The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu packs a surprise: It's the first mainstream mid-size sedan sold in the United States with standard automatic engine stop-start that saves gasoline.
The system turns off the car's engine in certain conditions when the vehicle is stopped and automatically turns it back on as a driver lets up on the brake pedal. And every Malibu — including the base Malibu LS that has a starting retail price of $22,965 with six-speed automatic — has it.
With a new-for-2014 four-cylinder engine and the standard stop-start system, the roomy, four-door Malibu can deliver 14 percent better mileage in city driving than last year's Malibu, according to Chevrolet.
The federal government rates this Malibu model at 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway, for a combined 29 mpg. These numbers edge the 2014, non-hybrid Toyota Camry rating of 25/35 mpg.
They also make the 2014 Malibu the sixth-best nameplate in fuel economy among 2014 U.S. mainstream family sedans.
That's not all. For 2014 Chevrolet freshened the Malibu's styling, inside and out, improved the ride and back-seat legroom and added more safety features and connectivity items.
2014 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ
Base price: $22,140 for LS; $23,510 for 1LT; $25,215 for 2LT; $26,750 for 3LT; $27,690 for 1LTZ; $29,850 for 2LTZ
Price as tested: $32,250
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan Engine: 2.5-liter, double overhead cam, direct injection, turbocharged, Ecotec four cylinder with VVT
Mileage: 21 mpg (city), 30 mpg (highway)
Length: 191.5 inches
Wheelbase: 107.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,660 pounds
Built at: Fairfax, Kan.
Options: Electronics and entertainment package (includes rear-vision camera, premium, Pioneer, nine-speaker audio system, cargo convenience net, automatic rear-dimming mirror) $1,350; Black Granite Metallic paint $225
Destination charge: $825
This is an unusually quick redo of a Chevrolet sedan that debuted as a new-generation model in calendar 2012.
But the Malibu is Chevrolet's second best-selling car, after the smaller Cruze, and Malibu sales through November this calendar year are down 7 percent from year-earlier levels.
Competitors in the family sedan segment include the 2014 Camry, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $23,235 with six-speed automatic, and the 2014 Hyundai Elantra mid-size sedan, which has a starting retail price of $19,010 with six-speed automatic.
For consumers who worry that the starting and stopping of the Malibu's four-cylinder engine is a nuisance or somehow harms the car's starter, Chevrolet says it has gone to great lengths to prevent such pitfalls.
For example, a tandem-solenoid starter helps the engine start quicker and more smoothly, and engine mounts that respond to engine torque work well to minimize the shaking that sometimes accompanies engine restarting.
This attention to detail was evident in the test Malibu LTZ where, at times, the only clue of the workings of the start-stop system was when the driver heard the engine restart while departing the Starbucks drive-through. There was no engine hesitation or shaking.
Chevrolet engineers also made sure to install a durable primary battery that has up to four times the life of a conventional car battery.
Meanwhile, the new standard Malibu engine — a 2.5-liter, double overhead cam, direct gasoline injection Ecotec four cylinder — generates a healthy 196 horsepower and 186 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.
This is more power than the Camry's base four cylinder with 178 horses and 170 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100 rpm.
The base Malibu four cylinder also bests the power of the Elantra's 145-horsepower and 173-horsepower four cylinders.
The test Malibu had the uplevel, turbocharged, four-cylinder. This powerplant, with a full 295 foot-pounds of torque coming on at a rather mid-range 3,000 rpm, makes the Malibu seem like it has more than four cylinders under the hood.
This turbo version of Chevrolet's Ecotec four also delivers 63 more horsepower — for 259 horses.
The six-speed automatic shifted comfortably, no matter if the driver was demanding or in a more sedate driving mood.
But fuel mileage, even with stop-start, was a low 19.6 mpg in city travel, with highway driving pulling up the average during the test drive to above 21 mpg.
While premium gasoline is recommended for the turbo, it's not required. This helps at the gas pump; the test Malibu's 18.5-gallon tank was good for 388 miles.
It's easy to drive the Malibu as if it's a smaller car than it is. In fact, the 16-foot-long Malibu is a bit longer and wider than the Camry and Elantra sedans, and the Malibu's flat, spacious, 16.3-cubic-foot trunk is bigger than those of the Camry and Elantra sedans. Rear seatbacks also fold down.
The test Malibu managed most road bumps well. Steering had a mainstream feel. Brakes worked well, with good, progressive response to pedal pressure.
Front door entryways were comfortably sized, but the back seat doorways were pinched a bit by the rear wheel wells.
Chevrolet added 1.25 inches to rear-seat legroom — for a total of 36.8 inches — by shaping front seatbacks and redoing rear seat cushions. But the middle-seat back passenger has to contend with a sizable hump in the floor.
And a front-seat passenger with a history of back problems did not sit comfortably in the test Malibu's seat.
Buttons and knobs in the Malibu were good sized, as were the large icons on the center-of-the-dashboard display screen.
All Malibus come standard with 10 air bags, and two side impact air bags for outboard back-seat passengers are optional. The 2014 Malibu earned five out of five stars in federal government frontal crash tests. Side crash test results were not yet reported.
Also standard are antilock brakes and electronic stability control. Too bad, though, that a rear-view camera is not standard on all Malibus.
According to the federal government, nearly 43,000 of the 2014 Malibus were the subject of a safety recall in November because front windshield defrosters may not work on occasion after the vehicles are started.