The 2012 Chevrolet Malibu remains a top contender in the affordable mid-sized car class for its outstanding credentials as a reliable car for families even if reviewers do feel it's time for the model to have a refresh or risk losing popularity for dated styling. (That refresh is scheduled, by the way for the 2013 model year.) Selling on average for $22,396 to $30,414, the Malibu returns a commendable 22 mpg around town and 33 out on the highway.
In so many ways the Malibu comes off as a pleasant compromise. At the same time that reviewers decry the base four-cylinder (169 hp) for being underpowered, they rave about the smooth, quiet ride it delivers. They're disappointed that Chevrolet doesn't offer a navigation option for the Malibu, but talk about the intuitive qualities of the cabin design that appeal to drivers.
Are their better appointed cars in the class? Absolutely. The Hyundai Sonata offers much bolder style at equal value and better fuel economy. The Ford Fusion's cabin is so nice it's routinely described as upscale, and the drive quality is just plain fun -- crisp, smooth, and precise with excellent acceleration. All are worthy of a test drive.
The 2012 Malibu is available in three trims: LS, LT, and LTZ. All can be outfitted with the base four-cylinder or the optional V6 (252 hp) paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. Although essentially identical to the 2011, there are some new features for 2012, starting with an upgrade to the LS trim, which includes Bluetooth, floor mats, audio controls on the wheel, and sharper side body molding. The 1LT can now have a sunroof, power driver's seat, Bluetooth, remote start, and a three-prong, 110-volt outlet.
While the Malibu may be middle-of-the-road in many respects, it rides that road beautifully and absorbs bumps superbly. The electric steering assist has been judged to be a little erratic, engaging at what would appear to be odd times, but the hydraulic-assist steering on the V6 doesn't' have the same issues. Braking is firm and reliable and there's very little body lean on curves.
This is definitely a model that caters to the comfort of the driver and front seat passengers. Kids will do just fine in the rear seat, but adults aren't going to want to be stuck back there on long hauls. The trunk offers 15.1 cubic feet of easily accessible cargo space, but there are roomier models on the market, like the Ford Fusion with 16.5.
Although the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't tested the 2012 Chevrolet Malibu, the 2011 was a Top Safety Pick and is, for all practical purposes, the same car. In federal testing the Malibu was awarded four stars for overall crash tests. All the expected safety features are in place, and the optional OnStar service with accident response is also considered a security benefit for those who opt in.
For drivers who can wait until 2013, the Chevrolet Malibu will likely move even nearer to the top of the mid-sized affordable car class. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the 2012 model, per se, it's just one of those cars that, when stacked up against the competition, makes for a difficult choice. This is a "drive them all" situation. Pick the one that feels right. If it's the Malibu, you'll have a solid, reliable car for daily hauling and family excursions.