“Would you like a Ford Fusion or a Chevrolet Malibu?”
“Is it the new Malibu?”
“Absolutely. I’ll pull it around.”
“This isn’t the new Malibu.”
“It’s a 2016.”
“There’s a newer Malibu than this. Let’s take a look. Well, at least it’s an LTZ. And I just need it for a quick trip to Pittsburgh and back. What the hell. One last ride. As Thoreau once said, let’s try being the new man in the old clothes.”
It was a last-minute idea: take a Saturday to drive from sunny Powell, Ohio, where all the children are above average and there hasn’t been any significant crime or commotion in a hundred years despite nearly everybody being a super-racist, ultra-violent Trump supporter, to a little town just north of Pittsburgh. The purpose: to see a man about a bicycle. The secondary purpose: to head south to the big city and indulge in the Ruths-Chris-dinner-and-Kimpton-suite combination that serves as a recurring touchstone of bourgeois diversion in my otherwise empty life.
This Malibu LTZ, supplied here with the “Eco”-spec four-cylinder, was a strangely appropriate vehicle for such a middle-middle-class journey. There was a long period in this country, maybe from 1946 or so all the way to the demise of the G-body Malibu in 1983, where the ownership of a fully-loaded Chevrolet mid-size sedan conferred a unique sort of respectability on a suburban father or young executive. It meant that you appreciated the finer things but didn’t care for the gingerbread. Think of the message that Camry or Highlander XLE ownership sends today — “I could probably afford a Lexus, but I don’t care to do so” — and you have the idea.
Of course, it’s been a long time since the Malibu had any reputation other than “rental sled” or “buy-here-pay-here.” Perhaps the new car will change that; I spent some time in a brand-new Malibu press car in California last month and was favorably impressed. It kind of looks like a final-generation Chrysler 200, but that’s okay with me because I always dug the way the Chrysler 200 looked. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is how you get people to respect the nameplate after 20 years of cars that were only occasionally up to the standards set by Honda and Toyota.
Let’s start the subjective-impressions portion of this review with a thoroughly unfair but nonetheless accurate conclusion: I’d much rather have this Malibu LTZ than a base Hyundai Sonata. Not fair at all, right? The Chevy stickers for nearly eight grand more than the Hyundai. On the other hand, this car was born to have cash on the hood. Your mileage may vary.
My mileage wasn’t particularly good. To get to my new bicycle, I had to start by covering about 170 miles on the freeway. I never exceeded 80 miles per hour and didn’t really exhibit any symptoms of being in a hurry, but the ‘Bu struggled to provide a self-reported 29.5 mpg. In that same situation, a four-cylinder Accord easily gets 35. Hell, my Accord V6 coupe can return 30-31. So the “Eco” badge on the back is more wishful thinking than a real-world result.
On the roll, the LTZ is a pleasant place to be. The seat heaters were well-reviewed by my female companion, whose last recorded words were she to fall into an active volcano would be “It’s just a little cold in here.” The stereo is decent if not stunning, helped by the respectable lack of road and aero noise. The dark faux-wood doesn’t fool anybody but the general quality of the trim is much better than in the other Malibus I’ve driven of this generation. It’s a relaxing and competent freeway car that has an aura of quality assembly and acceptable materials choice.
Once I reached the back roads north of Pittsburgh, however, I was in for a surprise. Both in the sense that the roads were stunningly good, whipping up and down and around a spectacularly hilly region, and in the Malibu’s genuine love of medium-spirited driving. Even the normally tepid Ecotec seemed a little better than I remembered it, although the Tiptronic mode, controlled by a button on the top of the shifter, remains just plain stupid. The brakes didn’t fade, while the steering was both responsive and communicative by the standards of the class. You can have a bit of fun in this car. Maybe because the wheelbase is so short, maybe because the LTZ gives you slightly better wheels and tires than the run-of-the-mill Malibus get. No matter what the reason, I had no trouble making almost shocking pace on the two-lanes.
After picking up my bike, I headed south to the Hotel Monaco on cruise control — in all senses of the word. It was the most relaxing Chevrolet I’ve driven in a long time. My companion wasn’t quite as relaxed. “I don’t trust the start-stop when you’re making a left turn at a light,” she complained, and I couldn’t really blame her. It’s unnerving to have the engine die when you’re contemplating a turn across a few lanes of city traffic. The solution is to give the brake a little release-and-catch, which fires the engine back up, and then make your turn. With that said, the auto-stop feature never misbehaved. Even the noise of the starter, which I recall from previous Malibus as being abysmal and worrisome, seemed better-insulated.
Long-time TTAC readers or front-wheel-drive Malibu fanciers — what’s the Venn diagram there? — will recall that this generation of Malibu rectified its predecessor’s lack of trunk space by moving four inches from the wheelbase to the trunk. How pleasant to see that my bike fit easily back there, although it would fit better in an Accord or Camry. It’s not quite as pleasant to look behind my driver’s seat and see about three finger’s worth of gap between the seatback and the lower bolster of the rear bench. This car would have been better as a coupe; the mailed-fist look of the prognathic front end would serve a coupe better and it would also prevent anybody from getting the idea that they’d be comfortable in the back seat of a Malibu.
The drive back to Columbus the next day was, as they say, a doddle, helped in part by the best seats I’ve experienced in a GM car lately. I returned the Malibu that evening and gave it absolutely no thought whatsoever until it was time to write this review. The truth is that I want to like the LTZ for what it does well: freeway driving, front-seat comfort, low noise. It’s a good example of how a few detail refinements and some extra-cost options can make a car significantly better. When I drove an LS two years ago, I hated it. I don’t hate this car. It’s the opposite of the Sonata I drove right before it, which was a good car made unlovable by excessive cost-cutting. This is an indifferent car made acceptable by sound insulation and heavy control feel.
The funny thing, however, is that you could use the same phrase to describe that G-body 1982 Malibu. As an Iraqibu, it was abysmal. With all the boxes checked on the order form, it was a pretty decent store-brand variant of a Buick Century. That used to be enough to move the metal. In 2016, it’s not. Therefore, I cannot love this run-out LTZ, even though I can hear myself think on the freeway and I can amuse myself a bit on the backroad. It’s just too fundamentally flawed, from the useless stop-start to the short wheelbase. The new Malibu is better than this one. Which is good, because it desperately needs to be.