It would be all too easy to think of Holden's new Malibu as the unloved middle child. Small cars are where the sales action is and Holden has a good one: the Cruze.
Large cars are now limited in volume but not on appeal: the VF Commodore is sophisticated, a flag-bearer for Holden's design and engineering expertise and something of a hero car for the brand.
Most Cruze and all Commodore models are built in Australia, of course. While Australian car production doesn't mean anywhere near as much to Kiwis as it does to the locals, these cars are still the closest thing we have to local product.
The Korean-built Malibu slots into the medium segment, between Cruze and Commodore. It's a sensible car aimed at a middle market that is dominated by fleet sales in New Zealand (over 80 per cent). It's also a replacement for the Epica, a car that was underwhelming in every single respect.
When a Cruze is big and the Commodore is exciting, why bother? Because while the medium segment has diminished in the last decade, it's been stable for the last three years and is still more important than the large-car class in terms of sales.
There are still business buyers who want that level of space with four-cylinder engines. As a mainstream brand, Holden must compete in the medium class.
Malibu is a fresh start: a global model on a new platform. While Holden people were involved in both exterior and interior design, it was all towards a car that could be sold in over 100 markets. There are some elements unique to the Australasian model, although that work was focused on easy-to-adapt features like throttle/transmission mapping, dampers and tyre choice.
The Malibu line-up is simple: a 123kW/225Nm 2.4-litre petrol (8.0 l/100km) or 117kW/350Nm 2-litre turbo diesel (6.4 l/100km) engines, each in entry CD or luxurious CDX specification. A six-speed automatic gearbox is standard.
The new Malibu CDX features LED quad tail lamps, rear assist with camera, and the full MyLink touch-screen infotainment system.
At $42,900, the Malibu CD is now the cheapest car in the medium segment. It comes generously equipped with climate air-conditioning, rear park assist with camera, automatic headlights, nine-speaker sound system, power height adjustment for the front seats, cruise control and the full MyLink touch-screen infotainment system.
MyLink will be a selling point for Malibu. It's the fourth car to get the system, which includes Pandora and Stitcher internet applications. Malibu's MyLink is equivalent to that in Cruze: more functionality than Barina but not as sophisticated as Commodore's.
The Malibu CDX adds 18-inch alloys, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate air, automatic wipers and eight-way power adjustment for both front seats. The CDX also gets LED rear lights, which showcase the car's most distinctive styling feature: Camaro-inspired quad tail lamps, which light up in four bright squares with the LED technology. There's a $3000 premium CDX and a further $2500 for the diesel engine on either specification. No sat-nav for now: expect that as a running change in around six months.
The American Chevrolet Malibu has already been upgraded in some important areas, with changes to interior packaging and safety gear like blind-spot alert and cross-traffic alert. We don't get those revisions.
At least not yet.
Notwithstanding an epic rainfall during the media drive in Melbourne, which made it difficult to evaluate the car in depth, Malibu comes across as a competent package. There is still too much pitch-and-roll in bumpy corners for the car to be considered sporty (if it was ever intended to be), but it's composed and predictable.
The diesel will be a minor player in the market but it's the driver's choice. It's noisy at low revs but has an impressive 350Nm of torque. Because the diesel engine cannot be packaged in right-hand drive with the electric power steering system of the petrol model, it gets hydraulic assistance.
The CDX versions get the nod for roadholding: the entry CD rides on Kumho Ecsta tyres while the CDX has Bridgestone Potenzas. That's the same rubber that you get on a Commodore SV6.
Holden New Zealand managing director Jeff Murray is realistic about the Malibu's chances in a segment full of well-established players. The Toyota Camry/Avensis dominate with a 22 per cent share, followed by Ford Mondeo, Mazda6 and Hyundai i45 (all with around 11 per cent). He forecasts a 7 per cent share (around 600 cars) for the Malibu in its first year. The first big customer is Avis, which is taking delivery of 200 cars for the winter rental season.