2016 Chevy Malibu

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History does repeat – in unexpected ways.16 Malibu lead

When Japanese (and later, Korean) car companies challenged the family car hegemony of Detroit’s Big Three back in the ‘70s ands ‘80s, they did so with smaller-engined/high-efficiency/value-priced (but still very nice) cars.

Cue Role Reversal.

While Japanese family cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord still come with big sixes (optionally, if you want ‘em) their American-brand rivals are powered by fuel-efficient fours only.

Small – and smaller – fours.

The new Chevy Malibu is the latest of these.16 Malibu beack seats

The biggest engine you can get in it is a 2.0 liter four (enhanced on demand by a turbocharger) and its standard engine is a 1.5 liter four – an engine that’s about 40 percent smaller than the smallest engines available in Japanese-brand rivals like the Camry (2.5 liters) and Accord (2.4 liters).

The Malibu also has a low price – something else the Japanese used to be known for.

Just over $21k to start… vs. just over $23k to start for the Camry.

And the Chevy’s just as roomy now – and just as nice.

The world turn’d upside down.

WHAT IT IS'16 Malibu composite

The Malibu is GM’s mainline family car. It goes up against mid-sized Japanese rivals like the Camry and Accord as well as Korean-brand rivals like the Hyundai Sonata.

Ford’s Fusion (just updated; the 2017s are already available) is another possible cross-shop. Like the Chevy, it comes only with four cylinder engines (small and smaller) and is priced very reasonably, just $22,495 to start.

But the Malibu is the most reasonably priced to start: $21,625 for the L trim with the 1.5 liter four. This undercuts them all – even the Hyundai Sonata, which has a starting MSRP of $21,750.

I know, it’s not much of a difference, money-wise.

But it is significant in that here we have an American car that costs less than the Japanese and less than (of all things) the Korean competition.

That’s a change up.

WHAT’S NEW'16 Malibu side view

The Malibu’s new from the tread to the roof.

It’s larger and longer now – the wheelbase has been lengthened four inches vs. the previous Malibu – edging it closer in dimensions to full-size. But it’s also 300 pounds lighter than before and gets better gas mileage, too.

Better city mileage than all its rivals, including the Camry, Accord and Sonata.

It’s also the first GM family car to be powered by either of two turbocharged four-cylinder engines.

Rivals like the Camry and Accord, Sonata and Fusion come standard with fours, too- but not turbocharged fours.

WHAT’S GOOD'16 Malibu LCD

Extremely competitive on price/performance/mileage – and general niceness – with the perennial leaders in this class (Camry and Accord).

Much more backseat legroom (38.1inches) than otherwise-excellent Hyundai Sonata (35.6 inches).

Wheelbase stretch gives it a very posh ride.

Not-claustrophobic cabin.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Seems thirstier than it actually is because of very small (just 13 gallons with the 1.5 engine; 15.8 gallons with the 2.0 engine) fuel tank. Accord’s tank – regardless of engine – is 17.2 gallons; Camry’s holds 17; Sonata’s holds 18.5 gallons.

Turbos add potential down-the-road repair costs that are non-issues with non-turbocharged engines in the Camry and Accord.

Toyota and Honda (and Hyundai) still have a better rep – which translates into more favorable depreciation rates and higher resale values.

At least, for now.

UNDER THE HOOD'16 Malibu 1.5 engine

The Malibu’s base engine is a teensy 1.5 liter four – a whole liter smaller than the previous Malibu’s standard 2.5 liter four.

It’s also less powerful: 160 hp (and 184 ft.-lbs. of torque) vs. the previous Malibu’s 197 hp and 191 ft.-lbs. of torque).

But, the new Malibu is also much lighter – 3,086 lbs. vs 3,339 lbs. – so it evens out.

The new car gets to 60 in about 8.5 seconds, which is the same as the old car with the larger 2.5 liter engine. But, fuel economy upticks to 27 city, 37 highway – vs. 24 city, 34 highway previously. The smaller engine also develops its maximum torque sooner – at 2,000 RPM vs. the outgoing (and not turbocharged) engine’s 4,400 RPM. This makes it feel stronger than the numbers indicate.

