GM’s Chevrolet division was once the American family car division.
Baseball, hot dogs apple pie and Chevrolet.
Today, it sells just one car – other than the Camaro and Corvette, neither of which is a family car.
That car is the Malibu, which is now the sole alternative to the new family car – the crossover SUV – which has almost replaced the sedan as the car of choice for most families, chiefly because crossovers offer more room for the money as well as features many sedans (including the Malibu) do not offer, such as all-wheel-drive.
What It Is
The Malibu is a medium-sized family sedan that competes with a dwindling number of rivals, including the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Prices begin at $23,400 for the base LS trim, which comes with one of the smallest four cylinder engines on the market – just 1.5 liters- paired with a CVT automatic and front-wheel-drive.
The next-up RS ($24,400) and LT ($26,800) trims have the same drivetrain but more amenities, including (RS) sportier “blackout” grille and dual exhaust tips and (LT) heated sears and automatic climate control.
The top-of-the-line Premier trim ($33,500) upgrades the engine to a larger 2.0 liter turbo’d four that’s paired with a conventional (geared, rather than CVT) nine-speed automatic.
This trim also comes standard with a heated steering wheel.LED headlights, dual-pane sunroof and ambient interior lighting.
Something less – and something more.
While the Malibu soldiers on, there is one less Malibu trim for 2022 – and a higher base price. Last year’s $22,140 to start L trim has been discontinued – which amounts to a $1,260 uptick in the effective base price of a 2022 Malibu.
Which takes away from what had been one of the Malibu’s strongest selling points relative to rivals like the Camry and Accord, both of which had much higher starting prices ($25,045 for the ’21 Camry and $24,470 for the ’21 Accord).
The ’22 Malibu’s base price – now higher by $1,260 – is much closer to the base prices of the ’22 Camry and Accord – whose prices remain about what they were for 2021 (they are now $25,295 and $25,470 respectively).
Trims with the 1.5 liter engine approach 40 MPG on the highway, considerably higher mileage than most crossovers – which use more gas because their shapes are less efficient.
Good sized trunk (nearly 16 cubic feet) for a car.
A family car for the family that doesn’t want a crossover.
What’s Not So Good
Rivals like Camry and Accord come standard with more engine – for not much more money.
Malibu’s stronger 2.0 liter engine is limited to the much-more-pricey Premier trim.
It’s probably the last family car Chevy will ever make.
Every Malibu except the Premier trim comes standard with a 1.5 liter, turbocharged four cylinder engine that makes 160 horsepower. It’s paired up with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic and front-wheel-drive.
The chief virtue of this engine is efficiency.
EPA rates it as being capable of delivering 29 miles-per-gallon in city driving and 36 miles-per-gallon on the highway. These are better numbers than crossovers like the Chevy Equinox – which uses the same basic engine – deliver. The Equinox only manages 31 on the highway and 26 in city driving.
Unfortunately for the Malibu, there are other cars in this class that get better mileage – with more engine.
These include the Camry, which comes standard with a 2.5 liter four (no turbo) that produces 203 horsepower – the most standard horsepower in the class – and still manages to rate 28 city and 39 on the highway.
There’s also the Honda Accord – which comes standard with a 1.5 liter engine that’s the same size as the Malibu’s standard engine – but summons 192 horsepower while also delivering 30 MPG in city driving and 38 on the highway.
Both of these two Malibu rivals are also noticeably quicker, each of them being able to get to 60 in the low-mid seven second range while the 1.5-powered Malibu needs closer to eight seconds to reach that mark.
This can be addressed by opting for the Premier trim, which ditches the 1.5 liter engine in favor of a larger and much stronger 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine.
It makes 250 horsepower, enough to drop the 0-60 time down to about 5.8 seconds.
Unfortunately, this engine is only available with the Premier trim – which costs $10k more to start than the base LS trim.
Honda offers the Accord’s optional 2.0 liter, 252 horsepower engine in two trims, including the $27,930 Sport trim – which stickers for $5,570 less to start than the Malibu Premium.
One upside is that that Malibu Premier also comes with a conventional automatic transmission – with gears that shift rather than ranges that vary.
CVT automatics are common – in almost everything – because they help boost city/highway mileage numbers by about 3-4 MPG vs. the same car with a conventional automatic. Which they do by keeping the engine in exactly the right range for a given road speed, as opposed to gears – which are each close to being the right gear for a given road speed and which also have to be changed (up or down) as road speed varies, with a shift in between each change. The CVT can vary ranges faster – and more smoothly, too -since there are no gears to shift (and engage/disengage).
