2016 Chevrolet Malibu First Drive [w/video]
Lighter, Longer, And Well-Cut
EngineTurbo 1.5L I4
Power160 HP / 184 LB-FT
Curb Weight3,126 LBS
MPG27 City / 37 HWY
As Tested Price$27,985
Best Deal Price$20,386
That started with a stretch. The Malibu is long again, a big car that meets America's warped idea of a midsized car. Because of this, the Malibu's dimensions sidle up to the Impala's. In fact, it's within a fraction of an inch of the Impala's wheelbase measurement, and sits right between the last Malibu and the Impala in terms of EPA passenger volume. The back seat gets the most of the payoff, bringing it back into competition with other midsized counterparts.
The Malibu is now one of the longest in the segment, but also among, if not the, lightest. The 2016 model is claimed to be about 300 pounds lighter than its dimensionally challenged predecessor. While most new models tend to choose between lighter or larger these days, Chevy managed not-insignificant improvements to both.
Some of that weight came out of the front end. The aluminum hood is lighter than before, and we'd wager that's because it stops very short of the leading edge of the car. Instead, the nose is enshrouded in a big plastic fascia, which has to be an advantage at the scales but creates a somewhat unfinished look. That's amplified by the fact that everything ahead of the hood is a bit busy, and actually surprisingly aggressive, in contrast to the rest of the design. The new Cruze, with its cowl-to-grille hood, wears a more cohesive new-Chevy front end.
Styling doo-dads no longer separate the trim levels, it's the features inside that fuel the upsell.
The styling adopts the, dare we say it, coupe-like look of many (most?) new family sedans. The profile is attractive enough but almost generic now since the Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, and others have already moved in this direction. The rear-end styling is inoffensive, almost original Mercedes CLS meets current Impala.
The more interesting styling-related item is the near-total lack of differentiation between the lowly L model and the range-topping Premier. Styling doo-dads no longer separate the trim levels, it's the features inside that fuel the upsell. The ritzier models, LT and Premier, get LED daytime running lamps (that further busy up the front end), and the Premier features LED taillights (with graphics similar to the standard lamps, so you can't tell the difference unless they're lighting up). There are also differences in wheel designs and diameter that actually might entice you to pay more.
The interior is a big improvement over the last generation, but it's nothing too special. The wraparound design is thankfully gone, opening up the feeling of the cabin left to right. One more vote for the lower trim levels: They adopt cloth dash panels, a Cruze hand-me-up, adding some visual interest to what would otherwise be a wide expanse of plasti-rubber.
The interior is a big improvement over the last generation, but it's nothing too special.
All models of the new Malibu are extremely quiet, with continued use of dual-pane glass to keep things hushed and relaxed. That attitude extends to the handling – it's neither a barge nor a sports car, instead hitting an everyman sweet spot that should appeal to most buyers, which is to say not enthusiasts. The steering is electric, with the usual weight devoid of feedback, but it's well tuned to go along with the unaggressive character of the rest of the car. It's pleasant. You feel the weight reduction, or the engineers did a better job tuning the suspension, or possibly both, because the car soaks up bumps without floating and carries itself with a feeling of solidity that's been absent on recent GM midsizers.
Most models (L, LS, and LT) come standard with a new 1.5-liter turbo four making 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. It replaces a rough-around-the-edges 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four that actually made a little more power and about the same amount of twist. Thanks to the weight loss, this engine is plenty for the car, and it's also thankfully slightly more refined than Chevy's larger and older turbocharged four-cylinders. The one oddity we found was that it shifted well shy of redline at full throttle since power drops off right after its 5,600-rpm peak. A standard engine stop/start system is included and almost goes unnoticed, with none of the odd transmission unloading/reloading felt at stoplights in some other models.
Those who want a fancier Malibu will get a 2.0T, which is available on LT and standard on Premier. It is mostly carryover but has been detuned from 259 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque to 250 hp and 258 lb-ft. Frankly, this engine is unnecessary. And while it does better in EPA fuel-economy testing than the last 2.0T Malibu, it takes a noticeable hit compared to the entry models, with ratings of 22 mpg city and 33 highway versus the 1.5T's 27/37 mpg. For those into milestones, this transmission is GM's first application of an eight-speed auto in a front-drive model. Oddly, the eight-speed is sourced from Aisin and not made in-house like most GM transmissions, likely a result of bankruptcy bootstrapping catching GM out with no many-gear auto on hand. It doesn't seem quite as smooth as GM-built-and-tuned transmissions, although it does manage the 2.0T's extra power well. Our advice: If you're considering paying over 30 grand for a Malibu with the big engine, take a look at what else is out there for the money.
If you're considering paying over 30 grand for a Malibu with the big engine, take a look at what else is out there for the money.
The 2016 Malibu will also offer the model's first true hybrid variant later in the year. Unlike the eAssist mild-hybrid setup that popped in and out of the last generation, this is a true gas-electric system that allows electric-only driving up to about 50 mph. It cleverly shares parts with the new Volt, including its motor-filled transmission, modified here for hybrid duty instead of range-extended electric driving. Despite the gas engine running and providing forward motion more often, the hybrid Malibu acts a lot like a big Volt, which is a good thing. GM's EPA estimates for the car are 48 mpg city and 45 highway, beating all of its midsized gas-electric competitors but the Honda Accord (which is taking a brief hiatus for a revamp). We'll have a more in-depth review of the 2016 Malibu Hybrid soon.
In addition to the full powertrain lineup, Chevrolet also went all-in on safety. The item getting most of the headlines is what Chevy calls Teen Driver, which is not a second-rate chauffeur but a system to monitor younger drivers or really anyone you don't fully trust with your car. Part of the Convenience and Technology package, it keeps a log of things like overspeed warnings and stability-control interventions that can be reviewed by anyone who types in the PIN (the info doesn't go to the cloud for data-security reasons) and also locks out audio functionality when the front passengers aren't wearing their seatbelts. Because those darn kids just can't get enough of their rock and/or roll.
The lane keep assist works particularly well, but its intervention is almost too subtle to feel through the steering wheel.
There are also two big safety packages available, the first of which makes use of a camera to provide lane keep assist, pedestrian detection with automatic braking, low-speed collision-mitigation braking, and auto high-beams, and also includes items like blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and parking sensors front and rear. The lane keep assist works particularly well, but its intervention is almost too subtle to feel through the steering wheel. We'd almost prefer more of an obvious slap on the wrist for those who lose focus. Beyond that, there's a second package that builds on the first and adds a radar sensor, bringing active cruise, and improved front automatic braking, while additional sensors at the corner provide park assist for parallel and perpendicular spots.
Chevy points out that the new Malibu is priced competitively, but so is every other midsized car.
Thankfully for Chevy, the Malibu is at least good again.
The $22,500 base price is for the L model, a variant likely designed just to advertise a low price; Chevy reps tell us it's only suspected to make up about five percent of the mix. That makes the LS, at $23,995, the real "base" model, which still ain't bad. The premium-look-for-all approach Chevy took may help it, but that too is being adopted by many in the segment, the Mazda6 being a good example. From the outside, at least, no car looks like a stripper model.
There are certainly more exciting choices in this segment, but history has shown that exciting isn't necessarily what family-sedan buyers want. Thankfully for Chevy, the Malibu is at least good again. Given the great numbers the outgoing model sold in, good has a chance of going a long way.
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