2016 Chevrolet Malibu First Drive
You have to appreciate honesty in this business. When a car company admits its offering in a segment isn’t up to the task, it catches you by surprise. The surprisingly open Chevy reps stopped short of saying that making the last Malibu smaller was a mistake, but given that the righting of the ship included a lengthening of this new model, it was certainly implied. The eighth-generationMalibu lasted only three years, with a major update coming just one year in to try and fix some of the bigger concerns. The goal for the 2016 Malibu wasn’t to make a competent product better, it was to make an okay one good again.
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.
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 originalMercedes 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.
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.