Published: 12/13/2007 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
Nothing tells you more about a car's strengths and weaknesses than a comparison test, so we squeeze them into the schedule as often as we can. When it came time to test the 2008 family sedans, though, we did things a little differently: We gathered together a Chevrolet Malibu and a Honda Accord, both of which are redesigned for 2008, along with a Toyota Camry, which was all-new for 2007 and had been one of our favorites in this class. Then, we said to six consumers, "You take the wheel."
After selecting our team of six reviewers on the basis of 250-word essays, we invited them to Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. Here they had an opportunity to evaluate the sedans' acceleration, braking and handling on the Streets of Willow road course. Since this was a real comparison test, though, there was more to it than a few laps around a racetrack. Our guest reviewers combed over every square inch of these family sedans, taking notes on interior design, seat comfort and storage compartments. They peered under hoods, installed car seats and even measured trunk openings. In short, they did everything we would do, and at the end of the day we gave them an assignment: Write a 600-to-700-word evaluation of the cars and rank them in order of preference. Now we're publishing the results here, uncut and uncensored.
In keeping with the consumer-driven focus of this test, we selected the volume-selling models of the Accord, Camry and Malibu — that means automatic transmission and four-cylinder engines, instead of big-horsepower V6s. Although we did our best to match the cars as closely as possible on price and condition, the Camry was a 2007 model with 16,000 miles, while the Malibu and Accord were fresh-off-the-truck '08s. (There are no changes to the Camry for 2008, save for a $100 price increase, and our '07 test car was mechanically sound and rattle-free.) Here's a rundown of the cars, followed by our six consumer-penned road tests.
2008 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT
Base MSRP (including destination charge): $22,635
Options: Red Jewel Tintcoat Paint ($295), Rear 110-Volt Outlet ($150).
MSRP (including destination charge): $23,080
2008 Honda Accord LX-P
Base MSRP (including destination charge): $22,795
MSRP (including destination charge): $22,795
2007 Toyota Camry LE
Base MSRP (including destination charge): $21,635
MSRP (including destination charge): $21,635
Resides in: Lyman, Maine
Occupation: Police officer
Personal status: Married, no children...yet
Currently drives: 1999 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, 2001 Chevrolet Malibu
Picking a clear winner was not as easy as a clear loser: the Toyota Camry. I was surprised at how plainly disappointed I was in the Camry. It felt as if I was back in grade school, when Grandma would take me out for ice cream in her big, sloshy-feeling, old-timer's car. The Camry is not a big car, but it felt like it was. The car responded lazily on the tight-cornered test track, and I lacked confidence in its steering and braking. Don't get me wrong: The car did the job. It stopped when I needed it to, and turned briskly with the wheel. But there was an annoying little dead spot at the midpoint of its steering range and the brakes felt rather squishy. It had a very large amount of body roll in a hard corner and consistently pulled to the outside when pushed hard. The interior was quite dull, lacking inspiration. It was very utilitarian, and everything you needed was easy to find and manipulate. But it was just "blah" and I actually saw some room for improvement on the fit-and-finish issue. For example, the rear seatbacks were held in place with a flimsy elastic cord that seemed as though it would not survive a few good swipes from a meddling toddler's hands. On the plus side, the Camry had the best visibility from the driver's perspective with the best leg- and headroom in the rear. I'm 6 feet 2 inches tall, and that's saying a lot for the rear seat.
The Honda Accord and the Chevrolet Malibu were much closer to getting my top vote, and I agonized over which would get it. The Malibu was by far the best car to drive from a handling perspective, with the best interior and exterior design of the three. It had plenty of power, the brakes were firm and responsive, but not too "grabby." It really was fun to drive. There was virtually no body roll in a hard corner, and it retained its firm grip. To be fair, it should be noted that the Malibu has a slightly larger tire size than the other two, so that probably contributed to its good cornering. The interior was very attractive, if not a bit retro. I actually own a 2001 Malibu and it is astoundingly clear that GM did its homework on this one. There is no comparison to the old model. This Malibu is entirely new and its fit and finish is just as good, if not better, than Honda or Toyota. If GM can prove that it really has improved quality control in its manufacturing process, if they are using better components and can prove that their cars will be as dependable as Honda's, then based on what I drove on test day, I would pick the Chevy as the winner.
