History does repeat — in unexpected ways.
When Japanese (and later, Korean) car companies challenged the family car hegemony of Detroit’s Big Three back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they did so with smaller-engined/high-efficiency/value-priced (but still very nice) cars.
Cue Role Reversal.
While Japanese family cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord still come with big sixes (optionally, if you want ‘em) their American-brand rivals are powered by fuel-efficient fours only.
Small — and smaller — fours.
The new Chevy Malibu is the latest of these.
The biggest engine you can get in it is a 2.0 liter four (enhanced on demand by a turbocharger) and its standard engine is a 1.5 liter four — an engine that’s about 40 percent smaller than the smallest engines available in Japanese-brand rivals like the Camry (2.5 liters) and Accord (2.4 liters).
The Malibu also has a low price — something else the Japanese used to be known for.
Just over $21k to start… vs. just over $23k to start for the Camry.
And the Chevy’s just as roomy now — and just as nice.
The world turned upside down.
WHAT IT IS
The Malibu is GM’s mainline family car. It goes up against mid-sized Japanese rivals like the Camry and Accord as well as Korean-brand rivals like the Hyundai Sonata.
Ford’s Fusion (just updated; the 2017s are already available) is another possible cross-shop. Like the Chevy, it comes only with four cylinder engines (small and smaller) and is priced very reasonably, just $22,495 to start.
But the Malibu is the most reasonably priced to start: $21,625 for the L trim with the 1.5 liter four. This undercuts them all — even the Hyundai Sonata, which has a starting MSRP of $21,750.
I know, it’s not much of a difference, money-wise.
But it is significant in that here we have an American car that costs less than the Japanese and less than (of all things) the Korean competition.
The Malibu’s new from the tread to the roof.
It’s larger and longer now — the wheelbase has been lengthened four inches vs. the previous Malibu — edging it closer in dimensions to full-size. But it’s also 300 pounds lighter than before and gets better gas mileage, too. Better city mileage than all its rivals, including the Camry, Accord and Sonata.
It’s also the first GM family car to be powered by either of two turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
Rivals like the Camry and Accord, Sonata and Fusion come standard with fours, too- but not turbocharged fours.
Extremely competitive on price/performance/mileage — and general niceness — with the perennial leaders in this class (Camry and Accord).
Much more backseat legroom (38.1inches) than otherwise-excellent Hyundai Sonata (35.6 inches).
Wheelbase stretch gives it a very posh ride.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Seems thirstier than it actually is because of very small (just 13 gallons with the 1.5 engine; 15.8 gallons with the 2.0 engine) fuel tank. Accord’s tank — regardless of engine — is 17.2 gallons; Camry’s holds 17; Sonata’s holds 18.5 gallons.
Turbos add potential down-the-road repair costs that are non-issues with non-turbocharged engines in the Camry and Accord.
Toyota and Honda (and Hyundai) still have a better rep — which translates into more favorable depreciation rates and higher resale values.
At least, for now.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Malibu’s base engine is a teensy 1.5 liter four — a whole liter smaller than the previous Malibu’s standard 2.5 liter four.
It’s also less powerful: 160 hp (and 184 ft.-lbs. of torque) vs. the previous Malibu’s 197 hp and 191 ft.-lbs. of torque).
But, the new Malibu is also much lighter — 3,086 lbs. vs 3,339 lbs. — so it evens out.
The new car gets to 60 in about 8.5 seconds, which is the same as the old car with the larger 2.5 liter engine. But, fuel economy upticks to 27 city, 37 highway — vs. 24 city, 34 highway previously. The smaller engine also develops its maximum torque sooner — at 2,000 RPM vs. the outgoing (and not turbocharged) engine’s 4,400 RPM. This makes it feel stronger than the numbers indicate.
A six-speed automatic is paired with the 1.5 liter engine.
The Hyundai Sonata also offers a teensy turbo four (1.6 liters) and it’s stronger (178 hp and 195 ft.-lbs. of torque) and so-equipped, the Hyundai is quicker (7.5 seconds to 60) and delivers outstanding mileage (28 city, 38 highway) but it’s not standard equipment. To get this engine, you have to buy the Sonata Eco — which stickers for $23,275. It’s not a pricey car, but it is pricier than the Chevy — by $2,100.
Optionally available is an also-turbocharged 2.0 liter four that’s more or less the same as the old Malibu’s optional 2.0 engine, although the hp and torque numbers are also down slightly — to 250 hp and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque now vs. 259 hp and 295 ft.-lbs. of torque before.
