense isn't particularly exciting.
(Full Disclosure: Chevy wanted me to drive some of their cars with such a fierce, unrelenting intensity that they flew me up to San Francisco, fed me some great food, and put me up at the St.Regis, where, incredibly, one could buy a bath for $1600. That's more than I paid for the car I drive every day.)
I drove the Malibu Turbo for about half a day, and got to know it reasonably well. To be up front, most of my previous Malibu experiences have been with ones closer in era to the Repo Man Malibu, so my review will be more about comparing the Malibu to its contemporary competitors than the alien-harboring cars of the past. Just so you know.
The new Malibu's not a bad-looking car, by any stretch. It's fairly clean and sleek looking, the proportions are reasonably balanced, and especially like the new Chevy-family taillight treatment. Well, more so on the LTZ-spec version, which springs for LEDs instead of some now archaic looking 12V bulbs. The two rounded red squares just have a snazzier, micro-Vegas look with the ring of bright red LEDs.
The front end has a reasonably purposeful look about it, with nicely detailed headlights that could be from almost anything, from a Kia to a BMW. The grille has a nice honeycomb pattern,with a big chevy badge in the middle. Am I the only one that thinks the Chevy Bowtie needs a color change? That brassy gold always looks tacky to me. I miss the deep blue era of bowtie, but I'd just like to see something else. How about a deep gunmetal grey?
That said, this car is also strikingly anonymous. We were driving these not-yet-released cars throughout San Francisco and I'm fairly positive nobody noticed at all. I've been pulled over in an FR-S right before they were available because the cop noticed it in traffic and was curious. That's not something you'd have to worry about in this car.
Sure, it's pleasant-looking enough, but it's also like Wonder Woman's jet. It may as well be invisible. I'm not going to take points off, since it's not actually ugly or anything, but it's a car you'd have trouble remembering as you were walking away from it.
The Malibu's interior isn't terrible, but you definitely get the feeling that it's trying a bit too hard. I'm all for mixing up interior color and materials to free humanity from the seas of black and grey we've been trapped in, and while the Malibu doesn't suffer from that, it does feel too busy. Like the designers went through a list of what sorts of materials and finishes were perceived as "high-end" and tried to cram them all in there. It's sort of Vegasish, but not in the good way like when I mentioned Vegas for the taillight LEDs. More like a lobster stuffed with a steak and wrapped in veal. Sure, sounds great on paper, but in practice, it's kind of gross.
I do like the round-rect dash instrument binnacles, though, and the central color LCD display is nice. The central nav/radio LCD suffers from the same glare issues as many other cars (if a screen is right under a window, throw a hood over it— it works for the instruments! Jeez.).
The materials and plastics don't feel particularly high-end, which undercuts all that effort they went through cramming fake chrome and fake wood and fake leather all over the place.
The seats are couchy and comfortable, though there's a bit less rear-seat legroom than you'd think. The trunk is vast and well-carpeted, and I even tried locking myself in there and pulling the glowing escape handle. It was surprisingly comfortable and non-claustrophobic. So, for those of you looking to do a little kidnapping, but want your victims reasonably comfortable, cut off that emergency trunk release and you've found your car.
This is the part of the test that drove home the realization that turbos have grown up and gotten real jobs. The 2.0 L EcoSomething 4 makes 259 HP and 260 lb/ft of twisting, which sound like decent numbers, but in practice, it's quite underwhelming. There's a bit of turbo lag when you hit the accelerator, though it does get louder nice and quick. Too bad it doesn't sound better. Chevy says it'll get to 60 from a lounging position in 6.3 seconds. Maybe that's right, but it just doesn't feel all that quick.
It's not sluggish, I know, but it's also not that much fun.
The brakes are fine. They kept me from running into anybody or anything. This tends to be the most boring section of these reviews, huh? I tried a panic stop to see if I could squeeze any more drama out of this part, but the ABS and decent-sized discs kept things pretty calm. Sorry. For cars that we get to drive on a track, I think we can learn more, but in the normal Peoples' Republic of Mundania you won't be complaining about the brakes.