A six-speed automatic is paired with the 1.5 liter engine.'16 Malibu shifter detail

The Hyundai Sonata also offers a teensy turbo four (1.6 liters) and it’s stronger (178 hp and 195 ft.-lbs. of torque) and so-equipped, the Hyundai is quicker (7.5 seconds to 60) and delivers outstanding mileage (28 city, 38 highway) but it’s not standard equipment. To get this engine, you have to buy the Sonata Eco – which stickers for $23,275. It’s not a pricey car, but it is pricier than the Chevy – by $2,100.

Optionally available is an also-turbocharged 2.0 liter four that’s more or less the same as the old Malibu’s optional 2.0 engine, although the hp and torque numbers are also down slightly – to 250 hp and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque now vs. 259 hp and 295 ft.-lbs. of torque before.

Again, the reduced weight of the new car makes up for this. The ’16 Malibu 2.0 gets to 60 in just over six seconds but because of the weight reduction and because the 2.0 engine in the ’16 is paired with an eight-speed automatic (vs. a six-speed last year) the new car’s mileage is slightly better: 22 city and 33 highway vs. 21 city, 30 highway before.

This is slightly less quick, incidentally, than the V6 Accord and Camry – but the V6-equipped Camry and Accord are also pricier by about $2k and they use a bit more fuel, too.

But the main take-home point is that both the Malibu’s engines are turbocharged – while neither of the Camry’s or the Accord’s are. Their base engines are larger-displacement (2.5 and 2.4 liters, respectively) fours that aren’t turbocharged.'16 Malibu gauge cluster

The downsides (if you’re a Toyota or Honda person) are that the four cylinder-powered versions of these cars are slightly less quick – and use slightly more fuel (23 city, 34 highway for the Honda, 25 city, 35 highway for the Toyota) and feel a bit more winded when you work them, due to their non-turbo’d engines not producing their peak power until much higher up the RPM scale.

The upside – if you are a risk-averse person – is that these cars haven’t got turbos and so you’ll never have troubles related to the turbos. With the Chevy (and the Hyundai and the Ford Fusion, when equipped with their optional engines) you’ve got a turbo – and you may have troubles with it, eventually. Not necessarily. Maybe not ever. But you might because it’s there and any mechanical thing, no matter how well-engineered or reliable it may be, isn’t 100 percent foolproof or impervious to wear and tear.'16 Malibu 2.0 engine

The fulsome scurvy truth is that Chevy (and Hyundai and Ford and others, too) are going with these micro-engines goosed with turbos over larger engines without turbos chiefly because of federal fuel economy (CAFE) mandatory minimums. The gain to you, the buyer, is not huge – maybe 3 MPG overall. But when factored over a fleet of cars (which is how CAFE compliance is calculated) that 3 MPG or so difference matters a great deal.

For this very reason, expect the next-generation Camry and Accord to also come with smaller (and turbocharged) standard engines and (probably) shed their currently available V6 engines.

Incidentally, the Malibu’s 1.5 liter engine comes standard with an auto-stop/start system that kills the engine when the car isn’t moving, then re-starts it automatically when the driver takes his foot off the brake and presses down on the gas pedal. This, too, is there for CAFE reasons only – and Chevy isn’t the only brand resorting to such measures.

Thank Uncle.  '16 Malibu road 1     

ON THE ROAD

In a number of new cars you sit way low, gangster-style, because the doors rise up to your shoulders  and the dash is a massive cliff of extruded plastic . Adjust the seat all you like, it still feels claustrophobic. Combine this with the trend toward low-riding “sport” suspensions in family cars and it’s no wonder so many people have abandoned ship for crossovers and SUVs. At least you can see where you’re going and don’t feel like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well.

This Malibu, on the other hand, has one thing in common with its classic-era namesake: Good visibility. The door tops aren’t too tall and the dashboard does not rise vertically like an incoming tsunami of extruded plastic. In fact, it slopes away from you, like a receding tide, which has the actual and psychological effect of making the interior feel expansive rather than closing in on you.

This is one of the Chevy’s most appealing attributes.

