Pros: Stylish interior; responsive engine; quiet ride

Cons: Shortage of user content; cheap cabin materials; limited rear-seat room

When the Chevrolet Malibu took home North American Car of the Year honors four years ago, it made believers out of skeptics. Until that point, cars from Detroit were falling way short of their foreign counterparts. But the Malibu brought a stylish and quality package for buyers in the mid-size segment - one that could be cross-shopped against offerings from leaders Honda and Toyota.

Today, the mid-size category has become even more competitive with superb cars from Hyundai and Kia, putting the Malibu in a difficult position again. Although it is still a quality car with a number of positive attributes, it's time for it to rise to a new occasion. Thus, the Malibu will get a complete redesign for next year.

In the meantime, for 2012, the Malibu receives minor revisions along with some new options packages. The base LS model has a new Uplevel Package, and the midrange LT offers a Sunroof and Convenience Package.

In the final year of its seventh-generation model, the Malibu is a solid offering and a trusted nameplate. But it will need to improve greatly to survive the competition. It's a good thing that big changes are on their way for 2013.

Comfort & Utility

The Malibu's dual-cockpit design retains its appeal after four years. And when it's combined with a two-tone color scheme and specialized ambient lighting, this interior conveys a decidedly upscale and dramatic character. Gauges and controls are simple, yet sophisticated-looking. The only detractors are some low-quality materials and hard plastics in the dash and door panels. With luck, these will be eliminated in next year's redesign.

The front seats are comfortable, well padded and nicely contoured. Side bolstering gives front passengers additional support during cornering maneuvers. The three-passenger rear seat is also adequately supportive for longer journeys, but it's not as spacious as in some other mid-size cars. It's good on head- and legroom, but shoulder space is an issue, which makes it difficult to cart around more than two adults back there. Three adults will feel downright crowded. However, there's more than enough room for three kids.

The Malibu is available in three trims: LS, LT and LTZ. The most notable standard conveniences on the base LS are cruise control, a manually-adjustable tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat. The midlevel LT adds heated seats for the front row and steering-wheel-mounted controls for the stereo. There's also a remote start feature, which allows drivers to turn their car on long before getting in. The uplevel LTZ adds leather upholstery, automatic climate, heated power mirrors, sunroof and an eight-speaker premium sound system.

Although the Malibu's interior is equipped with a comprehensive roster of amenities, especially in top LTZ trim, it still falls noticeably short next to the mid-size segment's bestsellers. To succeed, it will need to beef-up its content and strive to use materials that feel better to the touch.

Technology

Technology amenities are limited to Bluetooth and a stereo with MP3 capabilities. Although navigation is not available, drivers can get turn-by-turn directions via OnStar. Modern gadgetry such as parking sensors or a rear-view camera are not available on the Malibu. These and other technologies are expected to be offered for 2013.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Malibu is powered by a choice of two carryover engines. The base unit is a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder producing 169 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque. This engine pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway.

Uplevel LT and LTZ models have the option of a 3.6-liter V6 making 252 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque. Energy is managed by the same six-speed automatic. Fuel economy is estimated to be 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway.

While the 4-cylinder engine is adequate for daily driving, the V6 adds a significant dose of power for a more enjoyable driving experience.

Safety

Occupant protection comes from a full complement of six airbags. GM's OnStar system is also present to send an emergency signal to rescue personnel in the event of an accident. The Malibu comes armed with ABS, traction control and stability control.

Driving Impressions

The Malibu offers an excellent balance of ride and handling. This is due to its Euro-tuned suspension, wide stance and rigid chassis. Handling is secure and confident, especially with the top LTZ model's 18-inch wheels. At the same time, the Malibu's ride is compliant and well composed, with the ability to swallow up most roadway roughness. The result is a smooth and quiet feel for everyday driving as well as for long-distance cruising.

Pushing the Malibu a bit harder reveals a car that can hold its own in corners and higher-speed lane changes. It displays just the right amount of agility and nimbleness to make an enjoyable driving experience. That's especially true when the car is equipped with the more powerful V6, which also brings with it a hydraulic power steering system. Turns are quick and precise, and the turning radius is tight.

The Malibu 4-cylinder uses a less responsive electric-assist power steering system that's vague compared with the more conventional hydraulic system. Although this setup helps the fuel economy equation, it doesn't feel very well connected.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Accord - There may be no car that's more bulletproof than the Accord. It's capable, feature-rich and highly reliable. That said, the Malibu beats the Accord in both styling and affordability. It also offers a more spirited V6.

Toyota Camry - The Camry is more high-tech-friendly than ever. That's in addition to its near-luxury ride and its abundance of passenger and cargo space. The Malibu, however, bests it in exterior and interior design and offers sharper handling skills.

Hyundai Sonata - The Sonata is the new leader in the mid-size segment. It offers sporting road manners, an eye-catching design, lots of premium features and excellent value. It's also a fuel-efficient choice. The current Malibu will have a hard time competing with the Sonata, but perhaps next year's fully redesigned 2013 model will be more up to the task.

Kia Optima - The Optima is attractive, sporty and brings a lengthy list of innovative features. It's also one of the best values in the mid-size segment. Like the Sonata, the Optima is appealing on multiple fronts, beating the current Malibu in most areas.

AutoTrader Recommends

The four-cylinder LTZ model makes the most sense to us. Even though the V6-powered Malibu is more fun to drive, the 4-cylinder is considerably more fuel-efficient while offering everyday drivability. We chose the LTZ trim because it offers a lot of premium features: foglamps, leather upholstery and automatic climate control, among other amenities, all of which enhance the driving experience. It's pricier than the LS and LT, but it's also an overall better value. The LS and LT come up very short on content, especially next to its strong competitors.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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