And here I think we've hit on this car's raison d'etre. It's a comfortable car. The ride is smooth, the car is very, very quiet— it reminds me of what GM was good at building back in the 70s and 80s— very comfortable highway cruisers.
I'm pretty sure if your only criteria was ride comfort, the Malibu Turbo could compete well with anything, from almost any segment. Since most of our readership still metabolizes and has the rudiments of human desire, though, I suspect this won't be enough to sway many buyers.
The smooth ride you can get out of the Malibu isn't likely to be ruined by overzealous driving, so your snoozing aunt doesn't have to worry about yelling at you to take it easy. The car doesn't really inspire much in the way of handling interest. The electrically-assisted steering is quite numb and gives very little feel for the road. Imperfections and bumps were more likely to be heard than felt. This makes sense if the goal is comfort, but I didn't find it that engaging to drive.
In twists and on the lovely Central Valley mountain roads, it understeers and feels a little ponderous. It's not unsafe, but, like I mentioned before, not that much fun. In a rental context, in the wet, sure, I bet you can have some fun doing donuts in a parking lot, but for more mature fare, not so much.
The six-speed auto in the Malibu felt pretty half-ass. For a car of this segment and cost, it just doesn't seem like much effort was put into it. Yes, the auto box makes its shifts unobtrusively, and does seem to adjust its program when you're really giving it the beans, so that's not terrible. But certain aspects of it, like the manual-shift mode, just seem like an afterthought. If you want to shift your own gears, there's no paddles or gear-stick options, just a fiddly, plasticky little rocker switch on the top of the gear knob. It feels about as good as a power lock toggle and is about as engaging to use. It's a manual-shift option phoned in, at best.
The engine note in the Malibu Turbo is almost nonexistent, except when it isn't, and then you wish it was. Make sense? What I'm saying is that this is a generally very quiet car, and that's good, because the engine under load sounds sort of like what I imagine a giant Cuisinart sounds like.
The intentional audio of the radio and sound system is good, and seems generally on par with other similar offerings, but at the same time isn't really anything to write home about. Even if you're in the habit of writing home about car stereos. Who knows, maybe your mom's into that sort of thing, God love her.
The general level of automotive toys is pretty high nowadays, and the Malibu Turbo is equipped about as well as anyone now. There's the nice little color LCD in the main dash cluster I'm now growing to expect, the bigger center LCD with Chevy's MyLink system, which does a decent job of connecting wirelessly to your phone to stream content. It works with Gracenote so you get proper song names and album art, which is nice. Also, there's voice commands so you can make calls without touching anything (you know, like how an animal would) and there's GM's OnStar service so you can always chat with a nice person on the Indian subcontinent if you get lost and lonely.
Oh, and it's got a backup camera and a 110V outlet and Lane Departure Warning Systems and Forward Collision control systems as well.
It's funny how blasé I am about all this stuff. Ten years ago this was close to science fiction in a car in this segment.
The value equation is a bit tricky here, because while there's nothing out-and-out horrible about this car, I just can't imagine actually desiring one. You'd be delighted if someone up and gave you the Malibu Turbo, but if that same generous somebody gave you the cash, I really doubt this would be the car anyone in the Jaloposphere would pick.
It's fine, it's comfortable, it gets the job done, and for the kit you get, the cost, $30,165 ($33,820 as tested), isn't so terrible for what you get. Plus, the smaller, turbo'd engine was a good idea fuel economy-wise, with the Malibi getting a not awful (but not amazing) 21 city and 30 highway. So, it's not too bad a value (though in many ways, the hybrid makes more sense for this particular car).
That said, I really hope I never ever buy one. Because if I do, something has really, really changed in my life, and that scares me. It's not the change I fear— it's that change.
And, hey, holy crap— it looks like we now have a perfect middle-scoring car! Yay?
2013 Malibu Turbo