2010 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ

The Malibu's only major shortcoming, as I see it, is the lack of a navigation system. Chevy likes to point out that its OnStar service provides turn-by-turn directions, and that's true. But the competition, Ford in particular, has done an excellent job branding its uplevel electronics as more than simply GPS. In cars like the Fusion and the Nissan Altima, attractive LCD screens do more than display maps -- they're lifestyle centers. Although the Malibu does have all the necessary features, including Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and a USB input, it lacks the glossy telematics to tie all these capabilities together.

If you can do without a fancy color screen, though, the Malibu remains one of the better cars in this segment. Its tasteful yet distinctive styling is still fresh three years after launch, and the interior is similarly attractive and well finished. The Malibu also might be the best-driving of the mid-size, front-wheel-drive set. Mind you, it's no sport sedan -- and doesn't need to be one -- but discerning drivers will appreciate that GM engineers paid attention to dynamic details that most competitors ignore. The steering wheel feels like it's actually connected to something, the brake pedal is firm and progressive, and the suspension soaks up bumps without floating over them like an airboat. The only flaw is a bit of torque steer at full throttle. I wouldn't be surprised if GM's new "hyperstruts," which debuted on the Buick LaCrosse and suppress torque steer, make their way into this model in 2012, when the 'Bu is set to receive an update.

Speaking of the LaCrosse, I have to bring up the age-old question about GM brand management: could the money spent on the Buick have been better applied to the higher-volume Chevy? After all, the LaCrosse is, in many respects, a further evolution of the Malibu, riding on the next generation of GM's mid-size Epsilon platform and sporting just the sort of infotainment equipment that's sorely missing in the Chevy. Granted, the Buick is selling very well, and for premium prices at that. But as the Malibu continues to underperform -- it currently trails the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Fusion, and Altima in sales -- one does wonder if GM might have been better off funneling the LaCrosse's improvements into what might be the company's single most important car.

David Zenlea

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