It’s a relaxing and easygoing car.'16 Malibu road 2

Well-padded seats (and a well-padded ride). All is calm – and quiet.

Speaking of which.

These new-gen turbo fours are on the down low. You’d never suspect them of being turbocharged because there is very little evidence they are turbocharged. It’s not like it used to be when turbo’d engines would do… nothing…. at first. And then (after a pause/flat spot) hit you with a surge of power that often caused the car to stagger-step left-right as the tires fought to cope with the sudden power spike.

That’s fun in a sports car. Not the best thing in a family car, where smoothness is the thing.

These new-gen turbos deliver immediate, lag-free thrust and so they come across as simply powerful engines… larger (and not turbocharged) engines.

The Malibu’s 1.5 engine gives you the same performance as the old 2.5 liter engine and seems like it’s working less hard to deliver it – which is exactly the case. Three-quarters throttle will give you the same acceleration (or better) as full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal in the old car.2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Because the turbo’d engine’s torque happens 2,400 RPM earlier.

There are still some quicker players in this segment – the Accord with its standard four being the standout (it’ll get to 60 in about 7.8 seconds with its six-speed manual transmission, a very rare thing to find among family sedans these days).   

But the Chevy is right there in the thick of it – and that ought to worry Honda (and the rest of the import blue chips, too).

With the optional 2.0 engine, the Malibu is – like the V6 (and optional turbo-engined) competition – a surprisingly speedy ride. Maybe not quite as speedy as the V6 Accord or Camry, but a six second to 60 run is only about 1 second off the pace of a Mustang GT, as a for-instance.

We’re used to it – jaded by it – but family cars are now about as quick as Maximum Effort performance cars once were.

As in the 1.5-equipped Malibu, the turbo is a non-presence. No lag or whistle. It just goes. And the new eight-speed automatic does a fine job of reducing the revs at highway speeds such that this little four behaves much like a big six or even a V8 once you’re up to speed. At 80, the tach reads about 2,000 RPM – which is an easygoing pace for such as small engine at that speed.

Just don’t stab the brakes too hard (or too often) at such speeds. The Malibu’s brakes are family car brakes – and that means they are not Performance Car brakes. I got my test Malibu’s so hot and bothered they smoked.

But you probably do not drive the way I drive.'16 Malibu road composite

Almost no one does.

What probably matters more to you is the ride quality (as good as Camry’s, which is the Gold Standard for family car comfort) and the general pleasantness of the car.   

There is a manual-shift function for the eight-speed transmission (ease the gear selector back toward you from D to L and then tap the + and – symbols to go up or down) but you will discover that selecting 7th or eighth (either way, up or down) has no discernible effect other than changing the numeric readout on the LCD screen in the center stack. The box may have shifted up or down, but the transitions cannot be felt or seen (on the tach). This transmission – like other eight-speeds I’ve tested – seems to use the top two gears only during light-throttle/steady state cruising and only when the computer (rather than you) decides to engage them.   

AT THE CURB2016 Chevrolet Malibu

The old Malibu – which you can still buy new as the “Malibu Classic” – had two obvious problems:

It had a cramped back seat – and it looked like a rental car.

These issues have been addressed.

The wheelbase stretch (111.4 inches now vs. the old car’s 107.8 inches) has resulted in a longer, roomier car.

Particularly in the back.

The ’16 has 38.1 inches of legroom in the second row – nearly as much as the limo-like Camry (38.9 inches) and slightly more shoulder room (57.1 inches vs. 56.6). The Camry still has a smidgen more headroom back there (38.1 inches vs. 37.5 for the Chevy) but it’s not so you’d notice.

It’s now a Hyundai that takes the “prize” for the most cramped back seat.  The Sonata’s got just 35.6 inches, which is less than the old Malibu (36.8 inches).'16 Malibu interior detail

Overall, the Malibu is now the largest – the longest – car in this segment: 193.8 inches from stem to stern vs. 190.9 for the Camry, 191.1 for the Sonata and 191.8 for the Ford Fusion. It is also slightly wider (73 inches) than all of them except the Sonata (73.4 inches) and the length plus the width helps make the Malibu look substantial while the lines of the car are graceful. It’s not a show-stopper, but it’s a very nice-looking car, like its bigger brother, the Impala.

