Shortly before I graduated high school, a friend of mine told me that he and his dad had begun to restore a 1968 Chevy Malibu SS. It was a pile of rust in the garage, but that didn’t matter. It was a classic, and it was all varieties of awesome. I don’t know if they ever finished it.
Today’s Malibu, by comparison, is an anesthetic. It is available with a four pot or one of two V6s, and though the better one–the 3.6–can churn out 252 hp, GM couldn’t be bothered with installing a proper manual transmission and all models are a depressing FWD.
But I need to snap out of it, right? Chevy isn’t going to build a RWD mid-sized sedan, and most drivers just use automatics these days. Anything else would be impractical. That is the sad truth. So even when GM released a provocative peek at the 2013 Malibu’s Camaroesque tail lights a few weeks ago, we didn’t get our hopes up.
We’ve learned not to expect much from the mid-size category, so when GM revealed full shots of the 2013 Malibu ahead of its official bowing at the Shanghai and New York Auto Shows, we all just shrugged our shoulders and moved on. The looks were forgettable, the gearbox was, again, automatic only and the only engine available was a 2.5 liter straight four capable of a shocking 190 hp.
It brought to mind a question: How did we get here? How does a car like the Malibu go from a box of fire and anger to a sack of soap and beige? Are cars just getting boring?
Now, I haven’t had the pleasure of living as long as some of my readers, and you can suffice it to say that I wasn’t around when the 1968 Chevelle Malibu first graced the roads. So it would make sense that I only find the ’68 Malibu cool because it’s old and rare. I mean, isn’t every car from the ‘60s amazing? Even the four door version looked cool.
But that argument falls through when you skip ahead a decade. While some cars from the ‘70s are cool, like the first US Honda Civics, I don’t find most as appealing as vehicles born during the Space Race. The ‘80s spawned one of my favorite cars of all time: the Audi Quattro. Yet, I don’t look at the 1983 Malibu and lose track of time.
Both the first gen Civic and the Ur-Quattro have their cult followings (the Civic’s despite its rust issues and extremely low power), but I just can’t see the 2013 Malibu becoming a collector’s car. It’s just too boring. There’s nothing really to like about it.
It’s not alone. The new Ford Taurus, despite its impressive power, is only available in automatic, and the latest Civic tops out at 201 hp, at best. I submit that the Malibu is part of an industry-wide movement toward the languid.
How did this happen? Many will say that gas prices have come up, so cars have to be slower and more efficient. But anyone familiar with older Geo Metros or Honda CRXs will know that cars used to get better mileage than they do today.
It really comes down to one word: Regulations. Carmakers are under unprecedented pressure from government agencies like the NTSHA and the CAFE to produce machines that are safer than they’ve ever been and produce less pollution than they ever have.
As a result, cars have gotten fatter, heavier, and less aerodynamic, but engines can’t grow to meet the needs. Automakers are so tightly hedged by regulations that they can no longer work from inspiration. They’re forced instead to fight for survival, to worm their way up between safety and environmental laws packed so tightly that by the time Ford or Nissan or Citroen is able to break the surface, they’re happy just to sell a few cars and make a little profit.
So vehicles like the new Malibu are boring, and are no longer marketed for excitement, but rather for practicality. As excitement has dwindled, people have begun to view driving as a chore, a way to get to work, or Wal-Mart, or the bank.
Now, as information becomes a much bigger part of our lives, we learn more quickly and in greater volume about the dangers of driving, and getting behind the wheel becomes less of a chore and more of a risk–a dangerous, stress-inducing task to be avoided whenever possible.
This is no place to try to sell an exciting car, like it was in 1968.
So cars are getting boring. But that’s only my opinion. What’s yours? Have there always been boring cars? Was the four door Malibu boring, after all, when it came out?
In the midst of all this suicidal beigeness, I am able to offer a glimmer of hope. Earlier this month, Mazda released a new commercial. If you need to smile after reading my depressing view of today’s automotive landscape, watch below, note the rotary engines, the drifting minivans, and the comforting presence of the blessed clutch pedal, and feel better. There is hope.
Photos courtesy of Chevrolet