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GM introduced the current Chevy Malibu in 2008, and since then, the big family sedan hasn't changed much. It hasn't had to: the Malibu emerged as one of GM's best-executed products in a long time, and with just minor updates, it's more than held its own against new generations of the Accord, Camry, Altima, Sonata, Optima and Fusion. Just ahead of a new, smaller sedan arriving next model year, the 2012 Malibu remains an affordable, high-quality, and very refined four-door.
It may not be daring, but the Malibu has a nicely underplayed look that's handsome, inside and out. Clean-cut might be the best way to describe the sheetmetal. The split grille and blunt nose have a smooth, clean look that trails down the doors to a semi-stubby rear end with taillights highlighted by round lamps, like those found on the Corvette. The takeaway is subtle, clean--still a refreshing change from some of the more dramatic, overwrought shapes on the market today, maybe better even than the replacement coming next year. The cabin's sedate and attractive, too, with a straightforward layout of controls, efficient design, and quite a good level of material quality and fit and finish. In that way, this Malibu was the sign of change at GM from the drab car that preceded it.The Malibu still comes in four- and six-cylinder form, while smaller family sedans have moved to all-four-cylinder lineups. Here, the base powerplant is fairly competitive: it's a 2.4-liter four-cylinder teamed to a six-speed automatic, for a total of 169 horsepower and an EPA gas-mileage rating of 22/33 mpg. That's competitive with the Fusion, but a few digits off the 35-mpg highway figures pegged by the Sonata and Optima. It's quick enough for most uses, and neatly avoids a rental-car feel with very smooth power delivery. GM's potent 3.6-liter V-6 remains an option; its 252 horsepower provide a lot of refinement and kick for more demanding drivers, but its fuel economy numbers of 17/26 mpg are unimpressive. Neither Malibu feels very sporty, in any case, with perfectly predictable ride and handling motions that veer sharply away from the likes of the crisp-steering Fusion and Altima. The Malibu clearly puts the bias on practicality and refinement, with just a hint of driving enjoyment.
Sports-car reflexes in family sedans matter less than big interior room and supportive seats, and those the Malibu has all over smaller rivals. It's spacious, and though the seats could use just a little more lateral support, the Malibu is one of the larger cars in its class, up there with the Sonata, just shy of the Honda Accord and the latest Volkswagen Passat. The front seats are among the most comfortable in the mid-size sedan class, while the back bench has more legroom than most of its rivals, except for the Accord and that huge new Passat. Trunk space is usefully large, at 15.1 cubic feet.
Safety is another strong suit of the current Malibu. All models have standard anti-lock disc brakes, stability and traction control, as well as dual front, side and curtain airbags. The OnStar telematics system is installed in each one. And crash-test scores put the Malibu near the top of the large sedan class, with a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS, and four stars overall from the NHTSA.
The Malibu's features list has fallen behind the competition, as it's aged. All versions--base LS, mid-range LT, and luxury LTZ--have standard power windows, locks and mirrors; keyless entry; steering-wheel audio controls; and climate control. On the LTZ, features like remote start, LED taillamps and ambient lighting are standard. Bluetooth's an option, though (it's standard on the Korean sedans), and the Malibu lacks any option for resident hard-drive navigation--GM suggests you call OnStar for turn-by-turn voice instructions, a method we've tried and found less reliable than on-board mapping.