2016 Chevrolet Malibu review

Score one for the home team

2016 Chevrolet Malibu front-right view
2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Photo © Aaron Gold

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There is something within us that always wants the home team to win, and I think that's why I am so happy when I can write a positive review of an American car (and, perhaps, so much more harsh when I write a negative review). The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu has me positively giddy: Here is a great example of the home team getting it right.

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Pros:

  • Sharp styling inside and out
  • High-tech engines
  • Comfortable and pleasant to drive

Cons:

  • Some cheap interior bits
  • Hybrid gives up quite a bit of trunk space

Expert review: 2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Did you read my review of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu? No? Good, because it's depressing. In it, I chronicle the fall of a car I really liked (the 2008-2012 Malibu) from greatness to mediocrity. It was a real disappointment, considering how many other great cars General Motors was designing around that same time.

Apparently, the folks at Chevrolet agreed. During our press preview, they talked about an internal struggle to lavish the same kind of attention on bread-and-butter vehicles like the Malibu as they do on high-end, high-profit vehicles like the Cadillac ATS and Chevy's own Corvette.

GM at its best

The result is a new Malibu that benefits from all the good works GM has been doing in other divisions.

Chief among them is (warning, new industry buzzword ahead!) lightweighting, which means pretty much what it says: Finding ways to cut weight out of a car, one ounce at a time. Less weight means less work the engine has to do, and that saves fuel. In the case of the Malibu, they were able to cut out 300 lbs of extra weight, and this while making the car slightly bigger.

Among the size changes, by the way, they stretched the wheelbase (the fore-to-aft distance between the wheels) by four inches, opening up more back seat room. And the new car is better looking as well, with sharp creases that bring out its character.

Chevrolet also lavished attention on the interior, which takes its cues from the larger Impala (which, in my opinion, is one of The General's better designs). Again, the Malibu follows the pattern set by the Impala, with the infotainment screen (GM's MyLink interface, which I think is one of the easier systems to use) sitting slightly proud of the dash and shapes that are visually pleasing but not jarring. (It's a huge improvement over the previous Malibu's interior, which looks like a botched Photoshop job.)

Even the lower-trim models look good; I drove a Malibu LS that had fabric trim on its all-black dash—a nifty touch, though I worry what greasy kid fingers and dirty dog paws will do to it over the long run.

The Malibu doesn't lead the pack in terms of space, but it's near the top in terms of both back-seat legroom and trunk space (15.8 cubic feet). There are a few cheap trim bits—some of the plastic on the dash looks lower-rent than it feels, and the spot where the center console meets the floor looks a bit cheap—contrast it with the lovely wood trim that surrounds the shifter.

(It's this occasional lack of attention to detail that seems to damn American cars—and that Honda and Toyota owners so often notice.)

High-tech power

What's really cool to this car geek is what's under the hood. Most automakers power their mid-size sedans with a big, simple four-cylinder engine, offering a high-tech, small-displacement turbo as a more fuel-efficient choice—and as an extra-cost option. If you buy a 2016 Malibu, you get the high-tech fuel-efficient engine as standard. The Malibu's 1.5 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine develops a healthy 160 horsepower and exhibits minimal turbo lag. Power delivery is similar to a traditional 2.5-ish liter engine, and with a standard-fit 6-speed automatic transmission, its EPA fuel economy ratings of 27 MPG city and 37 MPG city rival the best-in-class Nissan Altima's 27/39.

(Whether it will deliver those numbers in the real world remains to be seen.)

The 1.5 has an auto-stop function that shuts down the engine at stoplights and restarts it when the driver lifts her foot off the brake. This is the best auto-stop system I've ever driven;* it is completely transparent, with absolutely no vibration when the engine starts or stops. But for the silence, you'll barely know it's there. Contrast that with BMW or Porsche's auto-stop, which shakes the car annoyingly. Even the Toyota Prius hybrid—which restarts its engine after the car is already moving—isn't as smooth.

* That's not entirely true—GM used the same system in the Buick LaCrosse eAssist, and I was just as amazed (and appalled that the Germans and Japanese couldn't do as well.)

