General Motors comprehensively changed the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and the sedan pushes forward to a market reality that demands lighter, leaner, more fuel-efficient, and more connected.
Just a few years ago, a mainstream mid-size sedan model line with only two small turbocharged 4-cylinder engine choices and a hybrid version would have been a horrible misstep. Yet for 2016, Chevy’s realistically eyeing sales growth with no V-6 option, and not even an engine over 2.0 liters in the works.
Credit a new generation of downsized—er, “power-dense” as GM officials like to call them—turbo inline-4s, plus a complete transformation of the rest of the car, too. With a 300-pound weight reduction over the previous version of the Malibu, a far more balanced design, and an interior that feels dramatically larger, even if it’s just slightly larger by the numbers over last year’s car, the Malibu is at last looking like one of the top entries in the mid-size sedan class.
The Malibu was last fully redesigned just three years ago, yet it felt like a collection of design elements that weren’t fully fleshed out together, inside or out. Fortunately, the 2016 Malibu works downward from the handsome Impala, tidying it to svelte proportions, with a long new body and rich-looking interior that do completely away with any historic references or cues—except maybe a dual-grille nose that perhaps tries a little too hard to fit in.
Most of the Malibu lineup is powered by a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-4. It takes the place of the 2.5-liter four that used to be the base engine, and before you rush to conclusions you might be surprised to hear that it feels stronger and smoother than that previous engine from the driver’s seat. It makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission; the combination is hard to catch flat-footed, and it’s quiet and composed. Top 2LT and Premier models step up to a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 250 hp and 258 lb-ft. It’s hooked up to an 8-speed automatic transmission and shifts with somewhat more precise, defined gear changes than the 6-speed. This top turbo Malibu now feels as quick as some of its predecessors with V-6s under the hood, and this engine feels strong and quick when you need it to be yet has some of the best drivability and refinement in its class.
There are no multiple modes here; GM nailed the calibration for the accelerator behavior (nice and linear), transmission shifts (sharper when you order that up with your right foot), and steering boost. Steering is one of the high points of the Malibu driving experience. All models, even the base model, get superb rack-mounted electric power steering that’s natural, well-weighted, and precise, and while the suspension doesn’t feel particularly performance-tuned, the Malibu’s ride and handling make it feel composed and reasonably athletic across a wide range of conditions.
The Malibu has lost more than 300 pounds compared to last year’s model, and at a base weight of just under 3,100 pounds (up to about 3,400 pounds for a fully loaded 2.0T) it’s now one of the lightest sedans in its segment.
Arriving a little later in the model year is the third variant: the Malibu Hybrid, which pairs a 1.8-liter inline-4 with a 1.5-kwh battery pack and twin electric motors that effectively operate as a dual-mode transmission. This model makes 182 hp combined and can dash to 60 mph in just 8.2 seconds or operate in electric-only mode in some conditions up to 55 mph. And it aims to earn an EPA-rated 48 mpg combined. It still weighs less than 3,500 pounds, so it feels nearly as nimble as the other models and only sacrifices a little trunk space (and cargo-floor continuity) for battery-pack space.
The 2016 Malibu feels far roomier than its predecessor, despite modest dimensional gains over last year’s model—and it comes down to some smart decisions that help maximize the feeling of interior space. The dash has been lowered and pushed out at the corners; new seats offer better support all around; and there’s much more rear legroom than before.
The seats in the Malibu are very good compared to what other models in this class offer, and they should be up for all-day drives or especially long commutes, GM has gone to lengths to cut noise from the Malibu as well, routing air intakes under the rear seats, and including active noise cancellation (a simple, sound-system-integrated version in sync with engine revs and aiming to cut low-rev engine resonance especially) on the non-hybrid models. As such, the Malibu is a very quiet operator. You hear engine noise very little in those versions.
The Malibu has ample storage built in the center console, with a Pop Tart-sized slot for cellphone storage (and wireless charging, if equipped). Leather, seat heating, and front-seat ventilation are all options, but what matters most is that the fundamentals are all here: seats feel sturdy and deeply bolstered, not necessarily for cornering, but for the all-day haul or the long commute.
The Malibu is sold in L, LS, LT, and Premier trim levels, with the Hybrid a stand-alone model, slotting below the Premier in equipment level.
Technology is emphasized more than ever in the Malibu. Most of the 2016 lineup gets new 7.0- or 8.0-inch MyLink connectivity, with Apple CarPlay compatibility for both of these systems and Android Auto for the smaller one. A wi-fi hotspot powered by 4G LTE is on offer, too. All but the base L now include a rearview camera system, although most of the top active-safety features—like automatic emergency braking—are the exclusive domain of LT and Premier models.
One odd omission in the features list is that dual-zone climate control is only offered on the top Premier; heated seats aren’t widely available either; and Chevy continues to simply point to the Equinox crossover when asked about all-wheel drive.
In many respects, the 2016 Malibu picks up where the critically acclaimed 2008-2012 Malibu left off. The Malibu still might not call out to the sinewy canyon-cutting roads and high-society beach time that its name implies, but among sedans, it’s clearly pulling into the passing lane.
The new Malibu puts up impressive economy numbers so far. Models with the 1.5-liter turbocharged engine earn 27 mpg city, 37 highway, 31 combined, according to the EPA. Meanwhile those with the 2.0-liter turbo-4 earn 22/33/26 mpg. The forthcoming hybrid will earn heady 47/46/46 mpg numbers.