But that goes on faith. Can I reasonably believe the entire car is better, based on a good drive and a great interior? Hopefully, GM's manufacturing has followed through the entire car, and not just the interior. Time will tell.
In my opinion, Honda beat the Chevy on a few small issues, and lost on others. The Accord drove more elegantly, but did not inspire the kind of confidence the Chevy did. It was very comfortable on the inside, with adequate seat support and head- and legroom in the rear. It was not as lazy as the Camry on bumps and in hard corners. I did notice a little body roll as well. The brakes could stand some beefing up, as they got hotter much faster than the other two, but the car still stopped when needed. The Accord had the quietest cabin of the three, but it lacked any extra lumbar support for the driver. I would really miss that on long road trips. The center stack was kind of like a spaceship, with buttons all over the place. It would take some getting used to in finding the right button when I needed it: utilitarian, but not very attractive. The Accord had a nifty lockable pass-through to the trunk behind the rear drop-down armrest. The Malibu had no drop-down rear armrest at all. And the Malibu's rear leg- and headroom was not as good as the Accord's.
Based on Chevy's incredible 180-degree change in quality, its ride and handling and its five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty (Honda's is three years/36,000 miles), I pick the Malibu as the winner. But not by much: I wouldn't have done so without GM's new warranty. If you are accustomed to Honda, you would not be disappointed in the new Accord. I just liked the Malibu a little more.
Resides in: Roanoke, Texas
Occupation: Former radiation therapist, now a full-time parent
Personal status: Married with three children, ages 2, 4 and 5
Currently drives: 2000 Ford Expedition, 2001 Mazda 626
But Will It Hold Up?
I'm a 37-year-old Texas mom of three at a track in the Mojave Desert. I feel out of place. My husband's a car guru, and yet here I stand. (Great! Now I feel guilty.) OK, I can do this. Drive three cars, give my opinion, simple. I LOVE to give my opinion! The three cars Edmunds.com has chosen are parked here at Willow Springs Raceway, all priced at the $22,000 mark. There is a burgundy Honda Accord (not my favorite color, but popular), a gray Toyota Camry and a red Chevy Malibu. I generally fall for white cars, but the red is sharp.
I've been paired with another, umm...what are we — guest test drivers? We get the Accord first. It's beautiful, and with a stellar reputation, I'm prepared to be impressed. I hop in and the only thought I can muster is, "I do not like this interior." The color scheme inside reminds me of patchwork boots my mom wore in the '70s. The cloth seats are light beige that appear yellowish, or is that ochre? A dual-color dash and trim complete the unbalanced interior. The control panel on the dash is, in a word — Big! It is, however, user-friendly with large displays. But overall, the interior seems to lack styling direction and leaves me feeling uncomfortable, as did the passenger seat. Once behind the wheel, I feel much better. Honda knows how to make a drivable car. The steering felt great, and it was a smooth ride. I especially like the center console top that slides forward for a nice armrest to hold hands with your honey.
Next — the Toyota Camry. The Camry has been a solid car for several years. My initial opinion??? I think the exterior styling is attractive, as well as the interior, but it just didn't evoke emotion in me — at all. (Maybe if Toyota had provided a brand-new car, the new-car smell would have helped.) A pro: The interior was more cohesive than the Accord. It wasn't too busy; but not bland. It drove well, the features were fine. It had plenty of room, good cupholders, blah, blah... OK, I may be bored. The insightful Forrest Gump said it best: "That's about all I have to say about that."
The last car receiving my judgment is the Chevy Malibu. So far today, I haven't had a huge love affair with the Japanese, so maybe America will win me over. I do like the red color; this exterior is really good-looking. So, how is the inside? I did not have extremely high expectations; but, honestly, this is the first car of the three to give me that little bit of wow factor. I think the interior of the new Malibu is pretty. (I know I'm a girl.) It definitely feels more luxurious than the others. The color scheme is pleasing, the console — cool retro, XM radio, pull-out visors (Love!), small important details. The seats aren't cloth. Yea! I don't think they're leather, but the spec sheet says "suede." Looks and feels nice, but I wonder how it will hold up. And, that is my trailing thought as I leave the Malibu, "Will it hold up?"