Again, the reduced weight of the new car makes up for this. The ’16 Malibu 2.0 gets to 60 in just over six seconds but because of the weight reduction and because the 2.0 engine in the ’16 is paired with an eight-speed automatic (vs. a six-speed last year) the new car’s mileage is slightly better: 22 city and 33 highway vs. 21 city, 30 highway before.
This is slightly less quick, incidentally, than the V6 Accord and Camry — but the V6-equipped Camry and Accord are also pricier by about $2k and they use a bit more fuel, too.
But the main take-home point is that both the Malibu’s engines are turbocharged — while neither of the Camry’s or the Accord’s are. Their base engines are larger-displacement (2.5 and 2.4 liters, respectively) fours that aren’t turbocharged.
The downsides (if you’re a Toyota or Honda person) are that the four cylinder-powered versions of these cars are slightly less quick — and use slightly more fuel (23 city, 34 highway for the Honda, 25 city, 35 highway for the Toyota) and feel a bit more winded when you work them, due to their non-turbo’d engines not producing their peak power until much higher up the RPM scale.
The upside — if you are a risk-averse person — is that these cars haven’t got turbos and so you’ll never have troubles related to the turbos. With the Chevy (and the Hyundai and the Ford Fusion, when equipped with their optional engines) you’ve got a turbo — and you may have troubles with it, eventually. Not necessarily. Maybe not ever. But you might because it’s there and any mechanical thing, no matter how well-engineered or reliable it may be, isn’t 100 percent foolproof or impervious to wear and tear.
The fulsome scurvy truth is that Chevy (and Hyundai and Ford and others, too) are going with these micro-engines goosed with turbos over larger engines without turbos chiefly because of federal fuel economy (CAFE) mandatory minimums. The gain to you, the buyer, is not huge — maybe 3 MPG overall. But when factored over a fleet of cars (which is how CAFE compliance is calculated) that 3 MPG or so difference matters a great deal.
For this very reason, expect the next-generation Camry and Accord to also come with smaller (and turbocharged) standard engines and (probably) shed their currently available V6 engines.
Incidentally, the Malibu’s 1.5 liter engine comes standard with an auto-stop/start system that kills the engine when the car isn’t moving, then re-starts it automatically when the driver takes his foot off the brake and presses down on the gas pedal. This, too, is there for CAFE reasons only — and Chevy isn’t the only brand resorting to such measures.
ON THE ROAD
In a number of new cars you sit way low, gangster-style, because the doors rise up to your shoulders and the dash is a massive cliff of extruded plastic. Adjust the seat all you like, it still feels claustrophobic. Combine this with the trend toward low-riding “sport” suspensions in family cars and it’s no wonder so many people have abandoned ship for crossovers and SUVs. At least you can see where you’re going and don’t feel like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well.
This Malibu, on the other hand, has one thing in common with its classic-era namesake: Good visibility. The door tops aren’t too tall and the dashboard does not rise vertically like an incoming tsunami of extruded plastic. In fact, it slopes away from you, like a receding tide, which has the actual and psychological effect of making the interior feel expansive rather than closing in on you.
This is one of the Chevy’s most appealing attributes. It’s a relaxing and easygoing car.
Well-padded seats (and a well-padded ride). All is calm — and quiet.
Speaking of which.
These new-gen turbo fours are on the down low. You’d never suspect them of being turbocharged because there is very little evidence they are turbocharged. It’s not like it used to be when turbo’d engines would do… nothing…. at first. And then (after a pause/flat spot) hit you with a surge of power that often caused the car to stagger-step left-right as the tires fought to cope with the sudden power spike.
That’s fun in a sports car. Not the best thing in a family car, where smoothness is the thing.
These new-gen turbos deliver immediate, lag-free thrust and so they come across as simply powerful engines… larger (and not turbocharged) engines.
The Malibu’s 1.5 engine gives you the same performance as the old 2.5 liter engine and seems like it’s working less hard to deliver it — which is exactly the case. Three-quarters throttle will give you the same acceleration (or better) as full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal in the old car.
Because the turbo’d engine’s torque happens 2,400 RPM earlier.
There are still some quicker players in this segment — the Accord with its standard four being the standout (it’ll get to 60 in about 7.8 seconds with its six-speed manual transmission, a very rare thing to find among family sedans these days).
But the Chevy is right there in the thick of it — and that ought to worry Honda (and the rest of the import blue chips, too).
With the optional 2.0 engine, the Malibu is — like the V6 (and optional turbo-engined) competition — a surprisingly speedy ride. Maybe not quite as speedy as the V6 Accord or Camry, but a six second to 60 run is only about 1 second off the pace of a Mustang GT, as a for-instance.
