Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Years ago, there was an ad for a well-known bodybuilding program that went something like this: A skinny guy — the prototypical 98-pound weakling — gets sand kicked in his face as he tries to chat up a lady at the beach. He gets on board with a bodybuilding program and blossoms into a shredded muscle god. He returns to the beach, humiliates the bully and gets the girl. In certain respects, the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu is his automotive equivalent.
Not that long ago, the Malibu was an also-ran in the family-sedan segment — something to snicker at, and a monumental step down from segment leaders like the Honda Accord. However, a 2008 redesign brought with it significant upgrades. Offering almost everything that most folks crave in a family sedan, the current Malibu is a genuine contender.
In other words, its sheet metal is elegant, its cabin is tasteful and its handling is surprisingly poised. The problem is, the bar in this segment has been raised to nosebleed heights. The Chevy may have gone from runt to ripped, but there's no shortage of talent in this segment — strong as the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu is, there are choices in the family-sedan category that match and surpass it in certain respects.
The Ford Fusion and the Mazda Mazda 6 get your blood pumping with more athletic handling, and the Accord boasts more interior space. However, the one thing that separates the Malibu from all the other metaphorical hunks on Muscle Beach is its styling. Its distinctive sheet metal oozes refinement. Factor in its other solid attributes and the competitively priced Malibu becomes a respectable pick for car buyers interested in putting a dignified face on affordable family transportation.
The 2009 Chevy Malibu 2LT has ample get-up-and-go thanks to its optional 3.6-liter V6 good for 252 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque (this engine is optional on 2LT and LTZ trims). At 3,619 pounds, the car is one of the huskier members of the family-sedan class, yet despite this, it manages capable acceleration. From a standstill, it gets to 60 mph in just 6.7 seconds.
This places the Malibu only one-tenth of a second behind a recently tested Mazda 6, and ahead of cars like the Honda Accord (7.2 seconds) and the Hyundai Sonata (7.4 seconds). Unfortunately, the car's six-speed transmission doesn't quite crest the same level of achievement. Shifts are a bit coarse in automatic, and when manual-shift mode is employed, they become downright surly.
You'll likely forgive it this shortcoming, though, if you have the occasion to get brutish with the throttle. When pushed hard in a straight line or around corners, the Malibu does a surprisingly good job of keeping its cool. It's not a poor man's sport sedan like the Mazda 6 or Ford Fusion Sport, but it remains confident and well-mannered whether at highway speeds or tackling sinuous mountain roads.
The 2009 Chevrolet Malibu held its own in slalom testing, with our test driver noting that "there's enough info through the controls to toss it around comfortably." Steering feels overly heavy, though, with limited feedback and a giant steering wheel. This prevents it from really being considered fun.
Of course, things that go fast must halt at some point. The Malibu manages an impressive stopping distance, hitting zero from 60 mph in 122 feet. In so doing, it bests the stopping distances achieved by rivals like the Mazda 6 and the Honda Accord. However, though the sedan stops well, its brake pedal feels overly soft.
The Malibu's powerful V6 brings some compromises with regard to mileage. It's rated at 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined — the V6 Accord and Sonata will net you better fuel economy, and of course, there's always the Malibu's more frugal standard four-cylinder to consider.
With family sedans like the 2009 Chevy Malibu, comfort and quiet are obviously highly desirable ingredients, and the 'Bu does a commendable job of keeping the cabin serene, drowning out wind and road noise better than most rivals, especially the noisy Accord. The Malibu's front seats generally satisfy the comfort requirement, though some editors noted that the seats would benefit from increased lumbar and thigh support. Between the height-adjustable seats and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, it's easy to find a satisfactory seating position, though some may find the pedals uncomfortably spaced.
Things are less amenable in back, where passengers will find less head- and legroom than in the Malibu's main competitors. Shoulder room also gets tight when three squeeze into the rear seat, and the Malibu lacks a center armrest, a center head restraint and roof-mounted grab handles.
From the look of the car's dash, the Malibu's designers chose to make simplicity their mantra. This is a good thing — everything is exactly where you'd expect to find it. If you've ever struggled with the complicated multi-button interface presented by the Accord's climate control system, you'll find solace in the Malibu's straightforward three-knob setup. The car's audio controls are equally intuitive, with an easy-to-manage tuning knob and GM's smart radio preset system that allows you to mix and match FM, AM and XM stations.
One Malibu feature that you won't find in family sedans like the Accord and Sonata is three sets of LATCH anchors in the backseat. Most sedans offer lower anchors on both door-adjacent rear seats, but they are usually absent on the middle seat. This is unfortunate, since the middle seat is said to be the safest location for child seats. Middle-seat placement is not only safer but more practical as well, since it makes it easier for parents seated in front to keep an eye on the child.
Unfortunately, a couple of popular features are absent. A traditional navigation system isn't available on this or any 2009 Chevy Malibu (instead, OnStar offers its turn-by-turn navigation feature). Dual-zone climate control is also a no-show.
At 15.1 cubic feet, the Malibu's trunk is larger than the Accord's, but a cube or so smaller than that of the Fusion, Mazda 6 and Sonata. It seems smaller than the number would suggest, though. It's big enough to accommodate golf clubs and suitcases, but the space is shallow, and loading becomes a challenge due to the narrow opening.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Malibu's sheet metal boasts clean lines and a stylish look. Particularly impressive is the spare but sophisticated design of the rear fascia. Interior design is also quite pleasant — metallic accents and a two-tone color scheme give the car's cabin an eye-catching ambience that its rivals lack. At night, the gauges are illuminated in a soothing shade of turquoise. Ambient lighting in this hue also illuminates the car's interior door handles; it's an appealing touch.
Interior quality is hit or miss. There's ample soft-touch plastic, and the leatherette/faux suede combo that shrouds the car's seats is sufficiently convincing. Switchgear is well-damped, and the shifter, too, feels substantial. Unfortunately, there are just as many hard plastic panels and signs of poor construction, like misaligned panels and a flimsy center console.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT is a suitable choice for shoppers who want an affordable, competent midsize family sedan that's more distinguished than the usual suspects. Its backseat is on the small side, though, and certain features like a traditional navigation system aren't available. Also, three-car-seat families will appreciate the three sets of LATCH anchors in the rear seat, a rarity in the sedan segment.
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