Let's pull this together. After the initial drives, we tested acceleration and braking. We examined the cars inside and out. I cranked stereos, positioned child car seats, and pushed every button I could. We drove the cars on a cool hill course with cones, and wore sweet helmets. All three cars performed well. The Camry did disappoint me some on the course. It just felt loosey-goosey, and I became tense. The Accord, however, finally met my expectations after driving it more and seeing how well it handled. It was a great car to drive, and would be a great car to own. Not a big surprise. The surprise for me was the Malibu. It also handled well, and I loved how the steering wheel felt. It was fun to drive!
My final opinion? I have either driven Fords or Japanese cars my entire life. And I have never visited a Chevrolet dealership with any intent to buy. But, to the surprise of my Ford-loving husband (and myself), if I had to drive one of these cars home today — this Ford-driving mama would be heading out in the Chevy Malibu. More for my money.... I hope it holds up!
My rankings of the cars are as follows:
Resides in: Red Lion, Pennsylvania
Occupation: High school teacher of science, mechanics and video production
Personal status: Married with three children, ages 2, 9 and 11
Currently drives: 2005 GMC Safari, 2001 Oldsmobile Alero, 1995 Chevrolet K2500, 1990 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, 1988 Chevrolet K5 Blazer
After creating T-charts for each car, listing the positives and negatives, it became visually apparent how to rank the cars. I placed the Honda Accord 1st, with the Chevy Malibu a very close 2nd, and the Toyota Camry a distant 3rd. The Accord earned an A with consistency — performing well across all categories. The Malibu earned an A by doing very well with A-pluses in some categories, but earning Bs in some others. I gave the Camry a C.
The Accord primarily squeaked by the Malibu due to its seating position and drivetrain. The Accord had a high, commanding view of the road yet still had the most headroom. Visibility was great, and the high-mounted information screen for the climate and radio controls is a nice touch. The engine is silky smooth and works seamlessly with the five-speed auto. The car was balanced on the hill course, which made it fun and easy to drive on spirited runs. I liked the exterior design, especially the character line that runs just below the door handles back to the taillight. On the downside, the brakes felt a little mushy compared to the Malibu's, and the dead pedal felt too close to the seat in relation to the accelerator. If I have to ride shotgun, this car gets moved to 2nd place, as the passenger seat was very uncomfortable for me. The side bolsters were too low, pushing into my hips. At 6' 1", I did not have enough headroom in the rear seat of any of the sedans. I was lukewarm on the monochromatic interior with its busy, button-happy center stack, and what is up with that volume knob? It's huge. It is functional, I guess, but looks tacked on and ridiculous. Well, you never know when you might need to change the volume with mittens on.
It is abundantly clear that this Malibu is nothing like its predecessor of the same name. From the initial solid "thunk" of the door to the first turn of the wheel, I could tell this solid car is a huge step up. I love to drive, and from that standpoint this car was my favorite. The feel and feedback from the steering is excellent. It has no play, is communicative, linear, and has just the right amount of resistance. The brakes are firm, yet easy to modulate. The car stayed flat and had excellent grip in the corners. The engine and transmission were not quite as smooth as the Accord, especially at higher rpm, but it did quite well with a surprising burst of speed accelerating out of the corners. The interior was best in class with comfortable, supportive seats, and an elegant interior that looks like it belongs on a car costing twice as much. The Malibu matched or beat the other cars in fit and finish with close panel gaps in and out, plus a deep, luscious paint job.
