Holden Malibu a blandness-buster
Just the word "medium" says it all about the most boring passenger car segment on the market, as it's a place where mediocrity is almost considered a virtue.
Buyers are mostly rental companies and corporations looking for roomier and more frugal rides than either the compact or large-car sectors are capable of supplying.
Private buyers avoid this "halfway house" en masse, and it's no wonder. If car segments were flavours, this one would definitely be vanilla.
Until now, there has been only one outstanding car in the medium-sedan segment.
The Mazda6 has consistently poked its head above a sea of me-too designs, and been rewarded by a larger proportion of private sales than a medium-sized saloon usually attracts in return. The good news is that there is now another middleweight four-door that is just as distinctly modelled and blandness-free as the swoopy Mazda.
The new Holden Malibu adds some genuine Aussie flavour to a segment populated by "global cars" like the Toyota Camry, Ford Mondeo, and Hyundai i45, all of which have been smacked straight between the headlights by the bland stick.
The Malibu wears the Chevrolet badge in its other 100-plus markets, but Holden's contributions to the design and set-up have been significant. In terms of styling, this car is as dinky-di as an on-field punch-up during a State-of-Origin match, as the shaping of both the exterior and interior was led by Holden sculptors Julian Thompson and Yan Huang. Their mentor, the executive director of GMIO Design, Mike Simcoe, says the Malibu was the first car from GM to incorporate pedestrian impact testing into its design when work began on it back in 2008. He admits to still feeling a little uncomfortable with the snub-nosed effect that has resulted from the need to leave 80mm of crumple space between the bonnet and the engine, but is otherwise highly satisfied with the final result.
"The exterior theming and proportion locks Malibu into the momentum we started with the Camaro. It has a taut exterior surface and a great stance for a front-wheel-drive car. Overall, it delivers a lot of customer value in its visual content."
Speaking of the V-word, Malibu isn't just a value-leading new entrant to the medium segment in its visual appeal alone. Pricing starts at $42,900 for a six-speed automatic CD model powered by a 2.4-litre petrol four developing 123kW of power and 225Nm of torque. A 2.0 turbodiesel four with 117kW/350Nm maximum outputs is available for a further $2500, while upgrading from CD specification to CDX costs $3000 extra. The latter move puts the petrol Malibu smack in the middle of the $45K territory that most of its competition inhabits, but few rivals in that price position offer the heated leather seats, 18-inch alloys, LED tail lights, and eight-way power front-seat adjustment of a CDX.
Malibu's base specification is equally well-endowed, with a nine-speaker premium audio system, reversing camera, automatic parking brake, and a touch-screen interface for its climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and infotainment systems. Sat-nav is off the menu at present, as is voice recognition. However, there's no trendy Daylight Running Lamps (DRLs) for Malibu, and only the CDX gets the rear LEDs that show off the Camaro-inspired rear lamps to great effect.
You'll find the light show inside the Malibu's cabin instead, where Huang, a 40-something, Chinese-born Melbourne resident, has added electric-blue mood lights that reflect off linear chromium strips. She admits she had to fight with GM's cost-police to retain them, and her victory allows the Malibu to enjoy bragging rights to the classiest-lit cabin in the segment. She also kept the Camaro-theme going by shaping the instrument pods to resemble the shape of the tail-lights of the muscle car. A further homage to the beefy sports-coupe is the vestigial hipline that Thompson's team carved into the rear flanks of the Malibu. The rear three-quarter view is definitely the car's best angle from the outside.
Powertrain performance is consistent with the segment, the Malibu generating acceleration and fuel-use data that is neither the best nor the worse. The $2500 extra for the German-made diesel is worth it if you value gradient-flattening torque and increased fuel efficiency. The compression-ignition engine uses roughly 1.5 litres less fuel every 100km than the Korean-sourced petrol, with city/highway figures of 6.5 litres/100km instead of 8.0. The noise of both powerplants is well isolated, as is the roar of the Kumho Ecsta (CD) and Bridgestone Potenza (CDX) tyres, neither noted for their silence on our coarse-chip roads.
Malibu's quiet-riding cabin is equally well insulated from the effects of bumpy roads, and the work Holden has put into tuning the suspension to Down Under driving conditions hasn't been a wasted effort. With the petrol getting electrical steering assistance, and the diesel getting hydraulic, there are two distinct handling personalities within the range. However, the choice isn't clear-cut, as the diesel's steering feels over-assisted and lacking in heft, while the petrol's ESA offers welcome resistance to initial driver input but lacks the diesel's driver feel straight-ahead.
Holden doesn't make the Malibu (it's made by GM's Korean arm instead) but its contributions to the design, suspension set-up and transmission calibration of the car have enabled it to offer a higher level of refinement than most medium-sedan buyers expect. So move over Mazda6.