First drive: 2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Chevy's all-new Malibu finally sheds its rental car stigma

The 2016 Malibu still has a few minor flaws, but it’s finally a true competitor for the segment leaders and worthy of a thoughtful test drive.

Who do you think has the most difficult job in the automotive industry? Ferrari designers? Porsche engineers? Certainly these talented individuals face remarkable challenges, but in fact the team of people who are tasked with the greatest challenge are those who must produce the most mundane vehicles. And in the world of dull, it doesn’t get much more bland than midsize sedans.

Why on earth is it so hard to design, develop, and market something that almost everyone you know owns? Because when it comes to one of the most congested vehicle segments, it’s impossible to succeed just by building something that satisfies consumer needs. No, automakers that aren’t graced with a legacy like Toyota’s Camry or Honda’s Accord must claw and scrape their way to a better market position by building a game-changing model.

To make a midsize sedan buyer hate their lives a little less while simultaneously satisfying their practical needs is no easy task. Chevrolet estimates its 2016 Malibu is up to the challenge, but first it has to get the attention of those who are either halfway to Toyota’s showroom or about to jump ship and swim to crossover island.

The design tightrope walk

Midsize sedan designers are given some pretty narrow lines to draw between. If they go too bold with their styling, it has the potential to scare off some buyers. However, if they are too conservative, consumers simply won’t abandon the segment leaders for a numb design.

Chevrolet’s approach to the 2016 Malibu’s redesign was to distance its model as much as possible from the dreary styling of the present car. Longer, lower, and leaner than before, with stubbier, lower front and rear ends, the new generation sits tight to its wheels. The cleaner profile is helped by a roof that comes to a point further towards the rear, similar to a four-door coupe. Though the Malibu’s silhouette is easily my favorite element, the all-new front end has plenty of character, too. Hints of the 2016 Camaro and C7 Corvette are found in the tri-point front splitter, slender grille, and air damns. Chevrolet says these accents will find their way onto other models down the road, and that’s welcomed news.

Miles Branman/Digital Trends
Miles Branman/Digital Trends

At the rear, the new Malibu loses some of its pizazz with more of a period at the end of its new design statement than an exclamation point. Chevrolet can’t seem to nail it when it comes to Malibu taillight designs. The last three generations just seem to be rushed endings – a shame when the rest of it looks so fetching. Fortunately, the latest rear end is more benign than prior blunders – the handsome exterior impression remains.

The greatest compliment I can give the new Malibu is that it’s only playing second fiddle to one midsize sedan in terms of exterior styling. Mazda’s 6 sedan still holds the crown of most striking, but in a field of over a dozen competitors, losing only to the Mazda is a massive victory. Moreover, the 2016 Malibu triumphs in other arenas.

It’s all good under the hood

Among the new Malibu’s highlights are its two new engines. Replacing the present 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder is a compact turbocharged delight. The entry-level sedan will use a 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder making 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Down 30 ponies and 7 lb-ft to its N/A predecessor, but with 300 pounds of weight savings from the Malibu’s new platform (3,097 lbs curb weight), it’s a competent starting point mated to a six-speed automatic. Those looking for more gusto can opt for a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque paired with a new eight-speed automatic transmission – the first of its kind for a front-wheel drive model from GM. The 1.5-liter unit offers 27 city and 37 highway mpg figures while the 2.0-liter mill checks in at 22 city and 33 highway mpg.

Its new engine range and lighter chassis contribute to respectably enthusiastic dynamics.

Borrowing hybrid drive components from the second generation Volt, Chevrolet’s 2016 Malibu Hybrid is ready for primetime. A 1.8-liter direct-injection four-cylinder is matched with a two-motor electric drivetrain and a 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery for a combined 182 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. Only the Honda Accord Hybrid can match the Malibu’s 47 mpg estimated combined fuel economy (48 city/45 hwy). The new hybrid drive also offers fully-electric driving up to 55 miles per hour before the engine chimes in.

Among its classmates, the Malibu has never rested on its performance laurels, but its new engine range and lighter chassis contribute to respectably enthusiastic dynamics. The vast majority of shoppers will be more than satisfied with the 1.5’s energy, but the 2.0 is sincerely peppy; its low-end torque can outrun lazy V6 challengers and get the sedan up to speed in a jiffy. Should the additional fuel savings lure you to the Hybrid, you’ll find plenty of power on hand and smooth, instant torque. Regardless of engine choice, the Malibu handles itself well during aggressive steering input and under hard braking. Yes, the steering is hardly communicative, but the body is willing once you give the car direction.

Class where it counts

Complaints about the present iteration of Chevrolet’s midsize contender extend beyond its vanilla looks to its rental-car interior. Fortunately, much has been made right for 2016.

The air of cheapness is all but completely gone within the new Malibu’s cabin. It’s not impossible to find a rough plastic trim piece here or there, but almost every major point of contact has been refined, softened, and/or stylized. I have my qualms with a few interior color combinations (gray and saddle brown?!) and question the choices for interior trim patterns – some look like tacky wallpaper – but all is forgiven when taken as a whole. The seats are fantastically comfortable, the steering wheel feels right between your palms, and the redesigned dash is handsome. The addition of 1.3 inches of rear legroom also means full-sized adults have plenty of room during longer trips.

