2010 Chevrolet malibu expert reviews, specs and photos cars.com

Years after a dramatic redesign for 2008, some areas of the Malibu have stood the test of time, while others — the drab interior, the pokey four-cylinder — feel more Hertz than high-rent. Thanks to its blend of ride comfort and handling, the Malibu demands a look from shoppers, but much of the current generation’s early praise was simply a product of its being a vast improvement over the old Malibu. It’s time for GM to leapfrog the competition, not just itself.

Seventeen-inch steel wheels with plastic covers are standard. Because the underlying wheels, as well as the covers, have spokes, most onlookers won’t know they aren’t alloy wheels.

The Malibu 1LT adds body-colored mirrors, while the 2LT upgrades to bona fide 17-inch alloys. LTZ models have 18-inch rims and fog lights; all V-6 models get dual tailpipes.

The cabin, though simply arrayed, is hit-and-miss. Our test car’s cloth seats had durable, lint-repellant upholstery, with cushions long enough to provide thigh support for adults. Editors were split on overall comfort, however. I found it acceptable, and editor Jennifer Newman enthused about the bolstering support. Senior editor David Thomas, on the other hand, likened the seats to cloth-covered torture devices.

The backseat offers good legroom and decent headroom, but adults may find the bench too low to the floor. A center armrest isn’t available; that means two kids won’t have any barrier to discourage bickering. More concerning: The rear head restraints don’t retract into the seats, and they obstruct a 6 o’clock view that’s already limited by the hefty C-pillars. (Some drivers might even remove them entirely — I’ve seen it done elsewhere — which poses a safety hazard for rear passengers.)

Materials quality was par for the course a few years ago, but now it’s slipped behind. Upper dash textures look fine, but the doors are shod in uninspired plastics and sport rock-hard armrests. Chevy’s spindly three-spoke steering wheel is long overdue for retirement. It’s odd, given that GM outfits its crossovers and SUVs — and, ironically enough, the old Malibu — with a higher quality four-spoke wheel.

The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder makes 169 horsepower, but the Chevrolet Malibu is a heavy car — 100 to 300 pounds heavier than most competitors — so acceleration is leisurely. The six-speed automatic has longish 1st and 2nd gears. At highway speeds, convincing the engine to kick down requires a good prod on the gas, and on curvy roads the transmission resists shifting to a lower gear to get you through corners until precious seconds after you wanted it to. Though one gear short of the competition, the five-speed automatic in the four-cylinder Mazda6 is far quicker to the punch; the four-cylinder, CVT Nissan Altima, meanwhile, might convince passengers it has a small V-6.

No matter the drivetrain, the Malibu finds a nice middle ground between ride comfort and engaging handling. The former is excellent: Highway pitter-patter goes virtually unnoticed, and the suspension soaks up bumps large and small, isolating the cabin in a way only the Camry can beat. But the Malibu handily out-handles its Toyota rival: Encounter a curvy road, and the car points where you want with unexpected precision. The Camry and Hyundai Sonata feel nose-heavy in comparison, unschooled at quick maneuvers. While the Malibu is no Honda Accord or Mazda6, the fact that it comes close — and rides far better — deserves praise. (I’d be remiss not to point out that Suzuki’s new Kizashi packs nimbler handling, with remarkably generous ride comfort to match.)

The Malibu LS starts at $21,825 — on the high side for family sedans, less so when you consider that the automatic transmission is standard. Other standard features include power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, air conditioning, power height and lumbar adjustments for the driver’s seat, and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack. A USB/iPod input, dual power seats, a moonroof and heated leather upholstery are optional. On 2LT and LTZ trims, the V-6 runs well under $2,000. Check all the boxes, and a V-6 LTZ tops out around $33,000.

A factory navigation system is unavailable, but GM’s OnStar system with a year of upgraded Directions and Connections service is standard. The service allows OnStar to track your location and send real-time directions to the radio display. I’ve used it in other GM vehicles, and though it lacks many functions of a full navigation system — like being able to look around on a map — it gets you where you need to go. After the initial free yearlong subscription expires, Directions and Connections runs $29 a month.

All told, the Chevrolet Malibu’s strengths — particularly ride quality — should still earn it a steady stream of buyers. What it needs to earn family-sedan leadership, or at least to share the pedestal with the big guys, is an overhauled cabin and a bit more power. Today’s Malibu is an RBI single; I’m waiting for Chevrolet to hit a bases-clearing double.