Palo Alto, CA – So, you’ve got a struggling entry in a market segment that’s losing ground to those around it. All signs -- especially in Canada -- are pointing to lower emissions and smaller engines without sacrifice to practicality. Every day, it seems yet another compact crossover is being released, but you’ve got a strong nameplate and a strong history in the midsize sedan market.
If you’re Chevrolet, what do you do with the new Malibu?
All new, and it ain’t hard to tell
One of the first steps is to make the buying process easier, which Chevrolet hopes to achieve by lowering the available trims, as well as the trim options. Starting at $23,495 for the base L trim, we move up to the LS ($25,995), the LT ($26,995) and finally Premier ($33,795), which replaces last year’s LTZ. There are just five option packages to choose from, and even those are only available on the top two trims.
Chevy’s designers lowered the front fascia’s profile, providing a more ground-hugging and athletic appearance; I’m especially a fan of the over/under LED fog lights (standard on LT and up), and the way the radar cruise control unit -- available on the Premier trim as part of the $1,350 Driver Confidence Package II -- is smoothly integrated into the front grille.
Sharply raked C-pillars and a short trunk, meanwhile, have it looking like a grand touring hatch; from the rear three-quarter view, it bears a striking resemblance to the Audi A7. A longer overall length (+58.4 mm) and wheelbase (+101 mm) help contribute to the new stance.
New wheel choices (including sharp two-tone 17-inchers), chrome appliques on the door handles, and the “Malibu” scripting on the doors will impress the more detail-oriented buyer.
There’s more room inside than there was on the old car, with rear legroom up 33 mm. Even with my 6’3” frame, I had no qualms with either the legroom or headroom, even with a great big moonroof.
That same car also had leather seating -- standard on Premier trims, available on LT trims -- which is replicated on the dash, front and rear centre armrests and doors. If you really want to go all out with the cowhide, then opt for the brown interior. It looks like a great blend of baseball glove and what you may find on a fine leather recliner in your library. You can have black or beige, too, but why would you? Stunning. Simply stunning.
Yes, there are sections that are finished in a hard plastic, which probably seem just a little worse than they are in contrast to the rest of the interior environs. You will scuff the stuff at the base of the doors, though, which you have to deal with no matter the trim. That’s a bit of a shame, but then when some luxury cars also have plastic there, it’s hard to fault Chevrolet for going that route.
Lane keep assist, auto-braking and front-pedestrian avoidance may not be new to cars as a whole, but they are new to the Malibu and we’re happy to have them, even if you do have to plump for option packages in order to get them. The one thing I took issue with was the LKAS -- that actually steers you back into the lane -- that was a little over-sensitive as to when it decided I was wavering too much.
The third generation of Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system (faster response time, better voice recognition) as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on most trims. Just plug in your phone, unlock it, press the “Projection” button on the homescreen, and the touchscreen becomes a mirror image of your iDevice (Androids require an additional app). Data plans range from $25-$50, but you can link up to seven devices.
There’s also a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, and pairing to it worked like a charm for both my Apple iPhone 6 and my driving partner’s Samsung Galaxy S6.
All that tech’s nice, but how does she drive?
There are two engine types plus a hybrid option, one of which is all-new: It’s a turbocharged 1.5L 4-cylinder and with it you get the economy and the power, too.
Namely, 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque to be precise, and it does a good job of getting the Malibu off the line rather quickly. Being a small engine, it does tend to run out of steam a little as the tach needle sweeps past the 3,500 rpm mark, though. Further, its attitude can be a little harsh.
Not so for the other engine option, a 2.0L turbocharged unit good for 250 hp, 258 lb-ft and plenty of pulling power throughout the rev range. Freeway entry speeds and highway passing maneuvers occur with nary a complaint.
The new 8-speed transmission (your only choice for 2.0L cars) is a gem; 1.5L models get the old 6-speed auto. The 8-speed is responsive and it keeps things efficient, returning an observed 8.7L/100 km on the highway.
The suspension set-ups of both 1.5L and 2.0L models is the same (MacPherson struts up front, four-link set-up at the rear). The electronic power steering has been tuned differently; I didn’t need the engineers on-hand to tell me that the steering on 2.0L cars is heavier than it is on 1.5L models, as I felt it right away.
Ride-wise, the Malibu handles large undulations well, but its response to smaller, repetitive bumps (train tracks, for example) was a little harsher than I’d like.
It’s all about the numbers, though
The Malibu’s $23,495 base MSRP undercuts most of its competition by about $1,000, which is good. Plus, you get that 1.5L plant, which will be a boon in Canadian markets. The real sweet spot, though, has to be the LS trim which brings you a 4G LTE hotspot, 7” MyLink infotainment screen, and back-up camera.
Yes, it’s too bad you can’t spec leather seats at that level (or a heated steering wheel), but with that 1.5L engine and impressive option package, I think Chevy is right when they say the LS will be the winner up here.
The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu should be in dealers by the time you read this, with the Hybrid coming April of next year.