Palo Alto, California — Skeptics who charge that too much of the old General Motors survives in today’s post-bankruptcy era have lost their best argument, which was the Chevrolet Malibu. We’ve just driven the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, and it is simply excellent, the strongest contender GM has had in this segment in many, many years. As evidence of a “new GM” it’s less exciting than a Corvette or Cadillac ATS-V, but it’s more important because the Malibu carries a mass-market badge into the main battleground.
Despite fragmentation and the crossover craze, 15 percent of car buyers still buy midsize sedans as their daily drivers, led by the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. This new Malibu merits mention in the same breath as those standard-bearers.
Our first turn behind the wheel of the 2016 Malibu, which debuted at the New York show last spring, came in early December in Palo Alto, California. Chevrolet clearly picked Silicon Valley to emphasize the density of the technological offerings it packs into the car and its partnerships with today’s hottest businesses.
The list of Malibu technologies starts with Apple CarPlay, 4G LTE wireless connectivity, a Teen Driver function that helps parents coach their youngsters, and even a hybrid drivetrain, said to be capable of full-electric operation up to 55 mph. Additional safety hardware and software come at upper levels, with full adaptive cruise control, front automatic braking, semi-automatic parking assist, and an electronic parking brake all available. Tech was a shortcoming of the previous Malibu, but now it’s leapfrogging some of its competition.
Better from the ground up
Technology may be the sales pitch, but from our perspective the more significant factor is that the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu is a better car, that its design, powertrains, and chassis dynamics measure up. The previous Malibu, a legacy product with its roots in the last days of the company’s misplaced priorities era, defined mundane in a class where “boring” is normal.
Built on new architecture, the 2016 car rides on a 4-inch-longer wheelbase and is 2.3 inches longer overall, yet it weighs 300 pounds less. That takes some intensive engineering. Deciding to limit the engines to four cylinders and to offer front-drive only helped because the platform didn’t have to accommodate the weight and stresses that come with V-6 and all-wheel-drive options. Jesse Ortega, chief engineer on the project, says those decisions helped shave 100 pounds off the basic body structure.
And it looks good. Designed under studio chief John Cafaro (with the C5 Corvette and a couple generations of trucks to his credit), the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu features a distinct shape even while following the latest trends with a steeply sloped backlight and interestingly carved sides. The hood is lower than we’ve come to expect of modern sedans that meet pedestrian-protection standards, which Cafaro and Ortega said was due to a lower profile for the front suspension. From the rear, there’s similarity to Audis with a curved top to the decklid. The nose, disappointingly to our eye, still features a crossbar carrying the Chevy bowtie logo in its split grille. The theme works on trucks and, arguably, on crossovers and utilities but on cars? Not so much. Detailing aside, the shapes are nice, with a hint of Camaro to the prow and LED running lights on upper-level LT and Premier (formerly LTZ) trims. The top-level trim also has LED taillamps.
The base 1.5-liter turbo makes 160 horsepower and mates to a six-speed automatic. Stop/start technology is standard — and permanent. “We thought, if the customer wants to turn it off, you’re doing it wrong,” explains Ortega. Instead of engineering a switch to disable it, he put his team to work on engine mounts and NVH control to eliminate the annoying restart jolt. Competitors offer larger 2.4- and 2.5-liter naturally aspirated fours as their base powerplants, but this little turbo matches well on power output and seems to run more quietly and generate less vibration than the big fours. Cars that post better EPA ratings than the new Malibu 1.5T’s 27/37 mpg city/highway ratings generally use CVT transmissions, which are getting better, but we’d still prefer this six-speed automatic.
Surprisingly strong and smooth, this four-cylinder should carry the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds. It was also quiet in operation despite our working it harder than most commuters are likely to do; the longer wheelbase and 17-inch wheels made for a smooth ride with minimal intrusion from bumps. Steering felt a little light but had enough feedback to inform the driver. No one would mistake it for what enthusiasts regard as steering “feel,” but it was predictable and without vices.
In 1LT trim, the well-equipped car we drove stickered out at $27,985 with two option packages, including a technology package with an 8-inch MyLink infotainment display and a Driver Confidence I package with a suite of active safety features. The interior trim was high-grade cloth, let down a little by dashtop plastics with a bit too much gloss. The seats were supportive and comfortable, getting in and out was easy (tall drivers noted they no longer risked bumping their heads on the way in), and the rear seat was fine for full-size adults with 1.3 inches more legroom than last year. As a value proposition, the Malibu merits cross-shopping even against the feature-rich Korean entries in the class.
