2014 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ: out of the spotlight

The Malibu is probably the best midsize sedan GM has ever produced. Yet it can't seem to set itself apart in its market segment. Why?

I can explain this with a logical reason, and a not-so-logical one. First of all, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu has to do battle with long-established players such as the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. In addition, the midsize sedan category is chock full of very competent players like the Mazda6, Ford Fusion, the Hyundai Sonata, the Volkswagen Passat and the Nissan Altima, to name a few.

Second, the Malibu also has to share the showroom floor with its critically-acclaimed sisters, the compact Chevrolet Cruze and the full-size Chevrolet Impala. And since GM's four brands are sold under one roof in Canadian dealerships, those showrooms can get pretty crowded, leaving little room for the midsize Chevy. Out of sight, out of mind.

So it's not necessarily the Malibu's fault. After spending a week with the sedan, I got to appreciate its qualities and figure out that nothing's inherently wrong with this car.

A 196-hp, 2.5L four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic are standard, but my 2014 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ tester was equipped with the turbocharged 2.0L four that develops 259 hp and a stout 295 lb-ft of torque. It's a muscular engine and makes for a quick car, although its power delivery isn't as neck-snapping as the numbers suggest; admittedly, the Chevy is the heaviest sedan in its market segment, and feels like it too.

For a couple of years now, a V6 engine is no longer offered in the Malibu, unlike its Accord and Camry rivals. A turbo four should normally deliver V6 power but with better fuel economy; however, GM's Ecotec 2.0L turbo can't match the city/highway ratings of the V6-powered versions of the Honda and Toyota – although it's not far behind. It also consumes slightly more than the turbo engines found in the Fusion, the Sonata and the Kia Optima.

During the test week in the dead of winter, the Malibu averaged 11.2 L/100km in my hands with a mix of city and highway driving. In similar driving conditions, its rivals wouldn't have done any better or worse. So it's basically a toss-up, although a turbo four isn't as smooth and refined as a good V6 engine. On the other hand, about 85% of midsize sedan buyers choose the less-powerful base engines anyway, so I guess it's not much of a concern.

Stylistically speaking, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu is an attractive proposition, even if it's nowhere near as polarizing as the newer Impala. I like the muscular hips and the in-your-face stare of the front fascia, while the optional polished alloys add a touch of elegance. However, there's something missing here that draws one's attention. It's not as bland as a Camry, but a little flair, a little more sophistication in its sheetmetal would definitely help.

Bluntly put, the current Malibu was introduced for the 2013 model year, but seems like it was designed ten years ago. The cosmetic revisions to the 2014 edition, which affected the headlights, the grille and the taillights, marginally improved the car's look.

Inside, the design is an interesting mix of modern and retro. The square-shaped speedo and tach housings as well as the recessed ribs that flow from the dash through the door panels blend in with soft blue ambient lighting, a straightforward centre stack switchgear and a colour touchscreen. However, the silver-painted dash and steering wheel trim clashes somewhat, and the glossy woodgrain trim on the centre console looks out of place here.

The leatherette-covered seats are firm, yet comfortable for long distances, and in the LTZ trim, both front perches are power-adjustable, while the driver gets a position memory feature. The back seat was obviously designed with two adult derrières in mind, and the middle occupant's comfort level is further diminished by the intruding floor hump. On the flipside, thanks to a wide opening and a flat decklid, the trunk is one of the roomiest in its class.

The Malibu's higher-than-average curb weight might be the result of extra sound-deadening material used to wrap up the cockpit, because the car is extremely quiet and planted at speed. Beside some engine noise at wide-open throttle and a little suspension thumping around town, the Chevy's cabin is a peaceful oasis.

Every 2014 Chevrolet Malibu gets a fair amount of standard features, such as Bluetooth connectivity, heated outside mirrors, alloy wheels, A/C, cruise control and a six-speaker stereo. However, our LTZ also benefits from a rearview camera, bi-xenon headlights, a power sunroof, a remote engine starter as well as an upgraded sound system with USB port, Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment interface and optional navigation.

It also includes electronic safety driving aids such as forward collision alert, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert and blind spot monitoring. Everything works well, as it should, although a few times during the test week, the collision warning would trigger, despite an empty road ahead and no surrounding traffic; perhaps the system is a tad oversensitive.

The Malibu LS starts at $24,995 before freight and delivery charges, while the various LT trim levels are competitively priced given their feature content. Our top-shelf LTZ with the turbo engine package and navigation rings in at about $35,500, right in line with similarly equipped versions of the Accord, the Mazda6, the Passat and the Fusion, while a wee bit pricier than the rest.

As a family sedan, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu has a lot to offer. It's quiet and refined, and its optional turbo engine provides good performance. Yet very few things about this car make it clearly stand out in the midsize crowd. Like I said, there's nothing wrong with the car, and its ownership experience should likely be satisfying; after all, more than 200,000 people buy one in the U.S. every year. There are just no fireworks here to divert the consumer's attention away from the segment's big guns that sell about twice as well.

With the Cruze and the Impala, GM proved that it can design and build great sedans, big and small. For now, the Malibu is unfortunately stuck between them, and out of the spotlight.

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