But CVTs have operating characteristics some people dislike.
Instead of the conventional automatic’s shifting, there is surging – the engine revs and the transmission sometimes feels as though it’s slipping because it doesn’t shift, ever.
The revs build – and hold.
They only dial back as you back off the throttle. If the car’s engine hasn’t got a lot of power to spare – forcing you to keep the throttle down to get the car to move – there is sometimes a lot of drivetrain noise, the result of the engine being held at high RPM by the CVT, to keep the forward progress going.
If you’d like to avoid that – and would like more power to go along with that – the Premier trim with the 2.0 engine and nine-speed automatic is the ticket.
Provided you can afford it.
All Malibus are front-wheel-drive only, regardless of engine.
The same is true of the Accord but you can get AWD with the Camry – though not with the Camry’s available V6.
One of the reasons, probably, for the waning interest in cars – generally – in favor of crossovers is that most cars (there are a few exception) are boring to drive.
They are the victims of their own competence.
Nothing much ever goes wrong. But nothing much fun ever happens, either.
Malibus and Impalas made back in the ’60s and ’70s may have burned oil before they reached 50,000 miles and rusted out even before that – but they had V8s (most of them) and were rear-wheel-drive and had vinyl-covered three-across bench seats you could slide across in the curves and wheel covers that popped off if you took the curves too fast. They had huge trunks for hauling kegs of beer and roomy back seats for making out. Mom got groceries during the week; you took your date to the movies on weekends.
Many memories were made in those Malibus and Impalas.
This Malibu is forgettable.
It’s not a bad car in any specific way. In many quantifiable ways it is a much better car than those old blue-smoke-spewing (and gas guzzling) family dreadnoughts many of us remember, with fondness.
There’s nothing there to get emotionally attached to. These things are appliances – and while appliances have their place (and merits) the problem, when it comes to selling cars, is that other appliances – crossovers – have more merit, in terms of such things as room and space.
Without the harder-to-quantify things that made the old Malibus and Impalas charming, the new Malibu is just another car.
The Malibu is an attractively bland-looking car. Nothing about it calls attention to it – and that’s why it’s probably not long for this world.
Well, one of the reasons why . . . .
At 194.2 inches long, the Malibu is slightly longer than rivals like the Accord (192.1 inches) and the Camry (same 192.1 inches) which makes all of them mid-sized cars.
And they all have the same problem.
A compact-sized crossover like the Equinox mentioned earlier – which is only 183.1 inches long – has nearly 30 cubic feet (29.9 to be precise) of space for cargo behind its second row and that expands to a capacious 63.9 cubic feet when you fold the Equinox’s second row flat – vs. 15.7 cubic feet (and that’s it) in the trunk of a sedan like the Malibu. The Camry’s got less – 15.1 cubic feet – and the Accord only slightly more (16.7 cubic feet).
Having about twice the space for a family’s stuff – without even folding the back seats down – makes a crossover like the Equinox vastly more practical, as an appliance, than a car like the Malibu and its fellows.
Back in the day – when the Malibu and others of its type were full-size cars (comparable in today’s terms to cars like the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 and even longer and roomier at their height than those cars are today) they were immensely practical cars, with room for six three across in both rows and plenty of space for all their stuff in their huge trunks.
But not anymore.
This Malibu is decently roomy for its size; the problem is it’s less roomy than most family car buyers need. Which is why most family car buyers are now buying crossovers, instead.
One thing the Malibu had going for it was its lower price – vs. its rivals.
And vs. crossovers.
The ’22 Equinox, for instance, starts at $25,800 – which is about $3k more than the base Malibu was . . . before Chevy dropped the $22,140 L trim and thus raised the base price of the ’22 Malibu to $23,400 – which is much closer to the base price of an Equinox.
And its family car rivals, the Camry and Accord.
Chevy’s strategy seems to be to wean its buyers away from family cars – and toward crossovers like the Equinox.
Which makes sense, in an appliance-shopping kind-of-way.
It also makes sense for Chevy – which can make more money selling you a $25k crossover than a $22k car.
The Bottom Line
The family car is almost extinct and probably soon will be. The current Malibu is a case study in why.
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