The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu follows an approach with powertrains that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. There’s no V-6 in the lineup—not even a larger 4-cylinder engine of 2.5 liters or so, which used to be the base engine. Provided you’re not referring to the hybrid, all the engines in the lineup are turbocharged and direct-injected.
Most of the Malibu lineup will be powered by a 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-4. It subs right in for that big-displacement four and will be easily mistaken for one from the driver’s seat, as it makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that’s GM-produced, and the combination is hard to catch flat-footed; unlike other efforts from automakers. Only in long grades and in some highway passing will it feel like a base engine—and even then, reaching high into its rev band, it’s quiet and composed.
Chevy intentionally kept upshifts for the transmission—with the 1.5-liter—to just 5,200 rpm, as letting the engine rev higher into each shift produced more noise rather than a shorter acceleration time.
Top 2LT and Premier models step up to a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 250 hp and 258 lb-ft. It’s hooked up to an 8-speed automatic transmission (essentially the same unit that’s used in the Volvo XC90), and shifts with somewhat precise, defined gear changes than the 6-speed. This engine churns out plentiful torque at low revs, without the need for downshifts, so it really does take the place of a V-6 in the lineup. And the accelerator and transmission has a nice composed, above-it-all feel that takes on Ford’s EcoBoost 2.0-liter in the Fusion for perkiness and drivability and actually emerges the winner because of its superior smoothness and refinement.
Both of these transmissions lack steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters. For manual gear control, you need to pull the shift lever back to the "L" position and then use a button atop the lever to go up or down.
There are no multiple modes here; GM nailed the calibration for the accelerator behavior (nice and linear), transmission shifts (sharper when you order that up with your right foot), and steering boost.
On that note, steering is one of the high points of the Malibu driving experience. The Malibu’s electric power steering—with rack-mounted boost provided in all version—feels more natural, well-weighted, and precise than that in any other affordable mid-size sedan.
The Malibu has lost more than 300 pounds compared to last year’s model, and at a base weight of just under 3,100 pounds (up to about 3,400 pounds for a fully loaded 2.0T) it’s now one of the lightest sedans in its segment. Factor in the Malibu’s firm and composed yet comfortable suspension tune—essentially the same through all engines and trim levels, but with slight changes for tires and wheels—and the Malibu feels downright nimble, and way more tossable than most of its rivals. It favors comfort over any serious edge, but it almost drives with the verve of a compact car.
Furthermore, there’s actually very little difference in weight between the two engines (it’s most due to the higher feature set you get in 2.0-liter versions), so you don’t get the heavier (and nose-heavier) feel that you might have in previous versions in upgrading to the V-6.
There’s one more model in the lineup, however, and it’s shaping up to be the most intriguing of all in some respects. A new Malibu Hybrid pairs a 1.8-liter inline-4 with a 1.5-kwh battery pack and twin electric motors that effectively operate as a dual-mode transmission. Unlike the prior Malibu with eAssist, the new Hybrid can run short distances on battery power alone—up to 50 or 55 mph. Though it shares much of its technology with the Volt, the Malibu Hybrid skips an "EV" button and aims to be a “normal” car, aiming less for the electric-centric driving character of the Volt and simply going for fuel-efficiency (it aims to earn an EPA-rated 48 mpg combined).
That said, the Malibu Hybrid is quick enough for most tastes; it takes just 7.8 seconds for 0-60 mph and total output is 182 hp. The Hybrid still weighs less than 3,500 pounds and with steering that feels just as vivid, feels like no compromise. You will, however, hear the gasoline engine in the Hybrid a bit more than in those non-hybrid models.