Editor's note: This review was written in January 2016 about the 2016 Malibu. New for 2017, a new nine-speed automatic transmission is standard on the Premier model, replacing an eight-speed automatic. Little else of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the 2016 and 2017 model years.
The Chevrolet Malibu competes against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata, among many other midsize sedans. Compare them here. Along with its new styling and powertrain, the Malibu grew in size for 2016. Compare it with the 2015 model here.
Exterior & Styling
The Malibu's designers admitted the previous generation had a big problem that kept it off many shoppers' consideration lists: misguided styling. You can't slap Camaro taillights on a sedan to add sporty flair; all that creates is the past-generation Malibu — a jarringly awkward mish-mash of brand styling. The 2016 is a clean-sheet redesign with an all-new platform and — thankfully — starkly different styling. They took the edge off, literally, with smooth curves and rounded shapes replacing the previous generation's chunky, chiseled silhouette. It still has a family resemblance, but to a more appropriate relative — it recalls the Impala's stately face and shapely trunk lid. The new design is distinctive in a class of cars that look a lot alike.
How It Drives
Power from the turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder in the midlevel Malibu LT I tested — it's the car's new base engine — was unexpectedly robust from a stop, with great low-end torque for confident takeoffs. It's fun around town, but there's not much left over for highway passing and merging. However, the solid, predictable six-speed automatic transmission furnishes more power steadily and without complaint on the highway; it's not quick, but it never sounds or feels strained, and engine noise is well-muted. The engine's standard automatic stop-start feature is impressively unobtrusive, with a subtle shutdown and a graceful, shudder-free restart. I also sampled the available turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the top-of-the-line Premier trim. It's quicker off the line and has a lot more reserve power. It pairs with a new eight-speed automatic that can feel busy at times — with several abrupt, quick shifts as you accelerate from a stop — but it's responsive on the highway, with prompt, smooth kickdowns for passing.
The Malibu's ride is on the firm side, but not uncomfortably so. The Premier model I drove wore optional 19-inch wheels, which added roughness versus the LT model's 17-inchers. Road noise was a nuisance in both versions, but bumps are well-damped and body control is excellent, even over railroad tracks. It's nimble and lively around corners, with firm, direct steering. The brakes also have a reassuring feel with predictably linear reaction.
Fuel economy is now class-competitive. The 1.5-liter is EPA-rated 27/37/31 mpg city/highway/combined, which is a couple mpg better than the outgoing model's base 2.5-liter engine. It's in line with base automatic-transmission versions of the Accord, Camry and Sonata. The 2.0-liter is rated 22/33/26 mpg, an improvement over the previous 2.0-liter's 21/30/24 mpg rating. Fill-ups will cost more with the 2.0-liter, however; it prefers premium gas. I did not get an opportunity to test the new Malibu Hybrid, but its EPA estimate is impressive: 48/45/47 mpg.
The top-of-the-line Premier model I drove wore plenty of cushy, padded plastic along with its upscale leather seats and surfaces. Stitching and perforation on the dash, as well as satin-finish chrome trim, added pops of class. The Malibu Premier's fake wood trim, however, looked like just that and cheapened the ambiance. Unfortunately, the LT model goes even further down that road. Much like the carpeted walls of a Holiday Inn banquet room, the swatches of patterned upholstery lining the dash already look dated.
Where the cabin really shines is in the backseat. It's much roomier than the previous generation's, which was as much of a liability as the car's styling. Rear legroom has increased by 1.3 inches, and that extra bit matters. It now has almost as much rear legroom as the Accord and Camry, and it has more than the Hyundai Sonata. Two adults will be comfy in back, and the Malibu easily accommodates two child-safety seats. Ample space and easy-to-access lower Latch anchors add a measure of family-friendliness to the sedan.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Tired of scratching your head at complicated, irritating multimedia systems? Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are the answer; they might just be the demise of the built-in navigation system. With either CarPlay or Auto, just plug in your smartphone and its navigation display and functionality will be mirrored on the car's screen, its turn-by-turn guidance and voice activation piped through the audio system. The integration is seamless and painless.
After connecting your phone, an icon pops up on the screen that opens a portal to a simplified interface from your smartphone. If you want to navigate anywhere, use either Google Maps (on Android devices) or Apple Maps (on an iPhone). Android Auto and Apple Car Play are standard on all but the base Malibu. (At this writing, Android Auto compatibility is unavailable in Malibus with the 8-inch screen, but Chevrolet says it'll be added this spring.)
Even without CarPlay or Auto, however, the Malibu's MyLink multimedia system is nothing to run from; it's delightful, with a large, clear screen high on the dash above sizable radio-tuning buttons and a volume dial. Base, L models don't have a screen, while midlevel LS and LT versions use a 7-inch unit and the top, Premier trim has an 8-inch setup. I tested the 8-inch unit, and the touch-sensitive screen didn't respond as quickly as a traditional touch-screen, but its responsiveness was better than that of the previous model. I found the screen's placement high on the dash to be an aid to visibility, but some editors objected to its upward tilt.
There's no learning curve to using the audio and nav functions, and large Home and Back buttons add menu clarity when using the system. Gratefully, climate functionality hasn't been integrated; separate controls live below the screen.
Cargo & Storage
The deep center storage console is great for small-item storage. Trunk space is down a bit this year, but it's still roomy enough. With 15.8 cubic feet, the Malibu's trunk matches the Accord and offers a smidge more room than the Camry; the Hyundai Sonata's trunk is roomier, however, with 16.3 cubic feet of space.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have not yet crash-tested the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu.
A backup camera is standard on all but the base trim, and there are loads of new safety options for 2016, including a low-speed front automatic braking system that detects pedestrians as well as cars. Other available safety equipment includes adaptive cruise control, automatic parking assist and an excellent Lane Keep Assist system. The latter gently but firmly nudges you back into your lane if it senses wandering. It's subtle but effective, and it's less annoying than more aggressive systems we've experienced. Click here for a full list of safety features.
One innovative feature on the Malibu gathers information from those systems to help keep teen drivers safe — a necessary effort, given the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports car crashes as the top cause of death for teens. The 2016 Malibu is the first to offer GM's new Teen Driver system, which allows parents to view their kids' driving habits on the multimedia screen. Speed, distance and which safety systems were activated during the trip are displayed. Parents can also set a maximum speed limit with a corresponding audible warning when it's exceeded, as well as set the audio system to mute until seat belts are fastened. Unlike similar systems from Ford and Hyundai, however, it does not set location boundaries, a feature called geofencing. Another shortcoming is an inability to view the driving stats anywhere other than on the car's multimedia screen.
Value in Its Class
The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu starts at $22,500, including a destination fee. That's just a bit less than the base Sonata and the base Accord, which is equipped with a manual transmission versus the other models' standard automatic transmissions. It's more affordable than the base Camry by more than $1,000.
Many sedans in the midsize class are comfortable and likable, but the new Malibu adds stylish, refined and efficient to its resume. Against the heavy hitters, the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu trumps the Camry and Accord in style and powertrain polish; shoppers should take notice.