Every once in a while a new or redesigned vehicle comes around the corner and demands your attention. You strain your neck to get a better look.
It happened with the game-changing 2002 Nissan Altima and the surprising 2009 Hyundai Genesis, both of which claimed North American Car of the Year honors. And Cadillac and Audi impress us almost annually.
But this one is particularly shocking.
Indeed, it’s the rental fleet favorite, the Chevy Malibu. And it hasn’t undergone a mere redesign, folks. It’s been reborn.
With its assertive front, wonderfully sculpted profile and steeply raked rear windshield, the 2016 Malibu can stand with even the high-end German models. Midsize sedans just don’t get much prettier.
The dramatic redesign began with Chevy making the functional decision to add rear legroom to the model, which has been elongated and is now just centimeters shorter than the Impala.
“The extra 1.3 inches of rear legroom set the stage,” design director Mike Pevovar said in a Chevy report. “It stretched everything, so we used that … to make the vehicle look lower, longer and wider.”
The Malibu also shed some 300 pounds since last year, becoming more nimble around town and receiving a slight boost in mileage.
Power for the front wheels comes from a new turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which replaces the old naturally aspirated 2.5-liter. It produces 160 horsepower, which is 36 fewer horses than last year, but the turbo makes up the difference in low-range kick. But don’t expect quick: Zero to 60 mph still takes around 8 seconds with a smooth six-speed transmission distributing power.
For more oomph, step up to the 2.0-liter turbo, which cranks out 250 horsepower. That’s also fewer ponies than last year but this engine is linked to an eight-speed automatic, which boosts its run to 60 mph.
There’s a sizable cost for the bigger engine, and it’s paid in fuel efficiency. The 2.0-liter gets 26 mpg combined (22 city, 33 highway) compared to the 1.5-liter’s 31 mpg combined (27 city, 37 highway). If mileage is top priority, a hybrid version promises an mpg rating in the mid-to-high 40s and an electric-only range of 50 miles. It uses many of the components from Chevy’s high-rated Volt.
The new Malibu offers a quiet, compliant ride, handling corners comfortably if not with spirit. The suspension isn’t taut enough for that, but it does consume the road’s imperfections with ease. The electric steering system has decent enough feedback, too. This Malibu is actually enjoyable to drive, not merely a point-A-to-point-B car.
The refreshed cabin is simple yet has a refined look. The dash is broad and features sharp, clear gauges. The infotainment system, featuring a clear and colorful 8-inch touchscreen, is easier to use, more responsive and improved on the whole this year. It also includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. The system, however, is not standard on the base trim Malibu.
Seats are nicely stitched, well-padded and offer plenty of head and leg room. Rear-seat leg room finally is competitive with rivals from Japan and Korea; three adults should find enough head and shoulder room. They also get their own USB ports, plus an electrical socket.
Cargo space is adequate at 15.8 cubic feet, about average with Malibu foes.
Safety features include a new Teen Driver plan that moms and dads may like but teens may not. The system lets parents set vehicle settings so young drivers will hear an audible warning if they exceed a preset speed limit. It can also report to parents where the car has been and can shut down the radio if all seat belts aren’t buckled.
Active safety features are bundled into two packages. A Driver Confidence package adds parking sensors, lane departure warning with mitigation and forward collision warning with automatic low-speed braking. A second package adds self-parking ability and advanced collision-avoidance and automatic-braking systems.
Malibu comes in four trims, and the base L gets cruise control and keyless entry but also steel wheels. Best to jump to the LS or LT. The top-line Premier gets 19-inch alloys, leather seats with memory and power lumbar, an upgraded navigation system and 9-speaker Bose audio.
So, yes, Malibu has this great new look. But you’ll find the improvements inside and under the hood prove beauty isn’t only skin-deep.
2016 Chevrolet Malibu
As tested: $27,110 (With Driver Confidence Package at $1,195 and Technology package at $895)
What’s all the excitement about? A startling new exterior design and more nimble ride
Powertrains: Turbocharged 1.5-liter with six-speed automatic, or turbo 2.0-liter with eight-speed automatic
How’s the performance? Competent, comfortable ride but not for the enthusiast
What about fuel economy? 31 mpg combined (27 city, 37 highway)