James Ward spends the week on the road in the middle of the road - in the mid-size Holden Malibu CDX
Before last year, if you had mentioned a Malibu to me, in terms of a car (rather than a place, surfboard, boat or questionable quality rum), I would have thought only of Vincent Vega’s 1964 Chevrolet Malibu convertible from Pulp Fiction.
Remember the red cruiser that was unceremoniously keyed (some say by Bruce Willis’ character Butch) and ended up crashed into a house during the emergency ‘adrenaline’ needle scene? “Still got your Malibu?” asks Lance…
It’s a name that is now on its eighth generation and 51st year in the USA. A car known for being pretty good at being pretty good. It’s a car we would have all seen a thousand times as a generic background vehicle in a television show or as a ‘medium’ option on an American rental car brochure.
New to Australia in 2013, the Holden Malibu was our first official taste of the nameplate, and I spent the week with one to see what it was really like.
The styling is certainly a strong point, with the Malibu sporting a modern and, dare I say, handsome appearance. Our test car was the top-spec CDX in Ironite – a purplish greeny-grey colour that looks a lot smarter than it sounds. With chrome trims around the window frames and foglamp bezels, LED tail lights that were inspired by the new Chevrolet Camaro, and elegant polished face 18-inch alloy wheels, the Malibu pulls off that casual class that only Americans seem to do.
Inside there is more chrome, some leather, blue lights and a large seven-inch touch screen. Again it feels classy and is comfortable and spacious. There is even a sneaky storage bin behind the screen – not something I’ve ever seen before.
While on the screen, the Malibu as with many current Holdens features the MyLink system. This gives integrated Bluetooth phone and audio as well as access to internet streaming music services (although for these features you need a cable – it doesn’t work with Bluetooth). It’s not a bad system but there is a serious omission – no navigation. Not as an app, not as an option. In 2014, for a car with a colour touch-screen integrated into the car interior, this is pretty poor form.
I spent my week in town, running my usual commute, school run and various errands. And, well, the Malibu was a pretty nice place to be. It rode well over potholed and uneven roads, it felt smooth on the freeway and was generally pretty quiet and inoffensive. I didn’t feel the urge to push it hard through corners, or manually shift gears (with the silly Playstation-like buttons on top of the gear knob), I just drove it around – and started to wonder why there aren’t more of these on the road.
Holden’s mid-size sedans have always been orphans. During Commodore’s Queen Elizabeth-like reign as Australia’s favourite large car, we’ve seen Torana, Camira, Apollo, Vectra and Epica all try their hand at the second rung spot.
Many of these have inherited a world-car platform that, as a GM subsidiary, Holden has to include in the Australian line up. To their credit, Holden always use their engineering excellence to improve ride and handling characteristics to better suit Australian conditions. But how are buyers supposed to connect with a model line that changes its name every few years?
For mine, the Vectra was really the last one with any character. I don’t even remember the Epica and now it too has been replaced.
In reality, the Malibu could stand tall on its own merit, but when handed the mid-size baton it makes it harder to distinguish – particularly given the Cruze and Commodore are both excellent cars.
Plus it’s not quite the Goldilocks equation of being exactly in the middle, the Malibu size differences are very specific. Here’s how it fits…
The Malibu is bigger than a Cruze yet smaller than a Commodore, which sounds like it should make sense, but the Holden siblings are hardly at the extreme of their category sizes and so any differences are measured in small percentages.
For example, if you need luggage space but rarely travel with more than two people, the Malibu has the biggest boot of the trio (545L vs 496L of Commodore). If rear passengers are key to your buying decisions then the Malibu offers only 29mm more rear legroom than Cruze, but 63mm less than Commodore.
In fact, the Malibu is only 82mm shorter than a Commodore – that’s less than the length of your credit card. It’s actually longer than the VR/VS Commodore of the mid-1990s.
Where the Malibu’s mid-size credentials do work though, is with price. With a list price for the CD of just over $28K (and as I write this a Holden promotion has it for $27,990 drive away), it is almost right in the middle of the cheapest Cruze ($19,990) and cheapest Commodore ($36,990).
What’s more is that at under $30K, it is $2000-3000 cheaper than the entry points of mid-size competitors of Camry, i40, Mazda6 and Mondeo. You can argue dynamics and quality until the cows come home, but you can’t argue price; and that resonates with a lot of buyers.
In all, the Malibu makes sense on paper. It’s a good looking, well equipped car for a reasonable price. It ticks the box for safety, economy and ownership support.
No, it’s not that exciting. No, it’s not the best at anything - except that huge boot. It’s a solid C+ in a class of B’s – and that’s more than good enough to pass. If you need a car as a car, and every dollar counts, then the Malibu is certainly worthy of a look… plus not too many pop-culture icons drove Camrys, so think of it as your own Royale with Cheese.