The car's exterior design is eye-catching, especially in profile view. I also gave the car high marks for value. All of the cars cost around $23,000 and at that price point the Malibu had a wonderful leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated seats, XM radio, compass and, most importantly, stylish wheels with 225s. (The others had 215s.) It was a tough call on which car to put first because I really liked the features above; however, the lower seating position annoyed me. I often like to drive with the window down and my arm out the window — hand on the A-pillar. In this car, I found my arm is angled up from my shoulder with the door lock poking into it. Of course, the high beltline that causes this is also what contributes to the car's sleek look. The A-pillar is huge, which reduces visibility. Although the trunk is the largest of the group, it is the least versatile. The upper sill is too close to the lower sill, so large items will catch on the upper sill before clearing the lower. At least the hinges don't impinge on the cargo area. And finally, when will Chevrolet offer a five-speed manual for drivers who like to operate a clutch?
The Camry was out of its league, placing 3rd in every category. It had the worst fit and finish, seats without lateral support, and the least headroom. I was looking out the top 1 inch of windshield even with the seat all the way down. The suspension was floaty, the steering vague, and the car dove when braking hard. It was the loudest under hard acceleration, and on the track it just made a humming noise when I "attempted" to accelerate out of the corner. If you see a car as purely a practical transportation appliance, the Camry was certainly capable. I just look for more.
Resides in: Sagamore Hills, Ohio
Occupation: Registered nurse
Personal status: Single, no children
Currently drives: 2005 Chevrolet Equinox
The Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, the perennial favorites in the midsize sedan game, have renewed competition. Enter the Chevrolet Malibu, GM's newest promise of the Accord and Camry fighter. GM has poised the new Malibu as "the car you can't ignore," but is it ready to play with the best?
3rd Place: Toyota Camry, the smooth operator for the Sunday stroll.
New for 2007, the Camry enters the comparison as the senior model. The sharper, edgier exterior lines are a stylish modern interpretation of the previous version. However, I expect more than wheel covers in a $23K car.
The Camry has plenty of cabin space. The interior layout is logical and controls are within easy reach. The gated shifter takes some getting used to and seems unnecessary. In rental car monochromatic gray, the interior dulls the senses. The split-folding rear seats help to maximize the large trunk space.
On the track the Camry's acceleration, braking and ride are the smoothest of the three cars. Yet with excessive body roll during cornering, if the Camry could talk it would say, "What's the hurry? Take it easy."
Bottom line: I instantly felt older when I got into the Camry and I am just not ready for that.
2nd Place: Honda Accord, the perfect car for the masses.
While the styling of the new Accord exudes a more luxurious presence than the previous model, it seems to be the result of a class-crossing affair between a BMW 5 Series and a Hyundai Sonata. The styling is mundane in comparison to the almost sinfully beautiful lines of the new Accord coupe.
On the inside, the cabin is large, with plenty of space for passengers. The eight-way power-adjustable seat perfectly cradles the driver. The interior and audio controls are tactilely pleasing, easily deciphered and in easy reach. On the downside, the audio buttons are humongous and there is some hard plastic on the doors. With its wide opening and deep space, the Accord has the most easily accessible trunk. The one-piece folding rear seat may limit carrying a mix of cargo and people.
The Accord handles corners well, with little body roll. The thick, relatively small steering wheel felt nice under my hands. The engine accelerates smoothly and has smooth braking power.
Bottom line: The Accord gave me confidence, but not that much excitement.
1st Place: Chevrolet Malibu, new, improved and ready to play.
The Malibu is hands-down the best-looking car in this comparison. Its beautiful red jewel paint perfectly accented the curves and lines from every angle. It seems to be no relation to the previous dowdy model. It is definitely the cool car of the bunch.
The interior of the Malibu is the most stylish of the three cars, but also the tightest. The dual-cockpit design feels more sporty and luxurious than the others. The power-adjustable seat creates a custom driving position. A lot of the shiny pieces — on the door handles, around the gauges and on the radio — may be unnecessary and may not hold up well after a few years. Some door panels suffer from some hard plastic, but overall the design and execution is a huge leap for GM. The trunk provides adequate space, but some creative maneuvering of items may be necessary due to the narrow opening. The 60/40-split rear seat helps to increase the storage flexibility.
The Malibu is the most fun to drive and feels the most alive during cornering. The peppy four-cylinder engine picks up speed quickly after about 40 mph. It stops easily in the panic braking exercise, but with more pressure applied to the brake than the Accord and Camry.
