This is the eighth generation of Chevrolet's longest-running badge, its mid-to-large saloon, the Malibu. It is an important car for the company, and it will compete in a fiercely contested marketplace. At the launch, the folks from Chevrolet were not shy about telling us who they were targeting — Toyota's Camry, the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord and the Hyundai Sonata. It was also made abundantly clear to us that they have ambitions to win sales from the sector above as well. They reckon that, dirham for dirham, the new Malibu will offer more kit, better specification and more comfort at every level.
Most of the cars on the launch drive came with the larger of the two engine options. There's a 2.4-litre four-cylinder unit for fleet and economy-minded users, and a 3.0 litre V6 for us petrolheads. Power is adequate — the smaller engine produces 170bhp and 230Nm of torque. The V6 is significantly brawnier, with 260bhp on tap and 290Nm, sufficient to reach 0-100kph in a shade over eight seconds. The smaller engine adds a good two seconds to that.
Both engines are coupled with a six-speed auto driving the front wheels, and there is a curious shift button on top of the gear stick should you wish to change manually. We tried it for novelty's sake, but the gearbox works fine anyway
Size-wise, the new Malibu is very close to the previous generation, but the packaging is better so there's more room inside. The exterior design is said to be inspired by that of the Malibu's cool big brother, the Camaro, which you see most clearly in the lights and bootlid. Certainly, there's a lot more visual excitement about the exterior, the old model's somewhat plain and slab-sided looks being replaced with a much crisper and more modern design. It's also aerodynamically very clean, having spent over 400 hours being refined in the wind tunnel. The slippery shape helps with economy, of course, but it also means there is very little wind noise to intrude into the cabin.
Dynamically, the new Malibu also moves the game on significantly. There is a general air of refinement, the ride is nicely composed and compliant, and the V6 engine pulls reasonably well.
It is significantly smaller than the previous car's lump, and gives a very different feel. Where the old car had a lazy, long-legged nature, the new one is livelier and more responsive, but you have to work the engine harder to get into the power band rather than surfing on a wave of torque. As a result, the car feels much more lively, dynamic and responsive. It is a much more modern experience altogether.
s you would expect, the front-wheel-drive chassis will eventually give way to mild understeer, but you have to push it well beyond sensible limits to do so. Our car was fitted with Kumho tyres, and they were both quiet and sticky. How well they can combine this with endurance and economy remains to be seen, but they certainly held up well on the very few bends we were able to explore.
The suspension is set up for comfort rather than outright sportiness, but there is sufficient electronic wizardry in the traction and stability control systems to keep everything in check. The result is a car that doesn't roll much but can absorb bumps and poor surfaces without fuss, and which glides over smooth surfaces extremely well. The steering has variable assistance, and whilst it is light and accurate it is not the most involving. The wheel itself is nicely chunky, though, and good to hold.
Our test drive was carried out on a very windy and dusty day, which had the advantage of proving that the Malibu is actually quite stable in crosswinds, and not easily deflected by sideways gusts. It tracked true, holding your chosen line with accuracy, unperturbed by the conditions. The dust storm also enabled us to confirm that the door seals work well! Another surprise from the windy weather is just how quiet the Malibu is inside. There's been a lot of work done to prevent noise intrusion into the cabin, even to the extent of making sure there are the minimum number of holes in the shell for wires to be routed through and so on. Chevrolet also said they designed the underside with as much care as the visible parts for the same reason, to cut down road noise and make the cabin quieter. It worked. It's not until you get into licence-busting territory that wind noise begins to make itself felt. Stick to the posted limits and it will not be an issue.
The rest of the experience is much as you would expect. There are three basic trim levels (LS, LT and LTZ), and as you go up the list the toys get better and more numerous. Top of the range brings a very nice 7in sat-nav touchscreen display, there's a good stereo and leather everywhere. That sat-nav display also holds a secret — hidden behind it is a little storage compartment. Pressa button and the whole display flips up to reveal a space ideal for your phone and the keyless entry fob. Clever.
Higher trim brings bigger alloys, HID lights and power-folding mirrors. The larger wheels (18in standard on the LTZ) are better looking, and top spec also gets you daytime running lights. These frame the ubiquitous corporate face, with a deep double grille split in the middle with the obligatory bow tie. It actually works better in bright colours and white, though the black alternative does have a mean stealthiness to it.
There's a lot to like about the Malibu, and little to criticise. Spec is important, and colour choice will have an impact on the looks. It is never going to be a sportscar, despite the Camaro pretensions, but it is not meant to be. What it does do is deliver above-average drive and comfort, at a significantly lower price than similarly specced rivals. Whether the Malibu's many charms will tempt people out of their Japanese or Korean rivals remains to be seen, but it is very definitely a serious contender. One to consider.