The Holden Epica was not the worst car in the world, but neither was it the best. Sitting resolutely near the bottom of the class was not a good position when the likes of the ford Mondeo and Mazda6 were showing just what good design and competent driving manners could do for sales.
So it’s natural to approach the Malibu with a wary eye. You would hope that the Epica experience has taught the Australian car maker a little, but other car makers have fallen into the same trap of making mediocre car after medicine car.
At first glance, Holden seems to have nailed the styling. The Malibu looks dynamic and contemporary, and there are even a few nods to the GM Camaro in the headlights and tail lights. The credit for this must go to a former member of the Holden team, as the styling was guided by Justin Thompson.
Slipping behind the wheel similarly reveals some good design, with a hooded instrument panel and comfortable seating position, although the gear lever slips far too easily into sport mode when you shift out of reverse. There’s also an option to change gears in the six speed gearbox manually, but ergonomically it doesn’t work, as it is operated not by shifting the gear lever but by using a very small sharp edged rocker switch right on top of the gear stick. The large chrome collar around the gear lever can reflect very strongly in summer sunlight and glare right into your face while you’re looking out the windscreen, which obviously can be annoying.
The Malibu comes with Holden’s MyLink entertainment system, which integrates all sorts of radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth audio and iPod functions together. But for some reason I couldn’t get my iPod to actually connect through the USB slot. It may be because my iPod is loaded with mp3 format songs rather than Apple’s format, but due to a car mix up I didn’t have enough time in the Malibu to switch to a USB stick to see if that worked. The MyLink system does make for a large a colourful seven inch touch screen display on the centre console, and it is obviously meant to display sat nav. That’s a little premature though, as. Sat nav is not yet available on the Malibu. That leaves you with a large display that unfortunate doesn’t have all that much to display, so the icons for each function are as large as on a child’s educational toy.
One nice touch though is the storage box built in behind the flat panel display, which folds up out of the way for access.
For a mid-sized car there is a lot of room inside the Malibu, with a cabin that virtually matches of the size of the Commodore’s interior, although it is a little bit narrower. The boot is similarly large, but as the Malibu is available only as a sedan, rather than a hatch or wagon it means that you have to try and fit any large objects through the narrow boot opening.
On the road the NZ$45,900 2.4 litre four cylinder petrol CDX tested here is a willing, if sometimes strained performer. Acceleration is pretty standard, thanks to the 123kW and 225NM running through a six-speed automatic gearbox and while at mid rpm the engine sounds refined, it quickly changes to a more anguished note as you reach for the redline. The claimed 8.0L/100km fuel consumption isn’t too bad for a 2.4 litre mid-sizer.
But ride and handling are by far the outstanding features of the car. Like all Holden’s built outside of Australia (this one’s from Korea) Holden’s engineers have retuned the suspension, steering and changed the tyre choice for a more antipodean driving experience and it shows. Large bumps are absorbed with compliance, while smaller defects in the road surface are similarly wiped away. Body control is good, and although there’s some body roll in corners the grip levels are high.
The steering also comes in for a notable mention as it is electrically powered, and still has a decent feel. Holden’s experience with the electric steering rack in the Commodore must have paid off, as the steering in the Petrol powered Malibu is quick, with decent heft and response. The diesel version of the Malibu gets a hydraulically powered steering rack, due to the switch from left hand drive to right hand drive.
Holden has modest aims for the car, looking to sell over 500 Malibus in the first year, which is more than the 479 Epicas sold in that model’s best year. Unsurprisingly the Malibu will be a better seller than the Epica, but it also deserves to carve out a larger niche in the medium car market, given its looks and abilities.