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Car reviews - Holden - Malibu - range

Our Opinion

We like
Sharp pricing, good rear-seat space, big boot, comfortable seats in entry-level CD, competitively equipped with rivals, it’s no Commodore rival
Room for improvement
Technology is limited to infotainment system, rain-sensing wipers on top-spec CDX have no auto setting, entry-level model has almost the same look to interior as the higher-spec version

13 Jun 2013

LET’S start this review from the back seat of the Malibu. We’re focussing down here because, side-by-side with the Holden Commodore, there’s only a handspan of difference between them in terms of length.

That’s about where the comparisons should end. Yes, the Malibu comes close to the Commodore in the car park, but it doesn’t translate into the same generous interior proportions as the larger, locally made sedan.

The rear-door opening on the Malibu is quite large, and the door swings out wide for easy access.

The two outboard rear seats are well bolstered, particularly in the squab, and quite comfortable, although narrow. The centre seat, though, is typical middle-row fare, meaning it is firm, high, and split by a transmission tunnel used on the shared global platform’s all-wheel-drive models.

The outboard rear-seat passengers, though, are well looked after. On our top-specification CDX, costing from $31,990 before on-road costs for the petrol version and $35,990 for the diesel, there’s two big door pockets that can hold a large water bottle, a drop-down centre armrest with two cupholders and a lidded storage space, and two large seatback pockets.

Where you will lose out compared with Commodore – and Toyota’s Camry for that matter – is rear-seat toe room, which is very tight thanks to the Malibu’s low, swept roofline that means most occupants – more about that a bit later – sit quite low. Knee room is also tight when sitting behind a tall driver or front-seat passenger, but not uncomfortably so.

The front seats of the more expensive CDX models are a mixed bag. Both are leather-trimmed, and electrically adjustable, but have a strongly bolstered squab that means those of us with a more generously proportioned derriere need to settle into it.

My personal preference, though, is for the vinyl-trimmed cloth seats in the $28,490 petrol-engined base model (once again, add $4000 for the diesel).

They are much more comfortable and supportive than the leather ones, and the driver’s side even includes electric height adjust. The downside, though, is that the tall passenger’s side seat has no height adjustment, pitching heads up near the roofline. You look down on the driver.

The driver’s seat, then, is the place to be. The front doors open a generous space, although it is a long drop down into the driver’s seat.

Storage space is excellent. There’s a drop-down bin in front of the driver’s knee, a huge cave in behind the swing-up seven-inch colour screen in the middle of the dash, and a couple of narrow slots to stash a recharging mobile phone on the side of the transmission tunnel. Once again, there are generous-sized door bins that make up for a smallish glovebox and lidded console bin that doubles as a padded armrest.

Standard equipment is generous, and runs to a reversing camera with parking sensors, keyless entry and start, a Bluetooth phone connection, a USB port, and Holden’s MyLink entertainment system that piggybacks off a smartphone connection to stream music and podcasts.

The seatbelts have a locking system on the buckle to stop you sliding underneath them in a crash, all three rear seats have headrests – unlike the Commodore – six airbags are standard, and the Malibu ranks as a good pick for safety with a five-star crash rating.

The boot is big, too, rating at a class-competitive 545 litres. The rear seats split-fold to an almost flat position to open up a wide, but not very deep space to the high boot floor.

The boot release button is disguised into the rear boot lip-mounted centre stop light.

Apart from the leather bits, the interior view of the base CD and richer CDX are almost identical. The extra $3500 you tip in for the CDX over the base model goes to bigger alloys on better Bridgestone Potenza rubber than the eco tyres fitted to the CD, the dead cow trim and heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, fog lights, and LED-trimmed tail lights that make the more costly model look like a different car from the rear.

The view from behind the wheel is different. The Malibu uses blue-lit Chevrolet Camaro-like squared instrument surrounds that mimic the similarly muscle car-esque tail-lights and split a colour LCD trip computer. There’s nothing else out there like them.

Likewise, you won’t find the long, deep fins that project from the swept dash that dominates the front of the car elsewhere. I found myself trying to see if I could jam my mobile phone or a pen into them as extra storage space.