Miles Branman/Digital Trends
Miles Branman/Digital Trends

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Chevrolet’s retuned MyLink infotainment system. Not only is the 7.0-inch (8.0-inch available) center stack display vividly clear, it’s instantly responsive. Inputs are immediately processed and the most commonly used functions are displayed prominently on the home screen. Considering Chevrolet’s non-tech-savvy target audience, this is a near perfect system. Rivals may offer more advanced features, but by simplifying its interface and hastening its responsiveness, Chevy has ameliorated many of the issues buyers have when forced to operate touch-screen technology instead of simply pressing a physical button.

In terms of safety features, the new Malibu is brought confidently into the modern age with features like City-Speed Front Automatic Braking, Front Pedestrian Braking, IntelliBeam, Front and Rear Park Assist, Side Blind Zone Alert with Lane Change Alert, Lane Keep Assist, Following Distance Indicator, Forward Collision Alert and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert. Beyond the long list of confusingly-named technologies, Chevrolet has introduced its Teen Driver safety functions (activated by key fob), including a programmable alert when drivers exceed pre-determined speeds and a report card that shows driver behavior. All told, the 2016 Malibu can be equipped with some of the most advanced and customizable safety systems in its class.

The greatest challenge

The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu still has a few minor flaws to overcome, but it’s finally a true competitor for the segment leaders and worthy of a thoughtful test drive. Alas, that last bit is the new car’s greatest obstacle – bringing shoppers into showrooms. Sadly, the Malibu has been such an uninspired option within the midsize arena that many of the nearly 2 million buyers will drive right past dealers.

Fortunately, Chevrolet has a plan. Though the details were held close to the chest, the U.S. automaker plans to unleash a veritable onslaught of advertising to make consumers aware of the significant changes to its sedan. My advice to Chevy would be to setup as many pop-up test drive events as possible. Butts in seats will sell these cars, but getting the attention of the owners of those butts will take some doing.

The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu starts at $22,500 (including destination) with pricing yet to be announced for the Hybrid that goes on sale in the Spring of 2016.


  • Handsome new looks
  • Vastly upgraded cabin
  • Superbly quick and clear infotainment system
  • Fun, efficient new powertrains


  • Questionable interior trim patterns
  • Rushed rear-end design
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Product Review

Ford’s reincarnated Ranger feels like a car that does everything a truck can do

The 2019 Ford Ranger aims to be a tool for weekend adventures, and goes head-to-head with midsize pickup trucks from Chevrolet, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. Ford hasn’t sold the Ranger in the United States since 2011, so it has to make up…

The best compact cars pack full-size features in fun-size packages

The best compact cars on the market rival their counterparts in many ways, proving that bigger isn’t always better. Here, we've rounded up some of the better options available, including an SUV and an electric alternative.
Product Review

The all-new 3 Series proves BMW can still build a compelling sport sedan

Seat time in the entry-level BMW 330i ($41,425) and M340i xDrive ($54,995) will test the German automaker’s commitment to driving dynamics, powertrain refinement, and cutting edge technology.
Product Review

Boring takes a back seat as 2019 Corolla Hatchback mixes fun with practicality

We drive the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback, the latest hatchback to bear the Corolla name. As the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, Toyota has high expectations to meet. This model mostly lives up to the legacy.

What’s next for in-car entertainment? Audi believes it knows

Audi is bringing two technologies to CES 2019. The first turns a car -- a luxury sedan, in this case -- into a drive-in movie theater. The second is presented as a new entertainment format that turns the journey into the destination.

Car-branded phones need to make a U-turn if they ever want to impress

Your car and your smartphone are becoming one, yet smartphones branded or co-created by car companies are a problem. We look at the history, some examples of the best and worst, then share hopes for the future.

California wants all-electric public bus fleet on its roads by 2040

California approved a regulation that targets an all-electric public bus fleet for the whole state by 2040. The effect of the full implementation of the regulation is equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road.

1,000-mph Bloodhound supersonic car project finds a last-minute savior

The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC) project has found a buyer. The project was going to be disbanded after running out of funds, but its assets were purchased by British businessman Ian Warhurst.

Ford’s prototype Quiet Kennel uses noise-canceling tech to keep dogs stress-free

Ford is ending 2018 by venturing into the doghouse market. The company's European division has built a kennel equipped with active noise-canceling technology and soundproof walls that help dogs sleep through fireworks.
Emerging Tech

Self-driving dirt rally vehicle offers crash course in autonomous car safety

Georgia Tech's AutoRally initiative pushes self-driving cars to their limit by getting scaled-down autonomous vehicles to drive really, really fast and aggressively on dirt roads. Here's why.

Lincoln revives its coolest-ever design feature for limited-edition Continental

The 1961 Lincoln Continental became a design icon thanks to center-opening "coach doors" (also known as "suicide doors"). Lincoln is bringing those doors back for a special edition of the 2019 Continental.

Audi’s self-driving car unit teams up with Luminar to go driverless in 2021

Audi's self-driving car unit has teamed up with Luminar to develop and test autonomous technology. Luminar provides its lidar technology, which sees farther than the sensors offered by rivals, while Audi brings its own software.

Land Rover’s upcoming high-tech Defender will leave last-gen model in the dust

Land Rover is giving the Defender a full reboot. The original SUV was a rugged machine built to go anywhere. Its replacement will tick those boxes, too, but it will add a dose of technology and luxury.