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2016 Chevrolet Malibu Test Drive Review
A full redesign catches the Malibu up to the competition with some fresh engines, strong design, and a spacious interior.
The Malibu has long sat on the bench, relegated to rental fleets and used-car lots as it suffered from an indistinct design, lackluster performance, and a tight interior. Chevrolet was sick of its midsize Malibu getting disrespected at every stop, so the automaker stretched it, put it on a diet, and gave it a makeover to try and woo new customers to the fold. On top of that, it offers two new engines this year for greater efficiency, and some pretty hefty tech and safety upgrades that bring the Malibu solidly into the 21st century.
Look and Feel
As a midsize sedan, the Malibu has always tried to offer an air of stately elegance and luxury, even if it fell short of that goal many times over its more-than-50-year history. That’s right, the Malibu first appeared back in 1964, as a top-tier trim for the Chevelle. Luxury is part of its heritage. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Malibu became its own model, only to die a few years later in 1983. But 1997 saw the Malibu resurrected as a front-wheel-drive (FWD) sedan, and we’ve been waiting for the luxury to really return ever since.
It looks like it finally has. With a wheelbase stretched by nearly 4 inches, the Malibu no longer suffers from the cramped rear seat that had consumers wondering how exactly one could make a 4-door sedan so tight inside. Sleek exterior design has improved the rather bland veneer the Malibu has struggled with, too. Athletic angles meet sweeping lines for a blend that offers an attractive yet performance-inspired profile.
Starting with the base L trim, the Malibu enjoys standard keyless entry and ignition, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cloth upholstery, cruise, air conditioning, and (surprisingly) 16-inch steelies. The LS will upgrade those to alloys while also adding automatic headlights, 4G connectivity, and the MyLink infotainment system with a rear-view camera in a 7-inch touchscreen, plus the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The 1LT trim is where the luxury starts to emerge, with LED running lights and interior lighting, heated mirrors, an 8-way power driver’s seat, satellite radio, rear ventilation, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The 2LT goes even further, upgrading the 1.5-liter engine and 6-speed automatic to a 2.0-liter and an 8-speed, which gets it the larger 15.8-gallon fuel tank versus a 13-gallon option for the 1.5. You’ll also get dual exhaust tips and 18-inch wheels, so everyone will know you’re sporting the larger engine.
My week with the Malibu was spent in a Premier trim, which replaces the old top-tier LTZ trim and is where the luxury really explodes. Front seats get leather and full power plus heat, ventilation, and driver's memory settings. Remote ignition means you can warm or cool your Malibu before you get in, and a heated steering wheel means you’ll never have to risk chilling your digits while you drive. There are stunning 19-inch wheels, LED headlights, wireless smartphone charging, and an upgraded infotainment system that’s paired with a color driver information system. You get an 8-inch touchscreen, navigation, a 9-speaker Bose stereo and two additional USB ports plus a 120-volt power outlet. With the Premier’s MSRP of $30,920, plus a Driver Confidence Package for $1,195, and the $875 destination charge, the total price came to $34,285.
A base 1.5-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged EcoTec engine mated to a 6-speed automatic offers a not exciting but wholly capable 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, with some good punch down low so you’re not waiting all day for the engine to spool up just to get some power. Plus, Chevy has dropped more than 300 pounds from the Malibu this year, so it doesn’t take as much to motivate, but to be fair, it has one of the lowest power ratings in its competitive set.
More important, this engine represents a huge improvement in efficiency, with 27 mpg city/37 highway/31 combined. Of course, you’ll have to utilize the automatic start/stop system to achieve those numbers. Personally, I find start/stop annoying enough that I’m willing to sacrifice a mile per gallon or two for the privilege of deactivating it.
But if you’re looking for some fun, the 2.0-liter turbocharged EcoTec 4-cylinder that comes in the 2LT and Premier trims is a gutsy engine. Its 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque will get it to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds, which feels quite quick in a midsize sedan. That chops about 2 seconds off the 1.5’s time, and with a very quick and capable 8-speed transmission, it’s still able to return 22/33/26. For me, the bigger engine was well worth the penalty at the pump.
The 4-wheel independent suspension has been retuned this year and redesigned with additional aluminum components. Part of Chevy’s mission to shed weight for the Malibu came from a revised unibody, which both dropped pounds and added stiffness, allowing for more precise tuning of the suspension. The result is an agile, responsive ride that gets only a little unnerved on bumpy highways.
