2017 Chevrolet Malibu: Unmotivated
By Chris Chase
Apr. 7, 2017
Chevrolet redesigned its mid-size Malibu sedan for 2016, stretching it by around 50 mm tip-to-tail and adding about 100 mm to its wheelbase, in a bid to fix the small rear seat that was the most serious knock against its predecessor as a practical people-mover.
Notably, despite the car’s increased size, it’s 136 kg lighter than the old car, thanks to the use of high-tensile (or high-strength) steel. Less weight means less work for the engine, which in theory translates to better fuel economy.
Pros & Cons
- + Styling
- + Advanced safety features
- + Touchscreen display
- - Underpowered engine
- - Headroom
- - Value for money
Malibu’s new look is handsome, and more distinctive than what this sedan wore before. Under that skin is a new entry-level engine: a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that replaces a 2.4-litre four-cylinder.
A lighter car needs less power, and Chevrolet has taken this to heart. The new 1.5-litre makes 163 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, both downgrades from the 2.5-litre’s 196 and 191 lb-ft. A six-speed automatic carries over.
We think the Malibu looks good, but from the inside, the shallow greenhouse means you sit way down in the car with the doors and dash high around you. We found ourselves subconsciously craning our necks to get a better view when negotiating tight parking spaces; the view rearward is similarly compromised by the tall trunk lid, so we were grateful for the backup camera.
Front-seat headroom is good, so in theory you can crank the driver’s seat height adjustment up for a better view, but that only works so well in a car with a “chopped” roofline. The back seat offers notably less headroom, and my hunch that legroom back here is a bit less generous than in other mid-sizers held water: there’s 966 mm of it in the Malibu, versus 989 mm in the Toyota Camry and 977 in the Honda Accord’s coach accommodations.
It’s easy to get used to the proliferation of convenience features that have trickled down to small cars, so it’s always a bit of a surprise to be reminded that even some mid-sizers stick to the basics. For instance, our LT-trimmed tester lacked automatic climate control despite a True North edition package that, according to the price breakdown provided with the car, added navigation, leather seating, sunroof and 18-inch wheels, along with $7,260 to the car’s price. All that said, if you can’t have automatic climate controls, you can wish for a manual setup as good as the Malibu’s.
For $1,550, our tester had a driver confidence package that loaded in a bunch of active safety gear, including city-speed automatic braking with pedestrian detection and forward collision alert, blind spot detection, lane keep assist, front and rear park assist, rear cross traffic alert, automatic high beams and something we haven’t seen before: a following distance indicator that tells you how many seconds separate you from the car in front.
Chevrolet’s nicely-sorted IntelliLink infotainment system was included in our tester, displayed on a big touchscreen with good responsiveness and nice graphics.
The Malibu may be about as American as a car can get, but this new one has a driving feel more readily associated with a European car. The steering is on the heavy side, and effort increases with speed so that there’s a feeling of heft in quick cornering. It’s not as tactile as it would be in a car with German roots, but all told it’s a pleasant surprise here, along with a comfortable suspension that maintains good control over body motions on uneven roads.
But if you plan to exploit a chassis that seems well-suited to enthusiastic driving, consider a move up to this car’s optional 2.0-litre turbo engine. The little 1.5 is pretty weak, and has to be flogged pretty hard to provide anything like quick acceleration. Pack a Malibu full of a family and their stuff for a road trip, and passing maneuvers would require some serious planning ahead.
Between the Malibu’s weight loss and this new, tiny engine, fuel economy was clearly one of Chevrolet’s top priorities here, and we think they’ve succeeded: our tester averaged 9.7 L/100 in a week of city driving, a full litre per hundred clicks lower than a previous-generation Malibu we put through its paces in similar winter weather in December 2015. If you want better than that, there’s a Malibu Hybrid that pairs a 1.8-litre engine with an electric motor.
At $34,000 as tested, the list of active safety features in our Malibu LT (that’s the third of four levels, and the highest available with the new, smaller engine) impressed us, but we wished for passive keyless entry and that dual-zone climate control system. Both are included in a $27,000 Honda Accord or a $29,000 Toyota Camry — two of the Malibu’s most visible competitors. And over at Hyundai, a sub-$35,000 Sonata gets ventilated front seats, HID headlights and adaptive cruise control.
Generally speaking, mid-size sedans continue to get better, despite an erosion of their market share that’s the result of crossovers horning in on sales to families looking for a spacious and comfortable vehicle.
The Malibu is an improvement over its predecessor in many ways, but we were left feeling like Chevrolet missed the mark: the 1.5-litre engine is going to be under the hood of the vast majority of the Malibu sedans that Chevrolet sells, and while it’s impressively efficient, it’s just not enough motor for this car, even with the lighter body.
We can’t blame you if you buy this car for its looks; we like them too. Just check your performance expectations at the showroom door.