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Holden Malibu CDX Turbodiesel 2013 review

The arrival of the Malibu means a re-assessment of the pecking order for mid-sized motoring.
Someone at Holden got the name wrong for the company's newest, and surprisingly impressive, mid-sized hopeful.

Someone at Holden got the name wrong for the company's newest, and surprisingly impressive, mid-sized hopeful.

It should have been called the Bondi, not the Malibu. The newcomer is far more Australian than American and is intended to surf the current wave of pro-Holden feeling that's been generated by the landmark VF Commodore and the classy update of the compact Cruze. 

Only the tail lamps, which could have been snitched from the back of a Camaro coupe, and the lacklustre fuel economy give any pointer to a Motown connection.And the car comes from Korea. But let's not hold that against it.


Malibu pricing starts at a competitive $28,490 and there are both petrol and diesel engines, plenty of technology, a cabin that picks up the same class and comfort as the VF and Cruze, and cushy suspension settings that should work for the family-first parties in the mid-sized heartland.

But life will not be easy for the Malibu, which has to find some breathing space in a class dominated by the Toyota Camry and including everything from the Citroen C5 through to the Volkswagen Passat.


To put the Malibu into context, we've brought along two benchmark rivals - the Kia Optima and Mazda6 - for our preview drive in Melbourne. It's not a full-bore comparison but the Carsguide thinking is that it sets up a pincer movement where the Kia will apply the price pressure and the Mazda will crush it with class. Optima stickers start from $30,490 and even the nice new 6 is priced from $33,460, which means our Malibu CDX petrol at $31,990 sits uncomfortably tight between them.

But the Malibu is good and pushes back with the sort of honest comfort and accessible technology that could actually make it a winner. It's worth four stars, even in this tight little trio, and despite fuel economy that barely betters the latest Commodore.

Where it sits

"It's a different kind of mid-sized car," the head of sales and marketing at Holden, Phil Brook, tells Carsguide. "It's not boring. It's fun to drive, has great technology, and looks pretty different."

Back-tracking a bit, or a lot, Holden has not had a good run with mid-sized cars. It's never helped that the elephant in the showroom is called Commodore, but think back to the Apollo that was a lightly worked-over Camry, and the over-priced European Vectra, and the dowdy Epica that was parked in 2011 and you'll see where we're coming from.

This time around, Holden says it knew it had to get things right. "There is no comparison between this car and what we've had in the past," Brook says. "We're starting fresh. It's a new name and a new product. But it was always going to be a Holden, so our requirements were up front."

Design and Equipment

Those requirements start with a Holden style to the nose, a family connection to the Commodore through the cabin, then engine tuning for solid response and suspension that combines quietness with the ability to absorb nasty Aussie asphalt acne.

There's also the value story that begins with the base price but also includes a standard rear camera, rear parking radar, an electric parking brake with automatic release, alloy wheels, a 7-inch colour touchscreen to control the MyLink infotainment system, cruise control, trip computer and more. It's a lot of kit for the cash, right up - as you would expect - in the Kia class.

Sliding up to the CDX adds leather trim, dual-zone auto aircon, automatic wipers, bigger alloys and electric heated front seats. And, for some reason, LED rear brake lamps. "We've tried to take away all the reasons for people not to buy," says Brook.

The design work on the Malibu is, at best, restrained. It's never going to stand out in traffic, although it looks best from the front - unlike the American model which has just copped an early nose job - and those square lamps at the back give it a point of difference.

The front seats are roomy, the dash looks good - although the quality steps down a peg from the Commodore - and the boot space is roomy with a full-sized spare that's only rated at 80km/h because it's not the same size as the alloy-wrapped rubber.

The Kia looks more impressive at first, but the Holden scores with materials that look and feel more classy as well as seats with much more shape and padding. Against the Mazda, the Malibu is close but still behind.

Engines and Transmissions

Move into the mechanical package and the Malibu is convention and predictable. The engines are 2.4-litre petrol and 2.0 litre turbo diesel, both with a six-speed auto with something called Active Select if you want to choose your own gears, and fully-independent suspension. "The car is smooth and drives well," claims Brook. "We've done a lot of local work on ride and handling."


Safety is handled by six airbags, ESP and stability control, with ISOFIX baby seat mounts - a big deal for Holden, since they've just been fitted across the back bench of the Commodore. It's predicted to get a five-star ANCAP tick after local testing.


All the talk and technical stuff sounds good, but it's the drive that really matters with the Malibu. I can still remember, sadly in great clarity, the mediocrity of the Epica. And medium cars have got a lot better since then. The first impression is good, because - just like the three bears - the Malibu slots comfortably in-between the Cruze and Commodore that I've driven over the past month.

The design work is good and out of the same family tree, the suspension is plush but still has good grip, and the performance is … well, it's no V8 SS but it's alright. Then I slide into the Optima and expect to feel more cosseted and more rewarded. But I'm not. The Kia has plenty of kit and I know it's got a five-year warranty and looks better - for me - than the Malibu, but I would taken the Holden home every time.

The Kia feels a bit cheaper, a bit harsher in the drivetrain and suspension, and - even with a Platinum bonus pack - not as comfortable. Then it's time for the Mazda6, which could - and does - push the Malibu down a notch. But it's not by much, even though the Japanese mid-sizer is closer in many ways to the Commodore.

The 6 is a touch more refined and has a touch more class, as well as looking more like a prestige car than a taxi without the roof light. But it would be easy to run almost anything second to the Mazda6, even the Opel Insignia and the Skoda Octavia which have done well in Carsguide drives.

The arrival of the Mazda6 and the Malibu, and even the latest Camry and Subaru Liberty and upcoming Honda Accord, means a re-assessment of the pecking order for mid-sized motoring.
Right now, the Malibu is the surprising star and deserves a four-star grade against the 6 at 4.5 and the Optima at 3.5 from five.

The new Holden really does complete a surprisingly complete range of locally-focussed family cars. For us, it's the best four-door lineup in Holden's history, which says a lot - or perhaps not enough - depending on your perspective.


A mid-sized Holden that's finally more than just mediocre

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CD 2.4L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $5,800 – 8,910 2013 Holden Malibu 2013 CD Pricing and Specs
CDX 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP AUTO $8,000 – 12,430 2013 Holden Malibu 2013 CDX Pricing and Specs
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