By Calvin Chan, Canadian Auto Review
PALO ALTO, California – We’re here in Silicon Valley, the land of innovation and technology, and the home of Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple. Garages where Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs developed the roots of their billion dollar companies still stand and many even consider them historic monuments.
So what better way for Chevrolet to introduce their new and improved Malibu than on this aristocratic and technological terrain? Restyled and reengineered from the ground up, the bowtie’s iconic mid-size sedan is packed to the brim with new features, engines, and even a hybrid model, the latter of which has keenly caught our eye. Chevrolet invited us out to the west coast to drive their entire Malibu lineup, and we also spent some quality time with the engineers that dedicated their heart, sweat, and tears to bring this car into fruition.
The Malibu nameplate has been around for more than 50 years, and since then it’s been the epitome of affordable mid-size sedans. Chevrolet has sold more than ten million units since its inception and has more than 25 markets around the globe. However, in the wake of looming competition from the Mazda6, Kia Optima, and the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet has been forced to set their boundaries even further for its eye-watering ninth-generation model. They’ve not only addressed customer concerns but have also added a host of new technological advances.
Dimensionally, the wheelbase has been stretched 91 mm for greater rear legroom, a problem that constantly plagued previous Malibu iterations. The overall length of the car has been increased by an additional 58 mm while the overall width has been kept the same. Now, you might assume that the Malibu has gained a bit of weight from the elongation but it’s actually 136 kg lighter than the previous-gen model due to a greater use of aluminum, a leaner body structure, and lighter engines. Chevrolet says the Malibu is now lighter than any other mid-size sedan in its class, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Hyundai Sonata. We checked the curb weights and they’re correct. That’s quite a feat, Chevrolet.
There’s no lingering doubt that the new Malibu is one good-looking sedan. It’s long hood and droopy-like appearance may lend it some negative remarks, and we’ve heard comments about it looking like a sad catfish or an Impala with a unibrow, but pictures don’t really do it justice. Standing next to the new Malibu in the flesh and compared with the prosaic styling of the Camry or Accord, the Chevy is a winner. If this car ever ends up trickling down into rental fleets, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came with a premium.
The Malibu’s overall proportions are sleek and it carries a raked roof over its back. The flowing image creates almost a four-door coupe-like appeal, conjuring up comparisons to the Audi A7 and BMW’s Gran Coupes. The entire car has also been lowered with bigger tires than ever before, and boy do those optional 19-inch wheels look phenomenal.
Inside follows a more garden-variety approach. It’s a well-appointed interior with a simple center stack, but it’s bordering on the bland when placed next to its rivals. Better to describe it as a functional rather a beautiful cabin. The steering wheel is a good size and all the buttons are within easy reach, though I don’t like the blank buttons that appear on the lower end trims, constantly reminding you that you’ve cheaped out and missed on some cool hidden features.
Looks are always subjective, but what makes the new Malibu stand up and above the competition is with its technological advances. Utilizing a vibrant and colourful 7- or 8-inch display, depending on which trim you choose, it acts like a better and faster Cadillac CUE system.
4G LTE connectivity with Wi-Fi hotspot capability, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available as standard with the LS trim and above. We’ve talked about this tech in our Cadillac ATS reviews, but the sheer connectivity and social utility with the Wi-Fi is limitless. Passengers can take their laptop journeys on the road, while kids can stream their favourite YouTube videos to keep occupied. Hook up your Apple or Android phone and you can even mirror your phone’s home screen onto the display, allowing you to utilize Siri, Text Messaging, and Apple Maps.
It’s ironic, I prefer using Apple Maps over Chevy’s own navigational unit. When mirrored up on the big screen, it’s ten times easier to use – Siri will adapt to your vocal inputs, e.g. “Stanford University”, rather than having to individually input or state the address, city, and street number as you would on a traditional GPS. With Apple Maps, you can just blurt out the name of any destination in one go and it will program the best route.
Another big feature that aims to throw the Malibu on the throne is something called Teen Driver, and if the tales of George Orwell get you all giddy with excitement, then keep reading.
The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) in the United States reported that the fatal crash rate per mile drive for 16- to 19-year olds was nearly three times higher than drivers ages 20 and over. It’s no wonder why some parents are hesitant to put their kids through driving school. Yet, the Malibu aims to solve this pickle with Teen Driver, a system that allows parents to monitor their child’s driving habits.
