Saturday, February 5, 2011

Showdown: Toyota Camry vs. Chevrolet Malibu

The tagline still rings clear in my head, circa 2008, “Chevrolet Malibu: The car you can’t ignore.” Perhaps a more appropriate slogan would have been “Hopeless Camry wannabe since 1997!” The first generation Malibu was such a blatant Camry rip-off – complete with ‘international’ amber rear turn signals –Toyota should have sued for plagiarism. That Malibu taught GM that a appliance-like personality is more than skin deep. Or maybe it didn’t. The second generation, while more original and substantially improved, remained a rental lot has-been in a segment full of more appealing options. Chevy, along with a handful of auto rags afraid of losing advertising sponsorship, insist that with the current Malibu, the stalwart CamCords have met their match. We’ll just see about that.

Competition is so fierce in the mid-size sedan segment that most competitors have morphed into virtual clones of each other. Indeed, on paper you’d be hard pressed to tell there was any difference at all between the Malibu and the Camry. Both make exactly 169 horsepower, coming from a 2.4-liter motor in the Chevy and a 2.5-liter in the Camry. Both are rated for exactly 22 MPG in the city, with the Camry achieving 32 on the highway and Malibu rated for 33. Both have a six-speed automatic transmission – standard on the Chevy, technically optional on the Toyota (though you’re more likely to find a llama sitting in a Toyota showroom than a manual-transmission Camry). Every exterior dimension measures up with fewer than two inches difference between the two cars, save wheelbase where the Malibu is, surprisingly, a full three inches longer.

The real difference is in the drive, where more subjective measurements come into play. Having said that, taking everything into account, these are very, very similar cars.

I will be the first to admit that, apart from the taillights that don’t line up (tsk, tsk… shouldn’t quality control have caught that?), the Malibu is the better looking of the two. It’s bold, chiseled, and largely cohesive. The car manages to look much more expensive than it is, and it carries an almost sophisticated presence that most mid-size sedans lack. In comparison, the Camry comes off as more of a rounded-off box. It’s not a bad looking car, just bland an unassuming. Neither sedan is going to turn heads in traffic or fool the neighbors into thinking you’ve won the lottery, but both are respectable, tasteful designs that should age well.

Interior designs echo the exteriors in terms of styling – once again, the Camry breaks no new ground while the Malibu looks more Marriott than Econolodge. Okay, maybe a Days Inn. Materials quality and assembly is similar in both cars – decent, but built to a price. Most of the Toyota’s plastics feel hard and hollow while the Malibu’s feel rubbery and Tupperware-like, neither is particularly inviting but I can’t decide which is more offensive. The Camry’s interior design is almost too conventional, bordering on utilitarian. The Malibu’s sweeping dashboard and two-tone color scheme (the 'test car' was unfortunately ordered with the rather stark black-on-black combo) is decidedly more modern and upscale, if a bit busy and less user-friendly. Despite having the design creativity of a cement wall, I actually prefer the interior of the Toyota for its greater functionality. The HVAC controls are huge, the radio display is large and easy to see, and there are far fewer buttons and controls than in the Malibu. Simple, functional, straightforward. Someone who’s never set foot in a Camry could figure everything out within 15 seconds, while you almost have to whip out the owner’s manual to change the radio volume in the Malibu.

The Camry has been the benchmark for comfort and quietness for virtually as long as it has existed. Ride quality is undoubtedly the smoothest you’re going to find among any mid-size car available, better even than a handful of low-end luxury cars. Ride motions are slow and gentle - not quite floaty, but undeniably soft. Road bumps rarely amount to more than minor jostles in the cabin and even direct pothole strikes are cushioned enough as to never feel jarring. The Malibu, while certainly not uncomfortable, is noticeably harsher. There is an extra sharpness to the ride motions and imperfections register more directly to the cabin. The Chevy’s ride smoothes out somewhat on the freeway, where it almost matches the Camry for cruising composure. Both cars are very quiet – they’re the quietest two models in the class, in fact – the Malibu helped by its laminated side glass, a feature found on more expensive cars. Despite its regular, non-laminated glass, the Camry takes the edge in the category, if only slightly.