Form and Function
Everything Chevy has done to improve the Malibu very simply works. At least with the 2.0-liter engine, the Malibu is responsive and powerful, the 8-speed transmission handles gear changes with quick confidence, and the suspension is balanced and taut. It all combines and conspires to trick you into thinking you’re driving something much smaller than the Malibu’s 111.4-inch wheelbase and nearly 3,400-pound curb weight, and it does so while keeping you comfortable. The wheelbase stretch has created a spacious rear seat, although it must be noted that part of this was achieved by cutting into trunk space, which drops about half a cubic foot this year to 15.8.
Things look good, too. The Malibu has always run in circles with other “road phantoms” like the Toyota Camry—you know they’re out there, but when was the last time you actually remember seeing one? No more with this new Malibu, as it’s got a sleek, attractive design that even had me turning around a few times for a final glance as I walked away in the parking lot.
Seats are all-day comfortable and provide plenty of adjustability with lots of room left over, even for taller drivers like myself. The tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel ensures that no matter where your seat ends up, you’ll be able to have your hands in a comfortable position.
I think my favorite upgrade here is in the interior design. There are several elements that elegantly combine retro styling with a modern approach. The gauge cluster has been reworked into a more traditional configuration, replacing the dual-pod design of the previous generation while still giving the actual gauges themselves a more modern treatment. The same can be said about the infotainment system, which sits gracefully in the dash rather than feeling like it was glued on at the end of the last design meeting.
While the previous Malibu wasn’t hurting for technology, this new version makes sure nothing is left behind. Connectivity via 4G LTE Wi-Fi, Qi wireless smartphone charging, and the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are big hits this year, with the last two allowing you to mirror your smartphone on the car’s infotainment touchscreen. Be warned, though—for those families with multiple smartphone brands, only one system can be used at a time. And with my Malibu, I was unable to get Android Auto to recognize either my phone or my cameraman’s phone, using three different cables—two that came with the phones and one aftermarket. That's a shame. I’ve used these systems in other manufacturer’s vehicles without issue. It should also be noted that while the upgraded 8-inch touchscreen that comes in the Premier trim is a much better bit of tech than the 7-inch version, the graphics are a noticeable step down.
More impressive is the list of safety features for the 2016 Malibu. Two Driver Confidence packages add features like automatic headlights, parking sensors front and rear, a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and two driver intervention systems—lane departure and forward collision. With forward collision, the Malibu will warn you when a collision is imminent, automatically braking if you don’t react in time, while lane departure will offer the same response, steering your car gently back into its lane if you cross any lines without first indicating. It even has a self-parking system!
The Malibu also offers what Chevrolet is calling an automotive “first” with its Teen Driver system. While it wants to call it a “first,” it’s really just taking systems like Ford’s MyKey and pushing it one step further. Here, parents will get a full status report when they let the kids borrow the car, telling them important info like distance driven, top speed, and any events that necessitated use of the various safety systems. Additionally, they can set the usual limits on speed, distance driven, and even stereo volume. It’s not really a first, but it’s a welcome enhancement to this type of useful system.
In addition to the abovementioned safety systems (which would seem to render it accident-proof), the Malibu has the usual suite of standard safety systems. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are accompanied by traction and stability control, dual front knee airbags, front and rear side airbags, and side curtain airbags. All Malibus also get OnStar, offering automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, and remote features like door-lock access and stolen-vehicle assistance and recovery.
Braking distance from 60 mph should be about 120 feet, which is a good showing for the segment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the 2016 Malibu a top score of 5 stars overall, with only the rollover test earning a lower score at 4 stars.
Where the previous Malibu wouldn’t even have made it onto my list of potential options for a midsize sedan, it’s now a prime contender for anyone who might be considering the Accord or the Fusion. Of course, the Accord is getting a full redesign as well, so the Malibu may have just caught up only to be immediately left behind again. We’ll see. Personally, my favorite in the segment is the Mazda6, which offers an even more attractive design and more athleticism. That said, predicted value retention for the Accord outperforms the Malibu by a lot, but this is calculated based on previous years, and things may change in the wake of the redesign.
There are currently no rebates or incentives for the 2016 Malibu.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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