In my opinion, the only mid-sized competitor that out-looks the Malibu is the Mazda6 – which is a sport sedan, not a family sedan.

The Chevy’s a solid value too.

A Malibu L costs less than every other rival (a lot less than some rivals, like the $23,070 to start Camry) and comes standard with everything most families need (AC, power windows and locks) plus some things that are nice to have, like a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, push-button ignition, cruise control and a better-than-decent six-speaker stereo.'16 Malibu technology

For about the same price as the entry-level Camry, you can move up to the LS trim ($23,120) and get in-car WiFi, an iPad-style, pinch/finger-swipe 7-inch LCD touchscreen with AppleCarPlay, Android Auto and other apps.

It’s hard to spend much more than $30k on a new Malibu – and that will get you a top-of-the-line Premier trim with the more powerful 2.0 engine, 19-inch wheels, leather trim, an upgraded main gauge cluster, heated and cooled front seats, wireless smartphone charger and a nine-speaker Bose premium stereo rig.     

THE REST'16 Malibu last

Despite having lots of “tech” equipment – including available automatic braking, automatic park assist, blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, these gadgets do not interfere with radar detectors. No constant false alarms. Chevy has figured out – apparently – how to make these systems work without making your radar detector not work.

A Malibu oddity is its unusually small gas tank: 13 gallons with the 1.5 liter engine.

The Sonata’s tank holds 5.5 gallons more fuel. This translates into a highway range of 703 miles for the Hyundai (Eco model with the 1.6 engine)  vs. 481 for the Malibu with the 1.5 liter engine. Even though the miles-per-gallon delivered by these two engines is very close, the Chevy seems downright piggy vs. the Hyundai (and the others in this class) because you have to stop for gas much more frequently.

It’s pretty much the only objective flaw I could find – and one that Chevy will hopefully correct.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The domestic brands continue to get better and better while the Japanese seem unaware of the hot breath on their necks.

They’d better wise up soon.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Tiny engines with turbochargers typically return the same or worse fuel mileage than a naturally aspirated engine producing the same power. Reason being, an equal amount of energy is required to propel otherwise equal vehicles.

    The turbo stuffs much more air and fuel into the cylinders than a naturally aspirated engine, the small engine drinks fuel at the rate of a larger engine. That heavier foot required to get the vehicle moving at a similar rate demands turbocharger input and that destroys economy. And to keep up speed with increased changes in grade, the turbo is again required. Call for air conditioning or higher electrical load and the turbo is needed more often to compensate for those additional demands. Most people are pumping the gas and brake pedals like foot bellows for playing a church organ. Turbo, turbo, turbo. Guzzle, guzzle, guzzle.

    If the turbo can be selectively disabled, that may improve economy. Particularly if the programming detects any government mandated emissions and economy tests, it would be helpful in reaching lofty corporate fuel economy goals.

    • “Particularly if the programming detects any government mandated emissions and economy tests, it would be helpful in reaching lofty corporate fuel economy goals.”

      Isn’t that what f*cked VW just recently…?

  2. “A Malibu oddity is its unusually small gas tank: 13 gallons with the 1.5 liter engine.”
    And I thought the Jetta TDI was small @ ~14.5. W/my commute, that was good for a week – unless it was also tasked w/any evening or weekend driving. Now I’ve got this Patriot, w/an even smaller tank (13.6) and piss poor mileage, so I only get 3 days/tank. Someone want to donate a BMW 740 diesel?

      • Hi Phillip,

        You know, could be… 5 less gallons of gas to carry (vs. the Hyundai) means a significant weight savings…

            • About 30 pounds, depending on temperature, grade, etc. , an American gallon of water weighs 8.33 lb. The specific density of gasoline ranges from 0.71-0.77. So the weight of 5 American gallons of gasoline would be between:

              5 x 8.33 x 0.71 = 29.6 lb
              5 x 8.33 x 0.77 = 32.1 lb

                    • I was convinced I run after my thrice broken leg as sorta healed but a 1100 lb. Longhorn mama who thought I was hurting her new calf had me running without a thought. A year later and jumping wasn’t in my moves nor fast running but the Northern Pacific showed me I could not only jump out of cab, but hit the ground running and haul ass for 100 yds. Looking in that headlight made me think of the guy I saw in a new KW getting smeared near Houston one morning put some zip in my hip.