While it’s not a real-time monitoring system, what Teen Driver allows you to do is keep track of your child’s driving habits through a wide range of parameters: the distance driven, maximum speed traveled, over-speed warnings issued, how many times the safety systems came on, and if the ABS brakes ever had to be utilized. The parents can hop into the car at any time and view the report. If that isn’t a deterrent to drag races and dangerous driving, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, Teen Driver will automatically mute the radio until the front safety belts have been fastened. Parents can also put a maximum on the radio’s volume. Asking around the table, all the mothers and fathers hated the idea of being behind the wheel of one of these Big Brother Mobiles with all the uber-safe and uber-slow safety measures in play, but they all came to the same consensus that they would love one for their kids.
Let’s not forget about the Malibu’s payload. Under the hood of every trim except the Premier and Hybrid model is a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that replaces the outgoing 2.5-litre. It’s the first use of this engine in North America but it has been around China for quite some time. Expected to be the volume seller for the Malibu lineup, I’m glad to report that this is the star of the show. The powerplant delivers a shy 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque and although it’s down 36 hp from last year, it more than makes up for it with a lower weight and a respectable amount of torque.
The pick-up is smooth and though it gets thrashy and starts losing steam above 4,000 rpm, you won’t find yourself up there very often unless you’re busy merging on the highway. The power figures, though hard to believe, are more than enough and only heavy-footed power-seekers are going to demand more. Mated with a pleasant 6-speed transmission, the gear swaps are surprisingly efficient. Downshifts are eager and certainly makes up for the lack of horsepower.
Only available on the top-end Premier model is the carried over yet slightly returned turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder mill, but what a phenomenal engine this is. Spewing out 250 hp and 258 lb-ft, it’s a powerhouse and certainly worth the premium if you like to get up and go without a struggle. It’s also mated to a more fuel-efficient 8-speed transmission, the first of it’s kind on a GM front-wheel drive vehicle.
We didn’t get much seat time in the highly vaunted Malibu Hybrid, but we did get some first impressions. Denoted by the blue H badge on the rear trunk lid, the Malibu Hybrid utilizes a modified battery unit taken from the new Chevrolet Volt, and is mated to an all-new EcoTec 1.8-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. Claimed to reach an estimated 4.9 L/100km rating in the city and 5.2 L/100km on the highway, the Malibu Hybrid is late to the game but poised to be the most fuel-efficient mid-size hybrid on the lot.
The engine is creamy and the transition between gas and electric is unnoticeable. Common amongst hybrids, the gas engine does make a fair bit of noise when power is demanded but you’ll have no problem getting up to speed with its well-tuned 8-speed transmission. The Malibu Hybrid is also able to fully operate in electric mode up to 88 km/h, faster than most pedestrian speed limits around town. The engine also makes use of Chevrolet’s new Exhaust Gas Heat Recovery system and uses wasted exhaust heat to warm up the engine and cabin.
Pricing for the Hybrid model in Canada has yet to be announced but our educated guess is that it will slot right below the Premier trim. Frankly, we can’t wait to get behind the wheel of one of these back in Toronto – there’s just so much potential over rivals such as the Camry Hybrid, Sonata Hybrid, and Fusion Hybrid.
Overall, the Malibu drives well. The 136 kg weight reduction pays dividends to the experience and you actually feel the difference around the bends. Light on its feet and no longer nose heavy, the Malibu drives more like a car half its size. The suspension has been tuned for a soft elegant ride and the cabin is quieter than any Malibu I’ve ever been in. Chevrolet’s trim levels have changed yet again. So for those who have finally become accustomed to the 1LT, 2LT and 3LT variants, scrap that. It’s now just L, LS, LT, Hybrid, and Premier.
The Chevrolet Malibu used to hang out at the bottom of the mid-size sedan barrel. Rejuvenated and re-wired with new technology and more fuel-efficient powertrains, the iconic bowtie is finally playing catch up and taking the segment by storm. Competitors are starting to take notice and they’re worried for good reason. Offered with 4G LTE connectivity, a host of new and effective safety systems, the over-watching Teen Driver feature, and a lighter and more dynamic architecture, the Malibu seems to have pocket aces up its sleeve. And if crossovers and SUVs aren’t swaying you with their ground clearance and off-road-friendly stature, then the new Malibu might just do the trick for you and your family.