The last couple of years have not gone too well for Chevrolet's mid-size sedan. The previous generation of the Chevrolet Malibu (2013-15) was a snoozer that trailed the competition in nearly every respect—all the more disappointing considering that the version before that (2008-12) was quite good.
The folks at Chevy have convinced GM's Powers That Be that they can't just pour money into big-name cars like the Corvette and the Camaro; they need to invest in bread-and-butter products like the Malibu in order to return the Chevrolet brand to relevance. And so, having been blessed with the necessary funds, Chevy burned barrels of midnight oil to make this new Malibu far better than the old one—and a serious competitor to its rivals.
Here are the ten things you need to know about the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu.
The Chevy folks have lavished special attention on the Malibu, and it shows. Based on a new platform with a longer wheelbase that increases rear seat room, the Malibu also is slightly longer than the outgoing car. Yet it dropped 300 lb., and that helps save fuel. It's also much better looking, with sharp, expressive creases that emphasize the car's character and squinty-eyed headlights that vaguely resemble those of the new Camaro. The 2016 Malibu's interior echoes the cabin of the larger Impala, which is one of Chevrolet's better efforts. And they've priced the car aggressively: At $22,500 (including destination fee), the Malibu L undercuts all of its mainline competitors (although it beats the 2016 Hyundai Sonata by just $85). At the top of the range is the leather-lined Malibu Premier, which lists for $31,795 plus options.
Chevy tells us it did one of those marketing deals that removed all the badges and let consumers crawl around the car. The reactions reportedly were overwhelmingly positive, with many of the punters surprised to learn they were looking at a Chevrolet. We can expect to have the results crammed down our throats as part of the Malibu's ad campaign, but the point is a valid one: A lot of buyers don't consider Chevrolet to be a good brand—and considering some of its recent products, that's perfectly understandable—but the Malibu really does represent a major step forward.
Though Chevrolet may be as American as apple pie, the Malibu is a global product; along with the United States, key markets include Canada, Mexico, China, and South Korea. Mid-size sedans may be commodity cars in the U.S., but they are considered upscale purchases in many other countries, especially China, where American brands emanate prestige. That meant the Malibu had to have an upscale feel, so Chevy let the hounds loose on interior design. The cabin's basic shapes are handsome and artful, and the Malibu offers a variety of color combinations that really make the design pop. We found a couple of cheap-looking trim bits, but overall we were impressed by the quality of the Malibu's interior.
Like all Chevrolets, the Malibu features ten airbags and OnStar, a subscription-based system that can automatically call for help and summon emergency personnel in the event of a crash. There is a good selection of advanced active safety features, and Chevy has grouped them into two packages: $1,195 gets you the Driver Confidence Package, with lane departure warning and assistance, blind-spot warning, forward collision alert, and low-speed automatic braking with pedestrian detection and avoidance. A further $1,295 gets you the unimaginatively named Driver Confidence Package II, adding adaptive cruise control, a more sophisticated automatic braking system, and a parking assistance system.
Most mid-size sedans offer a stout, low-tech four-cylinder as the basic engine choice—but not the new Malibu. Chevy's base engine is a turbocharged 1.5-liter four that produces 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Power is comparable to a traditional 2.5-liter naturally aspirated (non-turbocharged) engine, offering sharp responses and minimal turbo lag. The upside of this engine is fuel economy: With the standard six-speed automatic transmission, EPA estimates are 27 city/37 highway mpg, darn close to the best-in-class Nissan Altima's ratings of 27/39 mpg.
Malibu was one of the first mid-size sedans to switch from a traditional V6 to a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, and that tradition continues in the new car. Power output is 250 hp and 258 lb-ft, and a new eight-speed automatic transmission boosts fuel economy to 22 city/33 highway mpg. Cars with the 2.0T engine get a tighter steering setup designed to evoke a whiff of sportiness.
The 1.5-liter engine has an auto-stop feature that shuts off the engine at stoplights and restarts it when the brake pedal is released. There's no disable switch, and one could argue that none is needed, because the system is completely seamless. Aside from the silence, there's absolutely no sensation that the engine is starting or stopping—no starter noise and no vibration. Compare that to the auto-stop system used by BMW, which shakes like a wet dog (and whimpers like one, too) when the engine restarts. Munich's engineers should hang their heads in shame. Even Toyota's hybrid powertrain, which has the advantage of rolling away from a stop on electric power, doesn't do the auto-stop shuffle as smoothly as the Malibu.
Chevrolet is (finally!) offering a full-on hybrid version of the Malibu—as opposed to the “mild hybrid” previously offered in several General Motors vehicles. The Malibu Hybrid uses a 1.8-liter engine and a hybrid drivetrain that shares its technology with the Chevrolet Volt. EPA estimates are 48 city, 45 highway and 47 combined mpg, rivaling the best-in-class Honda Accord hybrid (50/45/47).
The new Malibu features a Teen Driver feature. Program one of the keys for the kids, and the Malibu plays the part of Big Brother: Parents can limit stereo volume (in teen mode, the stereo is muted until the seat belts are fastened) and set a speed alarm between 40 and 75 mpg. Once back home, the Malibu gives parents a full report: Distance driven, maximum speed, number of max-speed alerts, as well as how many times the Malibu's standard and optional safety features—including stability control, antilock brakes, forward collision alert, automatic braking, and blind zone warning—were triggered. The report requires a password to reset, so as long as parents don't use something obvious, their teens can't cover their tracks. Best to lock up the kids' phones, though—the OnStar system includes a 4G LTE hot spot, which makes the Malibu unusually well suited to Instagramming on the go.
We know it's good looking, we know it's efficient, and we know it's got a nice cabin—but how does the new Malibu work as, y'know, a car? Pretty well, as it happens. We found the front seats comfortable and visibility good, though the side-view mirrors are a bit small. Back seat legroom trails the Volkswagen Passat, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, but at least it's better than the Chrysler 200. And the 15.8-cubic-foot trunk is just about average for the class, though Malibu Hybrid buyers must bear in mind that they will surrender 4.2 cubic feet of trunk space to its battery pack. The Malibu's ride is smooth and commendably quiet, and handling is perfectly acceptable. Other cars may beat it on individual merits—back seat space, fuel economy (though not by much), and the all-important fun-to-drive factor—but as a complete package, there's no doubt the new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu overall is every bit as good as the competition and should be a strong seller.