2014 Chevrolet Malibu First Drive
There's no question General Motors needs the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu to be an outright hit. There's also no question that the 2013 Malibu wasn't exactly that. An oddly staggered roll-out, lukewarm reception from critics, and fuel economy figures that trailed competitors didn't do the first new Malibu in six years any favors.
Chris Perry, Chevrolet's vice president of marketing, maintains the 2013 Malibu was "competitive," but a quick peek at the sales volumes suggests that's an optimistic take, at best. Although the Chevy outsold the Hyundai Sonata/ Kia Optima twins in 2012, along with the Volkswagen Passat, it was absolutely trounced by its chief rivals, including the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and the Honda Accord.
What to do? The old GM mentality would be to simply shrug, say "oh well," slap ever-increasing spiffs on the hood in order to move inventories, and largely ignore the car until the next product cycle. Instead, the new GM worked to address some of the criticism by updating the Malibu for the 2014 model year.
While most of the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu's exterior sheetmetal is unchanged, it receives a very minor facelift. A new front fascia, which sports a wider split grille that's vaguely reminiscent of the new 2014 Impala, is the only exterior update, and helps tie the Malibu in with Chevy's latest design language.
As such, that means the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu isn't physically larger than before. At 191.5 inches long, the Malibu is one of the longest midsize sedans on the market, but the 2013 model was criticized for lacking rear-seat knee- and legroom. A new scalloped front seatback provides an extra 1.25 inches of kneeroom, but rear-seat legroom remains in the middle of the midsize pack at 36.8 inches.
Other interior upgrades are slight. Cabin materials and design haven't changed much since last year, but dash trim is now a grayish agathis-like pattern instead of last year's IKEA-grade faux wood. The center console was also redesigned to provide a few small cubbies sized perfectly for holding cell phones. On that note, Chevrolet's familiar MyLink infotainment system, which is standard on 2014 Chevrolet Malibu LT and LTZ models, now incorporates both text-to-speech functionality and iPhone Siri integration. Lane departure and forward collision alerts were previously available on the Malibu, but both blind-spot detection and rear cross-path detection systems are new for 2014.
Rebuilding The Base Engine
The most drastic change on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu lies with its base engine, although a cursory glance at specifications wouldn't suggest that. Like the 2013 Malibu, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu's standard engine offering is a direct-injection 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder, but it now boasts the same two-stage valve lift system used in the 2014 Impala's 2.5-liter four-cylinder.
The even bigger news is that the 2.5-liter I-4 is now paired with a new start-stop system, which shuts the engine down for up to two minutes when the vehicle comes to a complete stop. A large 12-volt lead-acid AGM battery underhood helps provide electrical power while the engine isn't running, while a smaller AGM battery located in the trunk helps stabilize the system when the engine is being restarted.
Unlike other start/stop systems, however, the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu doesn't allow the driver to have much say in whether or not the system is activated. Don't bother looking for a switch to deactivate the start/stop system - there isn't one. According to Malibu chief engineer Todd Pawlik, this is possible because the new system is seamlessly blended into the car's operation. "If you seamlessly integrate start/stop into the car, the customer will never need or want to turn it off, " he claims. "They'll only want to turn it off if it isn't doing what it's supposed to."
The two key elements in smoothing the start-stop system are a revised six-speed automatic transmission and a new dual-solenoid starter. In addition to new calibration and hardware changes, the 6T45 transmission features an auxiliary transmission fluid pump, which pressurizes the front clutches in order to quell lag time upon restarting the engine. Meanwhile, control of the starter motor's rotation and engagement are independent of one another. This allows the starter to be smoothly re-start the engine over a wider range of speeds, which helps smooth re-starts triggered during the engine's shut-down process (e.g. rolling stops).
These revisions don't increase the 2.5-liter's power - it's still rated at 196 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque - but they do increase fuel economy. While the 2013 Malibu 2.5 earned EPA marks of 22 mpg city and 34 highway, the 2014 Malibu with the 2.5-liter is rated at 25 mpg city/ 36 mpg highway, besting all base engines in the segment save for the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.
Turbo Continues, Hybrid Disappears
Buyers seeking a little more power can still opt for the familiar 259-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder, which is available on the 2014 Malibu LT and LTZ. Unlike the 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the turbocharged 2.0-liter doesn't receive a new six-speed automatic, nor is it available with the new start/stop system.
Buyers won't, however, be able to order a 2014 Chevrolet Malibu with a hybrid drivetrain of any sort. Although GM once indicated it would offer its eAssist mild hybrid system in the 2014 Malibu, it revealed yesterday that it's reversed course. That's hardly surprising, considering the new 2014 Malibu 2.5 delivers identical fuel economy numbers as the 2013 Malibu Eco with eAssist. Seeing as the 2.5-liter/start-stop combination is far less expensive to manufacture and sell, the decision is a no-brainer.
Does this mean e-Assist is dead? Not so, say GM representatives, who claim the automaker is already working on a next-generation version of the mild-hybrid driveline. Whether that new driveline will appear in this iteration of the Malibu or not remains to be seen, as GM officials aren't commenting on either timing or potential applications for the new system.
Polish Leads To Poise
During a drive between Plymouth and Pinckney, Michigan, we spent most of our time piloting 2014 Malibus equipped with the revamped 2.5-liter I-4. The four-cylinder provided decent power for hustling the Malibu over the hilly terrain we encountered. The revised six-speed automatic is certainly a boon, as it is both smoother and quicker to respond to throttle inputs with a downshift than the previous transmission. The engine still sounds a bit buzzy in the upper portion of its rev range, but no vibration or harshness is physically transmitted into the cabin.
Our prior experiences with GM's eAssist systems led us to be skeptical of the promise of a seamless start-stop system in the Malibu. We're now serving our hats as entrees. The 2014 Malibu's start/stop system is far more polished than many others on the market. The irritating jerkiness frequently encountered during rolling or partial stops never once reared its head. We also like how the 2014 Malibu powers its electric power steering during an engine stop; a minor detail, but it means inadvertent bumps of the steering wheel at a stop light won't prompt the engine to immediately fire up.
Speaking of the electric power steering, we previously criticized the system for feeling too light and overboosted. A recalibrated rack doesn't provide any additional feel or feedback - par for this segment, really - but it does feel more weighted, Like before, the 2014 Malibu feels firm and balanced, and the revised dampers do help curb the float that previously plagued the car.
These revisions don't reinvent the Malibu, but they certainly help polish the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu into something we can finally consider a competitive midsize sedan.