The Affordable American Family Sedan Is Dead

By 8 Min Read

I almost bought a brand-new Chevrolet Malibu in 2008. I was a feisty marketing executive and the restyled seventh-generation sedan looked sharp amid a field of largely bland alternatives. The car was larger on the outside compared to its predecessor, more in line with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But the inside was worlds nicer—nothing like the acres of cheap gray plastic that defined General Motors interiors through the 1990s and 2000s.

So when I heard Chevrolet was ending the Malibu, it came with a ping of sadness. It’s not for the current model, which launched nearly 10 years ago and was left to wither on the proverbial vine. Its time had come. But with no replacement in the works, the end of a notable era in American automotive history has arrived. 

For over a century, affordable sedans from Detroit faithfully served families and the Malibu was the last with direct ties to that era. As it exits stage left, it carries the ethos of American sedans with it. I’m speaking both in terms of an iconic name and an automotive genre. 

To better understand what I’m talking about, let’s take a short trip down Malibu memory lane.

First Generation Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu

Second Generation Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu

Second Generation Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu

When the new Chevrolet Chevelle launched for 1964, the Malibu was its upscale trim option. Two-door models were insanely popular, but a Malibu sedan in the mid-1960s wasn’t a bad way to see the countryside. Over 250,000 Malibus were sold in its inaugural year, 68,098 of which were sedans. That increased to 72,767 in 1972 as total Chevelle production exceeded half a million across all trims and body styles. And a majority of those were Malibus.

1980 Chevrolet Malibu

The third-generation Chevelle Malibu hit the NASCAR scene in the 1970s, winning on Sunday while helping sell sedans and wagons on Monday. The fourth-generation Malibu replaced the Chevelle nameplate altogether in 1978; by this time, the sedans outsold coupes by a wide margin and peaked at 163,896 units in 1979. Buyers responded favorably to the Malibu’s boxy, downsized shape, but it was dropped in 1983 to make way for new Chevrolet front-wheel-drive sedans. 

1997 Chevrolet Malibu
2004 Chevrolet Malibu

Nearly 14 years later, that’s exactly what it became with the relaunch of the Malibu in 1997, riding on the same platform as a Pontiac Grand Am. We’ll be polite in saying it was a forgettable car compared to its predecessors.

That changed in 2008, and I was one of many people who noticed. The Malibu escaped its boring, badge-engineered predecessor to become a sharp standout in the segment. It still shared its Epislon platform with cars like the Saturn Aura and Pontiac G6, but the exterior design was balanced and appealing compared to the chunky shape of the previous generation. The interior—especially in range-topping LTZ trim—was remarkably handsome, exuding an upscale persona that rekindled the Malibu’s early days as a ranging-topping Chevelle trim level.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

2008 Chevrolet Malibu interior.

And buyers responded big time. Sales reached 178,964 units for the first year and exceeded 200,000 in 2011. The eighth-generation Malibu arrived for 2013 and garnered even more sales, peaking at 227,881 units in 2016. 

Then came the current-generation Malibu, and well, you know the story from there. SUVs and trucks are the vehicles of choice for 21st-century families, and sedan sales have dropped. But Chevrolet’s last sedan isn’t leaving the party as a failure. 130,342 Malibus were sold last year, enough to place it comfortably in third place behind the Equinox and Silverado within the Bow Tie hierarchy.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

Hopefully, this history lesson helps explain why the Malibu is an iconic vehicle worth remembering. Aside from it being the last Chevrolet sedan, it’s also the last nameplate from a Detroit automaker with roots going that deep into American sedan history. The Chrysler 300 is dead, Ford’s sedans are long gone, and even though the Charger is returning, Dodge always positioned it as more of a four-door muscle car than a traditional family sedan. That will probably be true of the new one, and we expect both EV and combustion versions to be pricey when they finally go on sale.

As for this being the end of an automotive genre, American sedans still do exist—just in smaller numbers and at higher prices. Cadillac still builds the CT4 and CT5, Lucid has the Air, and of course, Tesla has the Model S. But none of these are priced within reach of the average family. Meanwhile, the 2024 Malibu starts at $26,195, well below the average cost of a new car in America.

Lucid Air Pure - $71,400

Perusing other vehicles on Chevrolet’s website, only the Trailblazer and Trax are cheaper than the outgoing Malibu and neither offer as much passenger space. You have to step up to the Chevrolet Equinox for that, which is just a tad larger. It also costs a tad more—$27,995 to start. And that price will likely go up once the refreshed 2025 Equinox hits showrooms.

Frankly, this whole sedan saga seems like a missed opportunity for American automakers. Not everyone wants an SUV, and sales statistics prove it. Last year, the Malibu outsold the Trailblazer and Trax. It beat the Tahoe, the Traverse, and it had twice the sales of the Blazer. We’re fairly sure fleet purchases are a factor here, but we’re still talking about verified sales. And through the first quarter of 2024, there are still four sedans among the best-selling vehicles in the US. 

Clearly, there’s a market for inexpensive four-doors. Will the 130,000 people who bought a Malibu last year transition to a Trailblazer or Equinox in the future? Or will they switch over to a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, or other reasonably priced sedans still offered by most brands not headquartered in Detroit?

In any case, we will miss you, Malibu. We will miss what you were and what you represented, and we lament what you could have become. That’s worth a moment of silence.

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