One of the key points that Bob Lutz makes in his book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters relates to the vehicle line executives (VLEs) that were on staff at General Motors when he was there. The VLEs were, he writes, “by and large a fine and experienced group and dedicated to accomplishing their mission.”
But it was mission scope that was problematic. “In the VLE’s list of objectives, attainment of which would be crucial to his or her future compensation, the words ‘world’s most appealing sedan in the segment’ were nowhere to be found. Instead, quantified objectives covered cost (good!), investment, quality, warranty, cost, assembly hours per vehicle, percentage of parts reused from the prior vehicle (believed to be the secret to Toyota’s success), and, important to note, time to program execution.”
Lutz also notes: “Where the GM system departed from similar program manager schemes at other automobile companies is that the VLEs were given responsibility for design.”
If you go back to the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu, which was then an all-new vehicle, you’ll find what is undoubtedly a car that met the metrics for the VLE to a T. You’ll also find a car (actually that would be cars, as there were two versions, the sedan and the Malibu Maxx, a five-door) to be a study in rather underwhelming design.
As we move forward to 2008 the Malibu became something of a midsize revelation. It had a fresh, stylish appearance both inside and out. It was a major departure. One can readily imagine Bob Lutz in the design studio, working with the women and men there, helping them execute a car that would show the world that GM wasn’t entirely about parts reuse and time to program execution. (Sure, timing is critical, but if something isn’t done right, doing it faster doesn’t help unless it is a prototype, not a production product.)
If the 2004 to 2008 Malibu was a major stride, the 2008 to 2013 Malibu is, at least in terms of the exterior sheet metal, a baby step. And not just in the context of being comparatively small; there is a certain awkwardness involved, as well.
As industry observer Peter DeLorenzo points out, the 2013 seems to have had its exterior design execution done by two separate groups who didn’t exactly communicate with one another. There is the front. Then there is the back. And the two are, he says, essentially welded together at the C-pillar.
When you look at the front of the 2013 Malibu, you know you are looking at the Malibu. Sure, there are changes in the shape of the headlamps, and the grille openings are somewhat modified, but its resemblance to the forerunner is a case of, perhaps, being a bit too timid, as though the thought was, “Well, the 2008 is really well accepted and a major departure from the previous generation; let’s not mess with success.” Let’s face it: between those two vehicles General Motors did go through more than a spot of bother as regards its financial situation, so fiscal prudency is not something that can be readily criticized. But in a market where there are competitive offerings like the Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, and Hyundai Sonata, not going big is not laudable.
As for the back of the car, there is a significant change between the 2008 and the 2013 models, but as DeLorenzo observes, it is as though the calculation was, “Well, the Chevy Camaro is solid in its segment, so let’s borrow the taillamp design from the car and put it on the Malibu.” Sure, the 2013 rear is an improvement, but why they didn’t go further is a question that may find its answer in the aforementioned financial boggle.
Of course, a car isn’t just about its exterior sheet metal. And in terms of the interior, the Malibu accounts itself rather well, with a clean, fresh appearance and an evident attention to detail (note how the HVAC louvers’ form stretch not only across the instrument panel, but even wrap into the front door trim). The seats are comfortable, the buttons and dials are readily accessed, but the faux wood trim that’s salted around the cabin looks more faux than it does wood.
Oftentimes people talk about a car having a solid structure. Which is a good thing, assuming that the solidity doesn’t translate into harshness that set your teeth a-chattering. Driving to and from my office I have to go over a rail crossing with two sets of rails. Generally this is a head-bobbing affair. I was delighted to discover that the Malibu took the babump, babump, babump, babump2 in stride. Nice.
The Advanced Safety Package ($395) surprised me when I was closing on a car in front of me faster than the ASP thought was good and so it expressed its dismay audibly and visibly. Nice.
The Malibu is a good car. A solid car. A well equipped car. A moderately attractive car. A car with reasonable gas mileage and a overall 5-star NHTSA safety rating. But it doesn’t have that certain something, that stretch, that its predecessor model brought to the market. So the question is where good, solid, equipped, sufficiently handsome, and safe are enough.
Engine: 2.0-liter, DOHC, I4, VVT DI turbo
Material: Aluminum block and heads
Horsepower: 259 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 1,700 to 5,500 rpm
Transmission: Hydra-Matic 6T70 six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107.8 in.
Length: 191.5 in.
Width: 73 in.
Height: 57.6 in.
Passenger volume: 100.3 cu. ft.
Cargo volume: 16.3 cu. ft.
Curb weight: 3,660 lb.
Base MSRP : $29,700 (destination: $810)
EPA: 21/30/24 city/highway/combined mpg