When Chevrolet last redesigned the Malibu, for 2013, the result seemed steeped in indifference—especially compared with the increasingly inventive competition such as the stylish Hyundai Sonata and the Ford Fusion. The Chevy was bland, and worse still, its back seat was more cramped than the preceding model’s. Chevrolet immediately whipped up a slightly improved Malibu the very next year, but it couldn’t fix the itty-bitty back seat—or the car’s basic meh-ness. Now, just three short years later, the Malibu is all-new again, and this time, it sports a fresh look, fresh underpinnings, and fresh engines.
It could be argued that the Malibu’s longevity—this is the ninth generation since the nameplate first appeared in 1964—has everything to do with its inoffensive nature. That’s great for middle America and rental fleets, but today’s mid-size sedan party requires a different sort of costume. Right on cue, the Malibu has inherited a body so stylish, so crisp, that not only will the previous model’s visual Novocain be dissipated, but the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, and even the newly sassy Toyota Camry should actually be concerned.
The designers appear to have gotten the memo that the most recent Impala is good-looking, as there is a lot of that car’s styling baked into the 2016 Malibu. Starting with its proportions, the Malibu adopts a “four-door coupe”-ish swept roofline à la Ford Fusion and mixes it well with a long hood and clipped overhangs. The Malibu’s face is sleek, although from some angles, the severe horizontality of the headlights’ top edge lends the mug a droopy appearance. Overall, though, the crisp lines, body-side creases, and neat stance almost left us forgetting the old Malibu’s Play-Doh-squeezed-through-sadness look.
It’s no accident that the Malibu looks longer and lower than the old car—Chevrolet stretched the wheelbase by 3.6 inches, resulting in a nominal 2.3-inch bump in overall length. Width remains the same as before at 73.0 inches, but the hood and cowl are lower, giving the impression of added girth. The size increase really pays off inside, where there’s 1.3 additional inches of rear-seat legroom back-seat passengers no longer need to fold themselves to enter and exit. While the sexy roofline cuts into rear-seat headroom somewhat—the headliner is scooped out to make space for occupants’ noggins on models with the sunroof—legroom is wholly acceptable. Refreshingly, Chevy toned down the Malibu’s interior just enough to banish the old version’s cornucopia of materials and textures, but not so much as to leave the cabin dull and barren. It’s a nice place to occupy, no more, no less.
Underneath the Malibu sits GM’s all-new E2XX front-drive architecture (the outgoing Malibu used the shorter-wheelbase version of the aging Epsilon II platform), a change that results not only in better looks and interior room, but less weight, too. Chevy claims that the 2016 Malibu is more than 300 pounds lighter than before, with a third of that weight savings having come out of the car’s structure. If that weight reduction holds true when we confirm it with our own scales, that would put the new Malibu in the 3200–3300-pound range, which is on the light side of the mid-size class.
If the Malibu’s 300-pound weight reduction sounds good in a vacuum, it’ll sound even better when paired with either of the sedan’s two available gasoline engines. (The hybrid model returns, too—get the full details here.) Last year’s base 2.5-liter four-cylinder is supplanted by a turbocharged 1.5-liter four from GM’s new Ecotec small-engine family. Mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic, the engine comes with auto stop-start, direct fuel injection, and a turbo running a maximum 17 psi of boost. Output stands at 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, which is down 36 horses and 2 lb-ft relative to the previous car’s 2.5-liter four—but real-world performance shouldn’t suffer too much thanks to the Malibu’s diet. Fuel economy, predictably, is up—GM estimates 27 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, increases of 2 and 1 mpg.
The Malibu’s optional engine is largely carryover: It’s the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four offered on last year’s car, but it has been re-tuned slightly. Just as the 1.5-liter Ecotec is less endowed than the engine it replaces, the 2.0-liter sees some of its might clipped for 2016. The turbo makes 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft—decent figures that also happen to be 9 horsepower and 37 lb-ft weaker than the outgoing Malibu’s 2.0-liter turbo. Again, the new car’s weight savings should help it keep parity, as should the 2.0-liter’s only transmission, a new eight-speed automatic. It is derived from GM’s 8L90 (seen previously in the Corvette, the Silverado/Sierra, and the big SUVs), albeit turned sideways and adapted for transverse, front-drive applications. We’re told the transmission in this form doesn’t have provisions for hooking up to a transfer case, meaning the Malibu will be strictly front-drive. The Malibu’s lead engineer assures us that this was no accident: No all-wheel drive means the design team didn’t need to beef up the car’s rear end for aft drive components, saving more weight.
Chevrolet people insist that driving enjoyment was a goal for the latest Malibu, something we’re taking with a grain of salt given the old model’s utter lack of passion in such matters. Efforts to imbue the ’Bu with some spice include a dual-motor electric-power-steering setup, which is said to offer greater precision, as well as swapping some of the suspension’s steel pieces for aluminum ones. Oh, and of course there’s the weight loss; reducing weight typically enhances a vehicle’s dynamics.
Of greater importance to mid-size sedan buyers than horsepower figures and suspension tuning is the 2016 Malibu’s roster of safety features. Pedestrian detection with automatic braking, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning with automatic braking, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, automatic parking, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control are all available. Ten airbags are standard, too, and Chevy is offering a new PIN-protected Teen Driver feature that allows parents to monitor their kids’ driving and set speed-limit warnings, reduce the maximum sound-system volume level, and more, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The system’s various functions are accessible via a new optional eight-inch MyLink infotainment touch screen. With the bigger screen—a seven-incher is available on lower trims—you get navigation, as well as a slightly updated version of MyLink with a faster processor. We sampled this system briefly in a preproduction Malibu, and the new menu structure seems intuitive (it’s the same in the seven-inch setup but without the quicker brain), while inputs are dispatched quickly and without fuss. To our utter disbelief, we were informed that the new MyLink’s basic underpinnings were pilfered from Cadillac’s maligned CUE infotainment system, proving that you really can polish a . . . you get it.
Pricing for the Malibu has yet to be released, but buyers will be offered four trim levels: L, LS, LT, and a new “Premier” spec that replaces the now-defunct LTZ. Every Malibu will come with GM’s 4G LTE data connection with a wireless hotspot and three months of free data. The LS comes standard with a backup camera, active grille shutters, and the smaller of the two MyLink touch screens; the LT adds LED running lights; and the Premier gets LED taillights, two rear-seat USB ports and a 110-volt power outlet, a wireless phone charger (integrated nicely in the form of a center-console charging “slot” that you simply drop your phone into), leather seats, ventilated seats, and the eight-inch MyLink setup.
When it goes on sale in the fourth quarter of this year, the 2016 Malibu should set Chevrolet back on course in the mid-size race. Final judgment, however, will need to wait until we drive the new sedan. Only then will we know how much the competition should have to fear from Chevy.