Vince Pornelos / Kelvin Christian Go | May 26, 2018 09:56
An Uphill Climb
Here's a sad truth: no one cares about the executive midsize sedan class anymore.
OK, maybe that wasn't entirely true. Allow me to rephrase: Not as many car buyers car about this category -once the logical class of car upgrade to from a compact- in a country that's mad about SUVs.
Once a very popular type of car amongst executives, the Corona/Camry, Accord, and Cefiro/Teana/Altima have all seen their sales dip in favor of SUVs like Montero Sport, mu-X, and Fortuner. The numbers concur with that story too: not a single midsize sedan broke into the top 10 in 2017 or the year before that. Heck, not even a compact car like the Toyota Corolla Altis entered the top 10 in those years either.
That's a real shame. Many of these great midsize sedans are cars we truly like, regardless whether we prefer to be driven or enjoy to drive ourselves.
So why, amidst the dwindling of interest in the executive car, does Chevrolet want another crack at it? They've already got a good selling SUV of their own in the Trailblazer, yet they still opted to give the market the new generation Malibu.
Could it be simply a matter of nostalgia for a dying breed? Or is Chevrolet trying to show us something new?
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Malibu's design isn't the car itself, it's who penned it. Internationally, this ninth generation Malibu has been around for a while; it was originally launched in 2015 in the United States. The Malibu actually took so long to get here (from their South Korean factory) that there is actually already a facelifted model for 2019 in the U.S.. But what was different was that Chevrolet got a 20-something year old to do the job: someone named Jaymer Starbody. Yes, he sounds like someone from a Marvel flick, but the car he came up with certainly stood out.
The Malibu most definitely looks different. The face looks quite mean; frowning even, especially with the demeanor of the fascia with those headlights and a new version of the familiar Chevy split grille. I like how the profile isn't as 3-box (hood, cabin, trunk) as before; if anything, it evokes a very 4-door coupe-like silhouette given how the roof slopes rearward. The profile is something we liked in cars like the BMW 4-Series GranCoupe, Mercedes CLS, and the Mazda6, and the same applies to the Malibu. If this is the capability of a millenial at the drafting table (or on a CAD program) then by all means, let's have them design more cars.
The cabin is likewise pleasant to the eye. There are traces of a concept car in there given the shapes on the dash and the contours all around, but it's not overwhelming in any way at all. If anything, the Malibu is an interesting car to be in if you're stuck in traffic.
Familiarization is a breeze. The steering wheel has a nice feel to it. The gauges are easy to read. The controls are conventional. Everything is where I expect it to be; yes, this is a car you can drive away in without reading a manual, though more of us really should.
Settling in even further, I get better acquainted with the features. The trip computer's readouts come through on a big central display between the tach and speedometer. Chevrolet's touchscreen MyLink audio system is clear and intuitive to use, and comes with a very good Bose speaker system. But perhaps the feature I liked most is the cooling function for the front seats; while I'm not a fan of terracotta leather, it's nice to be able to cool down the driver's seat after a few hours parker under our noontime sun. There's even a wireless charging system, but I'll be able to test it when (or if) I upgrade to something like an iPhone X.
This is an midsize car meant for executives, and so the backseat comes with its own A/C vents and is quite generous in terms of space. Legroom, specifically. Most of us can easily cross our legs for comfort. One drawback with that sloping roof, however, is that it compromises headroom. Case in point: you can bump your head on the ceiling getting in and out of the backseat.
The previous generation of the Malibu that we tried out a few years ago came with a 2.4-liter, normally-aspirated motor that made 167 PS. No, it wasn't stellar by any definition of the term. Thankfully, they've tossed that engine out with something new, but with less displacement.
Yes, this Malibu gets a more interesting powerplant: a 2.0-liter twin cam engine that's been turbocharged. As a result, this Malibu has 250 horsepower available, along with 353 Newton meters of torque. Together with a 6-speed automatic, that should be plenty for a car that is bigger than its predecessor, but lighter by 136 kilos. This Chevy can also be started up two ways: you can get in, step on the brake, and press the ignition button, or you can just press the starter button on the remote as you're walking up to it in the parking lot.
As a drive around town, the Malibu certainly lives up to the promise. The ride isn't as soft as the ride of the Camry or the Altima; I consider it more closer to the lines of the Accord or Mazda6. It's firm, but definitely fair. The acceleration of the powertrain is perhaps what I liked the most; smooth and surprisingly linear for a turbo. There's not much lag from the turbo, and the transmission kicks down naturally when I press the throttle a little more.
Safety was definitely the priority. 8 airbags are tucked away, ready to fire if needed; hopefully not. There's lane keep assist, collision alert, so on and so forth. There are sensors all around that do have a tendency to over-warn the driver, but you can turn them off if they're intrusive. One thing I did feel while driving the Malibu was its pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking; in our close quarters daily traffic, I can feel the Malibu priming the brakes when it detects motorcycles cutting into the lane. The sensation isn't unnerving, but its there.
We had actually expected the Chevrolet Malibu to perform better in the fuel economy department, but with moderate city traffic at an average of 22 km/h, the Malibu was already at 7.1 kilometers to a liter. On the highway it's much better, as the transmission and low cruising RPMs combine to return 13.9 km/l if driven sensibly. And that's with the smart adaptive cruise control as well.
Where the Chevrolet Malibu shines, surprisingly enough, is in spirited driving. We never expected much feel from the steering, and rightfully so; the electric steering systems today still can't stack up for that classic driving feel. But where the Malibu makes up for it is in accuracy. If driven at speed around a set of bends, the Malibu hugs the road well far better than its predecessor. It brakes, corners, and accelerates like it means it. This is far from a ho-hum sedan.
What I didn't like with the drive was the shifter. When you hold the wheel, your fingers feel what seem like paddleshifters, and so I pulled them. But the only things that changed were the songs on my playlist and the volume of the audio system. Apparently, those "paddles" were for the audio system; two on the left to change track, and two on the right spoke to change volume. If you wanted to manually select a gear, you used a +/- button on the shifter itself. It's ergonomically pointless.
Still, the 2018 Malibu 2.0 LTZ 6AT certainly has a lot of style, a lot of features, and a lot more performance than I expected. At PhP 2,131,888 (the guys at Chevrolet Philippines like their 8's), this Malibu not a compelling proposition, but it makes a good enough case for itself.
The climb won't be easy though. Buying trends in the market are not on its side, but that's not the biggest hurdle for the Malibu: it's quality control.
While we do like a lot of its attributes, there are some noticeable inconsistencies in the assembly process. The chrome window trim on the passenger side doors do not line up perfectly. Even the driver's inner door panel doesn't fully align with the dashboard, and by quite a bit. Yes, they're small nitpicky details, but once you notice them, you can't un-notice them. It's excusable if this was a pick-up or an econo sedan, but this is a PhP 2,131,888 (the guys at Chevy love their 8's) upscale saloon. If you're paying that much for a car, there are no excuses.