                    • ” just get winded when I need to move fast!”
                      Shoot, I get winded when I bend over to tie my shoes.

      • I would guess small tanks are due to where they can be placed (under the back seat) and the amount of room remaining there. However 13 gallons for a 1.5L engine isn’t really puny. Even if we use old car standards the smaller cars might only have a 15 gal gas tank. I know, I own one. Although in later years the same model got a 19gal tank. My previous one had the 19gal tank. My Mazda has 13.2 gal tank, it predates things getting into nonsense weight saving.

        • Hi Brent,

          These little turbo engines are deceptive in terms of real-world economy. I only averaged 24.2 MPG in my test car. Granted, I ran the thing hard – but that’s still not very impressive mileage for such a small engine. I’m sure it could do a lot better… if you drove it with a very light foot and kept the engine off-boost as much as possible. But then, why bother with the turbo?

          I can run my Trans-Am pretty hard and still get low teens out of it. Given 7.4 liters (and a carburetor!) that’s more impressive to me than 24.2 out of an engine literally a fourth the size, with all the modern advantages!

          • It would seem that all those “highway mileage” figures are bs for Tx. from the cars my wife has rented. Her observed mileage has been significantly lower in everything. The last two, a v-6 Charger and a 200 both had averages for the last 12-1500 miles on their little computer screen. They were both about 25 mpg. Seems like the Malibu and Altima were much closer to advertised mileage but I was driving the Fusion in holiday traffic, it never had a chance.

          • 24.2 with a 13 gal tank is still high enough to maintain range higher than that of V8 cars with 15 gallon tanks.

            • Yeah, but my car has a 21 gallon tank!

              13 gallons is too little for a mid (bordering on full) size car. Look at the highway range disparity between the Malibu and the Hyundai Sonata.

              I ran my test car Malibu to near-empty after 250 miles or so of mixed (city/highway) driving. Granted, I was running it hard (see the video of the smoking brakes!) but… still…

              • My 74 Gremlin had a 21 gallon tank. And it didn’t get great mileage, but better than a TA, especially before Eric upgraded the trans.

                • The Elco had a 27.8 gallon tank according to the manual but it held 29 gallons several times and that was a fair mileage total if I kept my foot out which was almost never. I got 18.6 mpg once not getting much over 60 but I couldn’t drive 60 any better than I could drive 55. 17X28 gives a range of 476 which wasn’t bad.

                  OTOH, my ’67 Malibu had a 24 gallon tank and I could get 14mpg driving 70mph but it loped at that speed so 75 was the least you could actually drive it and 80 made it smooth out a lot more. It fairly much hummed along happily by all gauges at 90 or 100 and it would do 120 all day long like the ’98 but not nearly as comfy. Before radar detectors I seemed to have a sixth sense and would get a feeling and slow down till I met radar, mostly, very soon after I got that feeling. There were times when I met radar doing well above the limit they didn’t even hit the brakes and other times it made no difference since I would use that throttle setting “my foot was glued like lead to the floor”.

              • And my V8 cars have 15 gallon gas tanks. I fill up around 200 miles of mostly city driving (10-12gallons) . 250 if I push it.

                • Hi Brent,

                  Is that the (relatively) new Mustang?

                  I can’t recall ’70s and ’60s era V8 cars with tanks that small!

                  • I was little off according to web sources, the ’12 has 0.6 gallons more capacity than the ’97.

                    1973 Maverick: 15.1 gallons. (V8 and I6 same tank)
                    1997 Mustang: 15.4 gallons.
                    2012 Mustang: 16.0 gallons.

                    Maybe I am just used to it.

                    Now the ’75 Maverick I had, that was a late ’75 and thus had a 19.2 gal. tank. with 200cid six and no need to drive all the time I filled up very rarely. I did miss that going to the ’73. Looking back I should have bought a 19gal tank at the upull. It should have bolted in.

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