The Malibu, with large 17-inch alloy wheels, power-adjustable foot pedals, XM radio and MP3 jack, delivers the most features and fun for the money up front. The Accord and Camry have a proven track record for reliability and value in the long run. If GM could match that record, the distance between these three models would grow.
Bottom line: The Malibu is off the bench and ready for the big game.
Resides in: Eagle River, Wisconsin
Occupation: Retired airline pilot
Personal status: Married, with three grown children
Currently drives: 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, 2004 Honda Odyssey
Both the Accord and the Malibu seemed to turn heads. They had beautiful red metallic paint with contrasting interiors. Both had alloy wheels, but the Malibu's were particularly attractive. The Camry was finished in dark metallic gray, with a gray cloth interior. They should outlaw gray.
The Malibu excelled in exterior styling, an imaginative retro interior and a bushel of features most drivers would love. Much that was included on this car was either more costly or not available on the other two cars. It was diminished by relatively smaller interior dimensions and, perhaps, less refinement in features such as door pockets, storage and armrests.
The Camry excelled in size, comfort and the simplicity of its interior layout. It favored large, easy-to-read knobs and switches. It also was the only model to include airbags for the driver's knees, a factor if you were ever to find the engine in your lap. It was diminished in its comparative handling.
The Accord was stylish and pleasing. The alloy wheels didn't match the beauty of the 17-inch low-profile tires of the Malibu, but they were still very attractive. The interior dimensions of the Accord were the largest of the group. The Accord was diminished by relatively little, although some felt that the heat/vent/radio stack in the center was a little busy and confusing.
I felt the driving experience was commendable in all three cars. The Accord and Malibu were a little more taut, while the Camry had a slightly softer ride.
All three cars accelerated to within 1 or 2 mph of each other in the flat-out pounding we gave them. They also seemed to brake well in our graduated and panic stops. No actual measurements were taken during any of the driving trials. Only the Accord's brakes seemed to smell hot after awhile from the abuse, but no one ever noticed any brake fade. The Camry did have a slight tendency to dive in a panic stop.
One seldom-appreciated feature is a tight turning radius. The Camry's diameter was fully 4 feet shorter than the Malibu, and would save a number of "W" maneuvers.
The highlight of the day was driving the serpentine Hill Course. Any time they hand you a crash helmet and point you at a twisting course that launches into the foothills, you know it's going to be fun. We were admonished that this was not a race. But who could resist? We beat the snot out of the cars. At least with front-wheel drive and four-cylinder engines, they were reasonably confident we weren't going to kill ourselves.
Here the Accord came into its own. It ran the course very well, I thought, and responded to all of the driver's inputs, right or wrong. The Malibu did almost as well. It, too, was fairly taut and responsive. The Camry came in 3rd in my estimation, and seemed to plow through the slalom gates. In reality, no one routinely drives a car in such a fashion unless he's being chased by Steve McQueen, or he's the village idiot.
It should be noted that the Camry, as equipped, was about $1,000 less expensive than the Accord and Malibu. If that thousand dollars had purchased optional alloy wheels and stability control (total: $1,040), the comparisons might have been more interesting.
One test I really wished we could have tried was a passing maneuver, where acceleration is a safety factor and really counts. It would also have been enlightening to see how the headlights illuminate the road at night.
All said and done, I felt each of the cars performed very well. They were all winners. However, they will appeal to different groups of buyers. I think that 20-somethings with no or young families will love the Malibu. It's relatively sporty, sexy, fun to drive and very well equipped. Its smaller backseat will only impinge on tall passengers. The Accord and Camry are a little more commodious and will likely appeal to the more practical crowd. For sheer comfort, I'd take the Camry.
In the end, if you were to hold a gun to my head and tell me to choose just one car, it would have to be the Honda Accord. It does everything extremely well. It looks great, appears to be the roomiest, is well appointed and keeps its value. It's darn near bulletproof.
I would drive the Malibu just for the adventure, hoping it would perform as GM so dearly hopes. As much as I'd love to, I'm very hard-pressed to place the Malibu ahead of the Camry. The tests were too brief, and the quality is unproven. If you would like me to undertake a long-term evaluation of the Malibu, I'd love to. Until then, I'll have to keep the Camry ahead. And yes, I still love my fully loaded Camry hybrid.