Both sedans have very light steering, almost ridiculously so at certain speeds. The Camry’s is hydraulic while the Malibu’s is electronic, meaning a more natural, linear feel in the former. Both are very numb and feel largely artificial with little to no feedback. The Camry’s brakes feel spongy and highly overboosted, the Malibu’s are substantially nicer, with a firmer feel and better modulation. The suspension in the Chevy is completely free of the nosedive that afflicts the Toyota in quicker stops, a definite plus.

Perhaps what surprises me the most is about the Malibu is how buttoned down it feels in corners, clearly a result of the firmer suspension. While the Camry pitches and rolls at even a hint of aggressive driving, the Chevy stays planted and confident. Body roll is surprisingly restrained for such a large car, and tire grip is impressive over corners with broken surfaces where the Camry would jump and jitter. Both cars have too much mass and are too front-heavy to even approach ‘sports sedan’ - not to mention the overboosted steering - but the Malibu does a far better job of faking it than the Camry, which doesn’t even try.

I never thought I’d see the day when GM made a nicer four-cylinder engine than Toyota, but lo and behold, here you have it. Power delivery and smoothness is about as good as it gets with both cars (by 4-cyl standards), but oh, what a difference in the aural perception department. The Camry’s engine seems almost wheezy and gritty compared to the lusty, subdued roar of the Malibu. Despite having identical power figures, the Chevy feels a bit more sprightly than the Camry in city driving, thanks to a transmission that knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Shifts are smooth and swift - it’s hard to tie the gearbox up no matter what you do with your right foot.

Ah, but what about the details? It’s all about those thoughtful touches that make a good car a great car. Toyota has long excelled at this, GM historically has faltered, often times miserably. Slam the driver’s door of the Chevy and you’ll hear a loud, hollow sound, while the Camry yields a soft, secure “clump”. The turn signal stalks are particularly notable; the Camry’s is perfect – just the right resistance, no excess play, fluid movement. The Malibu’s turn signal feels like it’s going to break off every time you touch it. On the highest setting, the roar from the Malibu’s HVAC fan is earsplitting, while the Camry fan hums along smoothly. And of course, there’s the trademark felt-lined coin tray waiting for you in the Camry’s dashboard. Small things, perhaps, yet things that contribute a lot to one’s overall perception of the car. The Camry is the clear winner here, feeling like the more refined, well-crafted car of the two.

I was almost afraid to drive the Malibu. After reading so many glowing reviews from its initial release, I was afraid it would be better than the Camry and I would regret my decision. I don’t. Not because the Malibu is a bad car. Both are excellent sedans that are in fact more similar than they are different. Rather, I don’t regret it because the Camry simply suits my personal preference. The Malibu is a bit sportier and more stylish, yet rough around the edges. The Camry is so massaged into soft, gentle refinement that there's little room for the "edge" that characterizes the Chevy. Perhaps even that is an exaggeration, as these cars are so close in most categories that it doesn't make a drastic difference which you choose. It basically comes down to one's specific priorities and personal preference, as either sedan will get the job done, and get it done well.


Martin van Duijn said...

Interesting comparison between two unknown cars here. Well, the Camry can sometimes be seen here. Did it get a new dash? I remember I got into a used one, a hybrid, at the Toyota dealership here, and the dash looked far more plastic as to what I see on your photo. Over here the Toyota Avensis has to play the Camry role, but the recent generation is not very popular due to its bricklike styling.

Chris M. said...

Nice to see direct comparisons like these, and I think you covered it well. It's also refreshing that the subjects were two 4-cyl midrange models, as opposed to the optioned out high-trim versions that so often appear.

I've been a fan of the styling of the new Malibu since it came out, and it's good to hear that the car itself is a worthy competitor. Now if only they'd make an SS version...

Andrew T. said...

I remember the ballyhooed reception in press and advertising when the first FWD Malibu arrived in '97: "It's the car you knew America could build!" Obviously, it didn't quite live up to the loftier implications of its promise...though the Corsica was so embarrassingly outdated by the end of its run that anything would have been seen as an improvement.

Given GM's past record, it's hard for me not to approach today's Malibu with very low expectations...and by that mindset, it really is an impressive car. I'd probably even take a chance and pick it over the Camry; although neither are exactly my cup of tea as far as vehicles go...

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