Almost all the surfaces where the hand or elbow fall are soft-touch, either trimmed in vinyl or leather depending on the model, or in plastics that vary ever so slightly in their textural finish.

The only bits that look cheap is a black and silver plastic insert that sits at the bottom of the centre stack, and the big orange-segment air vents at the top of the horseshoe-shaped dash.

The buttons are large and logically laid-out. The steering wheel, plastic in the base model and leather-wrapped in the more expensive one, is parts-bin GM, and switchgear is shared across the Australian-made Commodore and Cruze.

Enough on the inside. What about under the bonnet?

Both versions of the Malibu use a six-speed automatic gearbox with a choice of two powerplants.

The first is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine generating 123kW of power close to the rev limiter, and 225Nm of pulling power from its mid-range.

The engine features in the “Eco” version of the Malibu sold in the US that achieves about 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres on the US fuel test cycle, but also boasts clever fuel-saving technology such as a grille with self-closing shutters to make it more aerodynamic.

By comparison, the Australian version officially averages 8.0L/100km for the petrol version – without all the fuel-saving mods. Granted, that could all be down to the difference in the US and Australian fuel test regimes. As Holden says, it is not the best fuel economy figure in the class, but it sure isn’t the worst.

Push the start button, and the 2.4-litre engine shows itself up as smooth and quiet at idle. Flick the gearbox into drive and nose it out into traffic, and the engine is an acceptable, willing companion.

You’ll hear it higher in the rev range, particularly if you stress it by, say, accelerating briskly from the traffic lights, but it is not uncouth.

The six-speed auto is nothing special, pairing nicely with the engine, but it will chase fuel economy at times, holding gears when another lower one would be better.

There’s also an odd, Barina-like gear change toggle switch on top of the shift lever. It only works when you move the shifter into its “M” for manual mode, and does little to add fun or excitement to the car.

On test, we struggled to get anywhere near the official combined average despite our mainly country road drive route to Daylesford in the heart of Victoria. At best, we saw 9.6L/100km when it should have dropped a lot lower than the average 8.0-litre figure.

At an official 6.4L/100km in CD trim, or 6.5L/100km in CDX, the Cruze-sourced 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine is a better choice, particularly in light of the fact that Malibu carries a big 73-litre fuel tank that gives the diesel version a hypothetical 1140-kilometre range – and a $100-plus refill bill at current bowser prices.

The diesel serves up only 117kW of power, but a much more generous 350Nm of torque, although with a few revs on board rather than just off idle.

Loping around town it’s an excellent companion, with enough step-off acceleration to keep up with traffic and a well of overtaking power once rolling. It seems a better fit to the gearbox, too, with the ‘box’s smarts flicking down a gear to help the car brake on downhill runs.

Fuel economy on test, at 6.2L/100km, bettered the official average on a mostly downhill run back into Melbourne.

The issue, though, is one of noise.

Diesels are traditionally a bit more raucous compared with their petrol rivals, especially at idle, but the diesel-engined Malibu also produces an unpleasant, constant low rumble from the exhaust at highway speeds.

Ride and handling are a mixed bag. The Malibu is comfortable enough at all speeds, generally soaking up lumps and bumps well, and only succumbing to road roar on coarser chip surfaces.

The base model car rides on 17-inch Kumho Ecsta low-rolling resistance rubber that is grippy enough. However, the ride on them is a little choppy over sharper hits, and probably not helped by the need to keep them inflated to a rock-hard 44psi. By comparison, the Bridgestone rubber on the CDX is recommended at 33psi.

The petrol and diesel cars also use different steering set-ups. The 2.4-litre car has fuel-saving electrically assisted steering that would allow it to have the same self-parking capacity as the Commodore if ever it was called for, but the diesel version uses a traditional hydraulic system.

Both are city-light, requiring very little pushing or pulling on the steering wheel to make a corner. The diesel steering is almost devoid of feel, while the petrol model’s does give some feedback, but needs constant small corrections at highway speeds.

Malibu’s big drawcard is value, where it does set a new benchmark for the segment. However, it will struggle to shine in the light of fresher-looking competitors that are better to drive, potentially more pleasant to own, and more truly global.

Let’s end the Commodore comparisons right there.

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