The Malibu offers a 250 hp two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder as an option, and it comes with a firmer steering setup to compliment its more sporty nature. The 2.0T now comes with an eight-speed automatic, and its EPA estimates are 22 MPG city/33 MPG highway. Also on offer is a hybrid—not the eAssist "mild hybrid" seen in previous GM cars, but a real-live proper hybrid system using a 1.8 liter engine and a transmission similar to the one found in the Chevrolet Volt. EPA fuel economy estimates are a promising 48 MPG city and 45 MPG highway, comparable to the Honda Accord Hybrid which, at 50 MPG city/45 MPG highway, remains one of my favorites. I only got a brief drive in the Hybrid, but I was impressed by the smooth operation and prompt power delivery. (We'll have to wait for a full week-long test drive to see how the fuel economy numbers pan out.) One disadvantage, though—the hybrid's battery pack shrinks trunk space to 11.6 cubic feet.

A packaged approach to safety

Like other Chevrolets, the Malibu comes with ten airbags (about as many as you can get in a car) and OnStar, a subscription-based system that calls for help in the event of a crash. If the occupants need help, or if they are unable to answer, the OnStar folks can send emergency services, using the car's built-in GPS receiver to pin-point its location.

(In my opinion OnStar is one of the best and most underrated safety feature you can buy.) A rear-view camera is standard in all but the base model.

Chevy has grouped the Malibu's more advanced safety features into two option bundles. The $1,195 Driver Confidence Package includes lane departure warning and correction, a blind spot monitor, low-speed forward collision mitigation, automatic high-beams, and front and rear parking sonar (which beeps as you get close to objects near the car). The Driver Confidence Package II (seriously, Chevy, you couldn't come up with a better name?) costs $1,295 and includes adaptive cruise control, high-speed forward collision mitigation and a self-parking system (the car steers itself into a parking spot as the driver works the gas and the brake).

One nifty new feature is the Teen Driver function. Program one of the Malibu's remotes (with standard push-button start, there's no key) for your teen driver, and a vigilant parent can limit the stereo's volume (the stereo will be automatically muted until the seat belts are fastened) and set a max-speed alert. And once your teen driver returns home, the Malibu will give a full report: Distance driven, maximum speed attained, and how many times the preprogrammed maximum speed was exceeded. It also records how many times the Malibu's standard and optional safety features (including automatic braking, forward collision and blind zone warnings, stability control, antilock brakes, even the parking sensors) were called into action. The reporting system requires a password to reset, making it difficult for teens to cover their tracks.

American value

So Chevy has clearly put a lot of money into the new Malibu—but they aren't asking for a lot in return. Pricing starts at $22,500, making it the least-expensive mid-size sedan on the market (it undercuts the Hyundai Sonata by $85). That's the rent-a-car-special Malibu L, which gets power accessories, air conditioning, and cruise control, but not much else. Most of us will at least want the $23,995 LS, which includes the MyLink touch-screen stereo, automatic headlights, and a subscription-based 4G LTE hot spot (that's right, a car with Internet!).

The only way to get access to the advanced safety features is to buy the $25,895 LT model. And if you're feeling really spendy, you'll want the $29,495 Premier model (replacement for the LTZ), which gets the 2-liter turbo engine, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, and a premium stereo, among other goodies; with all the options and accessories it tops out just under $37,000. If you can forgo one of the premium paint colors and a few gee-gaws, a Malibu Premier with all the optional safety features lists for $34,780—$130 less than a comparably-equipped Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited and $635 less than a Honda Accord V6 Touring.

Bottom line: Point, our side

So what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a Chevrolet Malibu that can once again compete with the best Japan, South Korea, and Germany have to offer. In terms of design, price, space, safety and driving dynamics, the new Malibu is right at the front of the pack—and that makes me happy. Score one for the home team. – Aaron Gold

Details and Specs:

  • Chevrolet's mid-size sedan is all new for 2016
  • Price range: $22,500 – $36,870
  • Powertrain: 1.5 liter turbocharger 4-cylinder/160 hp or 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder/250 hp, 6- or 8-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
  • EPA fuel economy estimates: 27 MPG city /37 MPG highway (1.5T), 22/33 (2.0T)
  • Where built: United States
  • Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain, 2 years/24,000 miles free maintenance
  • Best rivals: Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat

Disclosure: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. Travel, accommodations, meals, vehicles and fuel were provided by General Motors. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.