Resides in: Monroe, Connecticut
Occupation: Sales manager
Personal status: Married with three children, ages 2, 8 and 10
Currently drives: 2007 Acura MDX, 2005 Buick LeSabre, 1990 Porsche 911
Looking at these cars lined up in pit lane at Willow Springs, my eyes were drawn to the Chevy. This car has a level of detail others in this price range don't begin to approach. Put plainly, the car just looks sharp and portrays more personality.
Once inside, the detail continues. The gaps between the dash and doors are noticeably tight and symmetrical. To the touch, the wheel, the knobs, gearshift handle, etc. all show signs of a higher price to entry than the sticker shows. I couldn't help but put my hand over the bowtie on the steering wheel for a moment and imagine the symbol could easily be from one of Chevy's well-thought-of competitors. As a matter of fact, this car should be referred to as a Chevrolet, not a Chevy. Refer to your Silverado as a Chevy.
Our Malibu example is the model 2LT. Note what that includes: power-adjustable pedals, Universal home remote, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, 17-inch aluminum wheels, heated seats, remote start, XM radio (included on all Malibu models) and an interior they call "Ultralux." You might call it leatherette with suede inserts. It looks and feels good. As a matter of fact, it makes the other entry-level cloth seats look cheap. Another detail is the shiny "Chevrolet" nameplate on the door sills, like the ones you would find on a Mercedes or an Acura. Comes in handy in case you forget what kind of car you are driving.
I wouldn't have guessed the Malibu was going to set a standard for interior features, look and feel vs. the Camry and Accord. It does. You'll have to move up in the product range on the Toyota or Honda to get some of those options. For example, HomeLink doesn't show up in the Accord until you go up another $5K to the V6 EX-L model. You'll have to go to the aftermarket if you're looking for remote start. Will that be an option you'll wonder what you did without? Not sure.
Time to turn the key and get driving impressions. What really surprised me is how quickly I wrote off the Toyota Camry. You know, the best-selling sedan in America. The Malibu upstages this car in so many ways. Now keep in mind, my father (who's never driven anything but GMs) would probably pick the Camry. This car is a "floater." Did they copy the suspension from a Dynaride Buick from the '90s? The Malibu rides firm, but not overly sporty. The Honda, on the other hand, is the most driver-oriented car in the bunch. The transmission is always in the proper gear, the steering feedback is precise and just feels right. The suspension is firm but forgiving. I caught the Malibu hunting for gears on an uphill and during more spirited driving exercises. Drivetrain refinement is more apparent in both the Camry and Accord.
You might notice the Honda is the only car in the group that positions the emergency brake in a usable center console position. Now, I'm not suggesting your average Accord buyer ever touches the handle other than to park on a hill, but if you are a driving enthusiast (especially living in a snowy climate) you know where it may come in handy. If you are a more, shall we say, "mainstream" driver — for example, your eyes aren't constantly surveying the landscape for the local authorities because your speed closely matches the sign next to the road — you need to look at the Malibu. Its driving characteristics are highly acceptable. Its good looks, value/feature/comfort quotient is so compelling. It truly makes the two top sellers from Honda and Toyota look so much more entry-level.
Whoever tagged Malibu's new advertising line "The car you can't ignore" hit it on the money.
So my advice is this:
If you equate a "floaty" ride as comfortable — Camry is your car.
You want dollar-for-dollar more features in an attractive interior/exterior — Malibu.
You want a practical family sedan that also happens to be enjoyable to drive — Accord.
I really hope to see this new Malibu become a stepping stone for GM. A few more executions like this and a market share reversal could really happen.
Meanwhile, you'll find me zipping around in the Accord, pretending to be a responsible 40-something father driving a simple understated family sedan. Besides, maybe I'll be more stealthy going by those local authorities.
My personal ranking: 1. Accord 2. Malibu 3. Camry
For more details on the day at Willow Springs, see our Strategies for Smart Car Buyers article, "Six Consumers, Three Cars, One Tough Test: Consumers Turned Road Test Editors."