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Holden Malibu – it’s the fifth medium car nameplate Holden has used in around three decades, yet Malibu is also its first targeted offering in years.
Designed primarily for North America where it is badged as a Chevrolet, based on a European platform, and built in South Korea, the Holden Malibu draws from the globe to arrive here with one clear aim – to poach Toyota Camry buyers.
The Holden Malibu is larger than the Toyota, and in base $28,490 Malibu CD petrol grade costs $2000 less than the equivalent Camry Altise. It is also substantially better equipped, and the top-grade $31,990 Malibu CDX further drives the high equipment/low cost equation (read here). An optional ($4000) diesel engine, available on both grades, arrives to combat the Camry Hybrid in the fleet-fuelled war against fuel consumption.
The standard 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder engine develops 123kW at 5800rpm and 225Nm at 4600rpm, less than the 2.5-litre Camry. The Holden Malibu is also among the thirstiest in the class, rated at 8.0L/100km combined. Although that’s only 0.3L/100km less than the V6-engined VF Commodore Evoke, Holden says that many fleet buyers demand a four-cylinder engine regardless of other factors – and it expects 50 per cent of Malibu sales to go to fleet buyers.
Although the Holden Malibu gets a standard locally tuned six-speed automatic, which gets the same software that holds lower gears on hills as the Cruze and Commodore, the petrol engine struggles to shift the 1583-1610kg Malibu with verve.
The Camry, in addition to the Mazda 6 and Honda Accord Euro, all trump it for straight-line performance. There’s also simply too little torque on hills, and although the auto is adept at keeping revs up to compensate, driveability suffers. Fuel consumption could also be potentially affected by the need to keep the engine spinning – we saw 9.3L/100km on the trip computer after mostly country-road touring.
Refinement levels are impressive, however, both in terms of road noise on coarse chip surfaces and supression of engine noise. The petrol four-cylinder doesn’t sound sweet, but it does remain hushed. Only a slight vibration through the cabin and pedals at idle betrays the silence.
Choosing diesel power solves the torque issue. With 350Nm produced at 1750rpm and 117kW at 4000rpm, the 2.0-litre common rail turbo-diesel four-cylinder allows the six-speed automatic – not tuned locally – to slur between its narrower power band effortlessly.
The Holden Malibu diesel still never feels brisk, though, partly because its kerb weight is a further 76kg more than the petrol-engined versions. It fails to deliver the level of punch offered by the petrol-electric Camry Hybrid and other diesel competitors.
At least the obvious diesel clatter is toned down to more than acceptable levels, and the refinement measures notable with the petrol are even more impressive with the diesel.
With a claimed 6.4L/100km slurp – the trip computer read 7.4L/100km in similar conditions to the petrol – the diesel Malibu is competitive with the 5.7L/100km petrol-electric Camry Hybrid. It will, however, take a while for a buyer to recoup the $4000 up-front cost over the petrol, based on the fuel usage difference.
With either 17-inch (CD) or 18-inch (CDX) tyres, the Malibu doesn’t deliver the ride compliance expected from a touring sedan. Although it rounds off larger bumps well and remains finely controlled over large country road undulations – thank the local tuning there – the suspension is very sensitive to small imperfections. It creates a busy ride on less-than-perfect surfaces at speed and a lumpiness over urban irregularities at slower speeds.
Curiously, the ride on the petrol-engined CDX with lower profile tyres feels slightly more settled compared with the diesel-engined CD which runs smaller wheels and thicker side walls that should help with absorption. It is possibly a consequence of firmer front spring and damper rates used to offset the extra mass of the diesel engine.
More definitive is the steering differences between the differently fuelled models. Where petrol versions get electro-mechanical power steering, diesels gets less-fuel-efficient hydraulic-assisted steering.
Neither are great systems. Of the two the electric unit gets the nod because there is some measured input in the first movements off centre, where the hydraulic unit has plenty of freeplay. Neither is particularly consistent when winding on lock, with too much slack meaning it is difficult to pin-point an accurate line through a corner without adjusting the steering.
Dynamically, the Malibu is safe and controlled, with solid body control and excellent Bridgestone Potenza rubber on the CDX (and Commodore SV6 and SS) helping with grip levels. But as defined by the steering, this Holden isn’t an enthusiastic drive, despite local tweaking from the engineer who created the excellent MY14 Cruze SRi suspension tune.
It is inside the cabin, however, that the Holden Malibu falls below the class average. The interior design is modern, with funky cocktail-blue lighting at night and the cool square-hooded speedo and tacho matching the rear tail-lights. But rear legroom is only average for the class and the Malibu lacks the rear air vents standard on Camry, Mazda 6, Hyundai i40 and Honda Accord Euro.
There are also quality and finish shortfalls.
Ill-fitting trim just below the A-pillar allowed the brittle underside of the plastic piece to be exposed – in two of our test cars and on both sides – while the glovebox joins unevenly with the main dash.
A multitude of cheaply finished upper-dashboard plastics meet with softer door trim plastics, while a combination of gloss finishes – chrome, imitation carbonfibre, and two greys – makes the centre console look cheap.
Although the seven-inch touchscreen boasts Holden’s MyLink apps and phone connectivity, voice control and satellite navigation are unavailable at any price. The screen itself is lower resolution than that in the Commodore, appearing slightly grainy, although it does flip forward to reveal a handy, deep storage cavity.
There are ergonomic issues, too, like the electric parkbrake on the left of the gearshifter where it is obstructed, and a transmission manual-mode with +/- buttons atop the lever in place of a proper tipshifter. It distances the Malibu from the locally-made Cruze and Commodore that it squeezes in between.
Unlike the Commodore, however, the Malibu gets a 60/40 split fold rear seat. Even when the rear backrest isn’t folded, the 545-litre cargo area is 50L larger than the rear-drive Holden.
Inconsistency between models remains an issue for Holden. The mid-sized Malibu offers nice refinement, solid body control and an impressive price and equipment equation. But particularly alongside the hugely improved Cruze and brilliant VF Commodore, the Holden Malibu feels incomplete. It lacks both the driver engagement found with the best cars in the class and the quality image of a Camry.