Premier 2.0T ventures into upscale territory
The upgrade engine is a 2.0-liter turbo, now rated at 250 hp, down from last year but still stronger than many of the current crop of 2.0-liter turbos from other makers. Honda, Nissan, and Toyota still offer V-6s (though fewer and fewer buyers take them), and Ford and Hyundai have also opted for 2.0-liter turbos. Noise and vibration are reduced compared with the 2015 Malibu — we started a warmed-up 2.0-liter car in a parking lot and had to check the tach to be sure it was running. This engine benefits, too, from the work that went into engine mounts to enable stop/start, but it doesn’t use that system. Yet. Ortega said it could be added in a future model year.
The standard transmission with the 2.0-liter is the first application of GM’s eight-speed automatic in a front-drive platform, and the combination should get to 60 mph in the mid- to low 6.0-second range. Shifts were smooth and pretty much seamless, sharpening when we got aggressive with the throttle (we passed a Tesla on the 101 freeway!), and the transmission chose the right gear every time in hard driving. There’s plenty of grip, even in the cars with smaller wheels, and though the car understeers, it doesn’t do so excessively. An aggressive driver can employ lift-throttle techniques to get the rear to break loose.
The 2.0-liter we drove was in a Premier-trim car on 19-inch wheels. We’ve come to expect that wheels that big, and the low-profile tires that mount to them, will result in some harsh behavior over bumps, but only one segment of an ill-maintained parking lot proved jarring. This new architecture is stiffer than the old one in bending and torsion and the development engineers have put that to good use in tuning their suspension. There’s a bit more roll than we’d like and the turn-in response could be sharper, but that’s by car-geek standards: There’s no “performance” or “sport” variant aimed at us as yet. Instead, the Premier comes off as a budget luxury car, with a leather-trimmed interior that looks like a junior-grade Buick’s. With nearly all the options available, this example wore an MSRP of $35,280.
Malibu hybrid coming next spring
The introduction of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid might seem ill-timed with gasoline prices under $2 a gallon (except in California). As with other hybrids, the fuel savings (GM forecasts 48 mpg) may not pencil out against the cost premium using today’s values, but insulating yourself from future fuel price volatility is a value to some. The hybrid won’t come to market until spring, so pricing isn’t set, but we suspect it will be fully equipped and price competitive with the Accord, Fusion, and Sonata hybrids.
In the past, GM has either stretched beyond the normal hybrids (as with the Volt plug-in) or fallen short (as with the previous Malibu “mild” hybrid, which couldn’t move an inch on electric-only power), but it’s going head-to-head with traditional hybrids this time. The key to the two-mode system is that it can use electric assist even at highway speeds, delivering fuel economy benefits in circumstances in which the Prius does not. This takes two motors, each optimized for different uses. While borrowing tech from the Volt gave engineers a leg up, they opted to employ stronger magnets in the motor to get better power for short durations while a 1.8-liter direct-injection engine making 122 hp carries most of the propulsion duty. Chevy says the car can get to 55 mph without firing the engine, but that presumes ideal circumstances of weather and road conditions and driver behavior. What we saw was that it motors around a parking lot just fine unless you get goofy with the go pedal. Where GM’s learnings from its other electric and hybrid products seems to pay off, actually, is in a nice, predictable brake pedal feel — the transition from regen to friction mode is all but undetectable.
We’ll probably want to revisit the Malibu Hybrid after it’s in full production, but its existence is just one more sign that with this car, this time, Chevy isn’t playing around at the edges but is full-in and ready to fight for more market share. That doesn’t guarantee a winner, but the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu beats the heck out of the “that’s good enough for government work” mentality of old.
2016 Chevrolet Malibu Specifications
- On Sale: Now (Hybrid: Spring 2016)
- Price: $22,500 (1.5L)/$31,795 (2.0L Premier)/N/A (Hybrid)
- Engine: 1.5L turbo DOHC 16-valve inline-4/160 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm; 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4/250 hp @ 5,300 rpm, 258 lb-ft @1,700 rpm; 1.8L DOHC 16-valve inline-4 with two-motor/two-mode drive unit, 182 hp, 277 lb-ft (combined)
- Transmissions: 6-speed automatic (1.5L); 8-speed automatic (2.0L); continuously variable (Hybrid)
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 27/37 mpg (city/hwy, 1.5L); 22/33 mpg (2.0L); 48/45 mpg (city/hwy, Hybrid) (mfr est)
- L x W x H: 193.8 x 73.0 x 57.7 in
- Wheelbase: 111.4 in
- Weight: 3,097 lb (1.5L); 3,278 lb (2.0L Premier); 3,457 lb (Hybrid)
- 8.5 sec (est, 1.5L); 6.3 sec (est, 2.0L); 7.8 sec (est, Hybrid)
- Top Speed: N/A