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One and Done: The Best Midsize Sedan in America

The best midsize sedan in America, and four other cars.

By Jason Davis | Photos By Jason Davis | February 26, 2013

A Malibu for Mommy Stacy

The first leg of our journey was a multicolored-follow-the-leader-convoy out of Los Angeles. Freeway traffic was listless and thick, though typical for the area: We were surrounded by truckers and contractors and business people too busy yapping into their cell phones to notice commuter dread -- red brake lights -- and its foreshadowing of a disappearing sun, its here-now then gone-again presence through patches of darkening clouds and the bleak-eyed stares of the not-yet-caffeinated.
That's when Married Guy #2 broke the radio silence to brag about the Malibu's fuel economy. "Guys, I don't want to be that guy [who reports the fuel economy readout every three minutes for the entirety of a 300-mile road trip]," he said while definitely being that guy, "but the Malibu is averaging just under 26 miles per gallon. That's 3 mpg better than what we were getting with the Malibu Eco." His smugness was quickly shattered when everyone else piped up with his own readings. No other car had registered less than 30 miles per gallon, and the humdrum Camry was leading the pack with a whopping 37 miles per gallon. Commuting is the least interesting component of a car comparison, but fuel economy numbers are important to commuters. Not only does commuting provide a thorough examination of a car's comfort, its audio quality, or its fuel-sipping tendencies, it tests a driver's patience, too. It is, perhaps, the most relevant exercise in reviewing a car since it's how most Americans spend their time behind the wheel. By that point, though, we were well into the valley, having already driven 25 miles, a seemingly aimless drift in wont of more coffee. So we exited the freeway and pulled into a gas station to find a Starbucks on GPS without the distraction of traffic. That's when we met "Victor," a man who had noticed how we too carefully pulled into five parallel spaces for a conspicuous photo op. "Which one's the best?" he asked, while leaning out the window of his refrigerated van. "That one," said Married Guy #2, pointing indiscriminately toward all the cars. "I don't know," said Married Guy #1. "The day is young. But, check Automotive.com in a month for the answer!" After Victor drove off, Bachelor #2 broke formation and parked the Accord next to a premium look alike, his attempt at directly pointing out the obvious: an already stale attempt at characterizing the Honda's looks as a role reversal, where Hyundai used to copy Honda design. "It's a great-looking Genesis," he mentioned, several times, waiting for someone to take the bait so he could keep arguing the point. No one did. If it were strictly a design competition, the Malibu just might come out on top. It's a knockout of a design: handsome, sculpted well, although somewhat bulbous from certain angles. It matters to the kinds of people who don't read the in-depth parts of car reviews, and who buy a car based on looks and available colors. For that group, Chevrolet has scored big. The Malibu looks great from the inside, too, as though designers spent as much time there as they did on the outside. This, too, is important, because what the Malibu lacked in fuel efficiency, it made up for in comfort. Inside is an array of clever features, dashing lines (the lighting is especially neat at night), and squishy, wide front seats. "It feels special inside," said Bachelor #1. And, "It feels like GM put a lot of effort into it," said Bachelor #2. Unfortunately, the dash was too complex, with too many buttons, forcing the driver to rely on GM's MyLink connectivity. It worked mostly well, albeit with a cluttered and not-so-intuitive menu system. But despite the vivid 7-inch display and $32,000 price tag, there was no navigation system, aside from GM's OnStar service; the two other similarly priced cars had nav systems. Another bummer: While the front seats were spacious and accommodating, we felt the backseat was rather limited, and that it had the least amount of usable space. Under the hood, our Malibu was fit with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic transmission, and was rated by the EPA for 26/34/22 mpg on the city/highway/mixed driving scale. Those numbers aren't bad for a car that felt appropriately able to get out of its own way. On the highway, the Malibu felt soft and springy, and was the most Cadillac-like of the group. "It's a fantastic highway cruiser," thought Bachelor #2. "It feels heavy, secure, and the ride soaks up every bump." But it had issues there, too. The steering "felt twitchy, and dead in certain spots," continued Might As Well Be Married Guy, and at freeway speeds, we found the Malibu difficult to keep straight. It's a shame. The Malibu was clearly one of the two best looking cars in the segment, but it's held back by poor fuel economy, a small backseat, and an overall package that wasn't the sum of its impressive parts. "It's a better car than I think most people would admit," Bachelor #2 added. "No one should feel ashamed to own one." That's true, but you'd be missing out on great.
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7 comments
DRJJJ
DRJJJ

The Accord is the best looking, but the Camry is the best choice if you're looking for reliability! The Camry has the traditional engine/drivetrain config-no direct injection and no cvt tranny like the accord auto! Read forums, these two features are over sold and may just lead to very expensive repairs down the road! I'm guessing manufacturers will regret DI and CVTs! These two features have not delivered as promise in the mpg department either as promised! All the cars are good looking outside and competition is tightening, but this should be known to the buying public! The chevy and chrysler engine/drivetrain is still sub par too ( I rent them), but getting better! Thanks, picky EngineerĀ 

Audi Love
Audi Love

The Fusion is the best of them all, honey! ^^^^^

Gregory Smitherman
Gregory Smitherman

I'm chevy all the way, both the Honda and Chevy Malibu looks the best.

Automotive.com
Automotive.com

It takes a little coercing to get our staff photographer (and talented writer if you haven't read the story yet) out of the dark dungeon known as our cubicle-walled office. But when he gets out, he does a great job. -Jacob

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

This is a great picture.... If the fusion was in a different color, I'd give it the best grill award. Def goes to Honda tho! :)