The New Chevrolet Malibu Is Actually Really, Really Good

Proof that bowtie-badged vehicles still have the power to surprise.

General Motors has never made a conventional hybrid that’s worth a damn. As for Chevrolet, a brand that once moved 1 million Impalas in a single year, its family sedans have played class wallflower—including in sales—to the smarter, popular kids from Honda, Toyota, Nissan and now Ford and Hyundai.

That puts the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu firmly in the Pleasant Surprises category. Once the sedan you signed for, grudgingly, at the rental counter, the new Malibu can make a play for your own monthly payment. The forgettable, cramped-in-back version is officially forgotten, after a mere three-year production run.

Laying some tracing paper over the shapely Impala, the new ‘Bu looks crisp and classy, and performs with project-manager aplomb. Most unexpectedly, there’s a hybrid version that’s among the best in its field, not another half-assed “mild” hybrid that GM once foisted on customers. The Malibu Hybrid’s 47-mpg combined EPA rating—48 city, 45 highway—equals that of the Honda Accord Hybrid as the stingiest midsize on the market. And that Accord is on hiatus for 2016, so the Malibu—again, the Chevrolet Malibu—is suddenly the mileage king of mid-size sedans.

Landing a pre-production Malibu for our test, I put my brain and right foot in Prius mode, and got another pleasant surprise: I saw 42 to 48 mpg in real, everyday driving. In the Ford and Hyundai  hybrids especially, I couldn’t top 38 mpg on a bet, with those models consistently failing to meet their optimistic EPA projections. (The Accord and Toyota Camry hybrids tend to play closer to the Malibu’s frugal ballpark.)

That’s serious mileage in a family sedan, one with a 3.6-inch longer wheelbase that carves out 1.3 inches of extra legroom for lanky adults in back. The Chevy adopts a modified version of the Voltec dual-motor hybrid system from the impressive 2016 plug-in Volt, only with a larger and more powerful 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a much smaller lithium-ion battery pack, of 1.8 kilowatt-hours. Between gas and electric grunt, the Chevy makes 182 system horsepower—quite adequate in a car that encourages you to avoid heavy throttle application regardless. Floor the pedal to flout your hybrid manners, and the 277 pound-feet of torque supplies a convincing surge of passing power, in the manner of a Honda or Nissan with a CVT.

Like its Volt cousin, the Chevy also proved one of the smoothest, quietest hybrids in its class, switching between full-electric and blended gas-electric operation without a hiccuping engine start-up or weird spikes of power. Under super-light throttle, the Malibu was also adept at staying in all-electric mode, easing down brownstone streets in Brooklyn without firing up its little four-banger; GM says the Malibu can operate gas-free at up to 55 mph for short stretches. Active grille shutters close at speed to reduce aerodynamic drag.

You also get the outstanding blended regenerative braking system from the Volt—if not, unfortunately, the Volt’s novel steering-wheel paddle that boosts energy recapture and operates as a virtual hand brake, making for more fun than the typical hybrid. Unlike so many pudding-soft hybrid pedals, these brakes feel like real stoppers, with a seamless pedal transition between motor-generator recapture and the actual mechanical brakes. The Malibu also introduces Chevy’s first exhaust gas heat recovery system, using exhaust heat to warm or cool the cabin. Trunk space does drop to 11.6 cubic feet, down from 15.8 in standard Malibus, thanks to the battery below.

At $28,645, the base freight is a bit higher than that of some hybrid competitors, but the Chevy is smartly kitted with standard pushbutton start, LED daytime running lamps, a 4G LTE connection and wifi hotspot, a rear camera and a seven-inch central display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Stuffed to its hybrid gills with leather seats, wireless phone charging, Bose audio and the latest safety gizmos—including automated braking and a lane-keeping system—the Malibu Hybrid checked out at a fully competitive $33,775.

Of course, most Malibu beachcombers will be hunting a non-hybrid version. Penny savers can start with a $22,500 Malibu L, whose 1.5-liter Ecotec four turbo-boosts its way to 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, but exclusively with GM’s aging six-speed automatic transmission.

If you need to get places fast, you’ll want the 2-liter, 250-horsepower turbo four, starting from $29,495 in the 2LT model. That one gets GM’s new eight-speed automatic. Both engines are actually down on power compared with their predecessors, but as with many once-corpulent GM relatives, from Camaro to Cadillacs, the Malibu’s weight loss program trims some 300 lbs, so acceleration is largely a wash. Now one of the lightest midsize family cars—carrying as little as 3,086 lbs—the Malibu foregoes a thirsty V-6 and majorly ups its mileage: to 27/37 mpg with the dinkier turbo and its standard engine stop-start system, and 22/33 mpg in 2-liter guise.

I cruised New York in a decked-out Premier model ($31,795 to start; $34,285 out the door), which scoots from zero to 60 mph in about 6.1 seconds—slower than an Accord or Camry V6, but still speedy by family-guy standards.

Inside, the Chevy feels nicely buttressed against noise and rough roads, and the bigger back seat is welcome. If there’s a beef, it’s that Chevy (and by extension, GM) still needs help accessorizing. The dashboard is a busy assemblage of wings and inserts and stacks, as though Pontiac’s manly ghost was flitting about. Some of the shiny plastics in more affordable versions appear dunked in Armor All. And Chevy’s eye for contrast recalls those Midwesterners (including, come to think of it, certain GM designers and engineers) who still think it’s cool to stack varying monochromes of a single shade—suit, shirt, tie—that actually don’t go together at all. The Malibu’s available caramel-brown interior looks like Gerber’s purée, and the gray version is as fogeyish as a CBS holiday special. Owners with developed aesthetic sensibilities will want the Premier edition, or to stick with the Jet Black scheme. But hey, at least the dashboard has some distinctiveness, unlike others in this segment. (Looking at you, Hyundai Sonata.)

The rest is all good, including handsome gauges and crisp, easy-as-pie Chevy MyLink infotainment screens (in seven- or eight-inch versions), floating within easy reach on a jutting central pod. As for performance, call it smooth, subdued and unspectacular. For sporting attitude, I’d slot the Chevy well below the class-topping Mazda 6 and Honda Accord, maybe a touch below the Fusion. Yet the Malibu handles as well as anything else in the corporate lot: the Optima, Nissan Altima and surprisingly competent Toyota Camry SE; and better than the softly sprung Hyundai or Chrysler 200.

All told, the Chevy performs every family chore, and more handsomely than most. I’m picturing it as perfect for today’s Don Drapers, or at least Peggy Olsens; ambitious, buttoned-down sorts, determined to get the office with their name on the door. Those sorts of up-and-comers may not have considered a Chevy sedan since the Mad Men Sixties and Seventies, when the Malibu was part of the Chevelle line. But with Chevrolet hoping to lure fans who are welded at the hip to Japanese stalwarts or Korean upstarts, this Malibu may help turn back time.

--

2016 Chevrolet Malibu Premier & Malibu Hybrid (Pre-production)
PRICE (BASE): $31,795; $28,645
POWERTRAIN: Turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter in-line four, 250 hp, 258 lb-ft torque (Premier); 1.8-liter four with dual electric-motor drive unit, 182 hp, 277 lb-ft torque (Hybrid); front-wheel drive, eight-speed automatic
WEIGHT: 3,278 lbs (Premier); 3,457 lbs (Hybrid)
0-60 MPH: 6.1 seconds (Premier); N/A (Hybrid)
TOP SPEED: N/A
MPG: 22 city / 33 highway (Premier); 48 / 45 (Hybrid)
ON SALE: Now