We’re used to it — jaded by it — but family cars are now about as quick as Maximum Effort performance cars once were.
As in the 1.5-equipped Malibu, the turbo is a non-presence. No lag or whistle. It just goes. And the new eight-speed automatic does a fine job of reducing the revs at highway speeds such that this little four behaves much like a big six or even a V8 once you’re up to speed. At 80, the tach reads about 2,000 RPM — which is an easygoing pace for such as small engine at that speed.
Just don’t stab the brakes too hard (or too often) at such speeds. The Malibu’s brakes are family car brakes — and that means they are not Performance Car brakes. I got my test Malibu’s so hot and bothered they smoked.
But you probably do not drive the way I drive. Almost no one does.
What probably matters more to you is the ride quality (as good as Camry’s, which is the Gold Standard for family car comfort) and the general pleasantness of the car.
There is a manual-shift function for the eight-speed transmission (ease the gear selector back toward you from D to L and then tap the + and — symbols to go up or down) but you will discover that selecting 7th or eighth (either way, up or down) has no discernible effect other than changing the numeric readout on the LCD screen in the center stack. The box may have shifted up or down, but the transitions cannot be felt or seen (on the tach). This transmission — like other eight-speeds I’ve tested — seems to use the top two gears only during light-throttle/steady state cruising and only when the computer (rather than you) decides to engage them.
AT THE CURB
The old Malibu — which you can still buy new as the “Malibu Classic” — had two obvious problems:
It had a cramped back seat — and it looked like a rental car. These issues have been addressed.
The wheelbase stretch (111.4 inches now vs. the old car’s 107.8 inches) has resulted in a longer, roomier car. Particularly in the back.
The ’16 has 38.1 inches of legroom in the second row — nearly as much as the limo-like Camry (38.9 inches) and slightly more shoulder room (57.1 inches vs. 56.6). The Camry still has a smidgen more headroom back there (38.1 inches vs. 37.5 for the Chevy) but it’s not so you’d notice.
It’s now a Hyundai that takes the “prize” for the most cramped back seat. The Sonata’s got just 35.6 inches, which is less than the old Malibu (36.8 inches).
Overall, the Malibu is now the largest — the longest — car in this segment: 193.8 inches from stem to stern vs. 190.9 for the Camry, 191.1 for the Sonata and 191.8 for the Ford Fusion. It is also slightly wider (73 inches) than all of them except the Sonata (73.4 inches) and the length plus the width helps make the Malibu look substantial while the lines of the car are graceful. It’s not a show-stopper, but it’s a very nice-looking car, like its bigger brother, the Impala.
In my opinion, the only mid-sized competitor that out-looks the Malibu is the Mazda6 — which is a sport sedan, not a family sedan.
The Chevy’s a solid value too.
A Malibu L costs less than every other rival (a lot less than some rivals, like the $23,070 to start Camry) and comes standard with everything most families need (AC, power windows and locks) plus some things that are nice to have, like a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, push-button ignition, cruise control and a better-than-decent six-speaker stereo.
For about the same price as the entry-level Camry, you can move up to the LS trim ($23,120) and get in-car WiFi, an iPad-style, pinch/finger-swipe 7-inch LCD touchscreen with AppleCarPlay, Android Auto and other apps.
It’s hard to spend much more than $30k on a new Malibu — and that will get you a top-of-the-line Premier trim with the more powerful 2.0 engine, 19-inch wheels, leather trim, an upgraded main gauge cluster, heated and cooled front seats, wireless smartphone charger and a nine-speaker Bose premium stereo rig.
Despite having lots of “tech” equipment — including available automatic braking, automatic park assist, blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, these gadgets do not interfere with radar detectors. No constant false alarms. Chevy has figured out — apparently — how to make these systems work without making your radar detector not work.
A Malibu oddity is its unusually small gas tank: 13 gallons with the 1.5 liter engine.
The Sonata’s tank holds 5.5 gallons more fuel. This translates into a highway range of 703 miles for the Hyundai (Eco model with the 1.6 engine) vs. 481 for the Malibu with the 1.5 liter engine. Even though the miles-per-gallon delivered by these two engines is very close, the Chevy seems downright piggy vs. the Hyundai (and the others in this class) because you have to stop for gas much more frequently.
It’s pretty much the only objective flaw I could find — and one that Chevy will hopefully correct.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The domestic brands continue to get better and better while the Japanese seem unaware of the hot breath on their necks.
They’d better wise up soon.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos