2014 Chevrolet Malibu: From Detroit, a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the middle class

Warren Brown
Columnist November 1, 2013

The middle class — a loosely defined socioeconomic group with college or other advanced education and annual household income ranging from $25,000 to $125,000 — is stressed.

Recent data from the Census Bureau show that the average middle-class household income fell from a peak of $56,080 in 1999 to $51,017 in 2012.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

That is a real loss of real money, a negative difference of $5,063 a year.

What does it have to do with cars?

Everything.


Chevrolet’s 2014 Malibu brings a roomier, more refined and more efficient execution of its midsize sedan. (General Motors)

While middle-class incomes declined steadily, new-car prices steadily rose — from an average of $21,050 in 1999 to $30,500 in 2012. That’s according to figures culled from the 2013 Car Affordability Study, produced by Interest.com, a company specializing in personal finance; the U.S. Census Bureau; and other sources in the automotive and financial industries.

That means car companies, whose primary source of profits are in middle-class communities, are under pressure, too. Witness Chevrolet, General Motors’ middle-class division and its largest in terms of sales.

GM, a global car manufacturer and marketer headquartered in Detroit, is under worldwide governmental pressure to increase fuel economy, decrease smog-causing carbon dioxide emissions, and increase overall vehicle quality and safety, partly by reducing injuries to pedestrians in car-pedestrian crashes.

All that costs money, which largely accounts for the rise in car prices at a time when middle-class buyers have less money to spend. So, what must the Chevrolet division do? Simple. It must do what its smart rivals are doing: channel South Korean car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia, companies that have perfected the art of producing very attractive automobiles at prices that a stressed-out middle class can, at least, imagine affording.

Welcome the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, a compact family sedan with a base price of $22,965 — some $825 more than the base price of the 2013 Malibu. But the new price is still within grabbing range of most U.S. middle-class families, and the new car gives them a bit more to reach for, including a first-for-its-segment standard start-stop system, which is great for saving fuel during congested city drives.

Indeed, the new Malibu is a tad more fuel-efficient than its 2013 predecessor — 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway for the 2014 model, compared with 22 city and 34 highway for the previous year’s model, with both using regular unleaded fuel.

But there seems to be a trade-off between better fuel economy and power in the new Malibu cars. The 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine in the base 2013 Malibu offered a maximum 197 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque. Improved fuel economy in the 2014 Malibu gives you 196 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque.

But buyers willing to pay a few thousand dollars more in purchase price and several hundred dollars more in annual refueling costs can get the 2014 Malibu with a turbocharged (forced air) 2-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine that delivers 259 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. I’m told by some GM people that regular or plus-grade gasoline will burn just fine in the turbocharged Malibu. But I remain stubbornly old-school and opt for premium in turbocharged engines.

For my money, I’d stick with one of the base Malibu models, such as the LT version driven for this column. “Base” is a misnomer here. The car is loaded — premium-trimmed, well-designed interior; fuel-saving start-stop technology that works perfectly, almost seamlessly; and a comfortable-for-five ride even on long road trips.

The car brings a bit of joy to the tortured middle class. It makes you feel that, finally, someone takes you seriously, respecting you and your life without scheming to drain the last penny from your bank account.

I like cars that respect me. The new Malibu does that. It gets a “thumbs up” here.

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