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2017 Chevrolet Malibu 1.5T LT (USA)

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What’s the production life of a car? The answer, of course, is that it depends. And it always has done. There’s a balance between keeping a model fresh and interesting, and ahead of advances made by the competition and long production runs where the development costs can be spread out over several years. Back in the 1950s, most of the American brands made pretty significant changes to their cars on an annual basis, but by the 1960s, they had elongated the period between model changes more than somewhat. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, the Japanese seemed to be on strict 4 year model cycles, meaning that they delivered new product to market at roughly twice the rate of everyone else, and more recently, as the Korean Kia-Hyundai continues its huge growth, it is these brands that have been setting the pace in replacing cars the oldest of which are still under warranty. For everyone else, the current norm is around 6 or 7 years, with at least one significant refresh somewhere along the line and a raft of other changes to accommodate fast-changing customer demands for new technology and other features. Even if a new model misses the mark at launch, the manufacturer will have to try their best to improve rather than replace, as the financial stakes of doing otherwise are just too high. In that context, the pace of change of Chevrolet’s mid-size sedan, the Malibu stands out. This is the fourth different model I have sampled in just 11 years, meaning that the average life of this big-selling car is around 4 years. The previous generation car debuted at the 2011 New York Show, going on sale late that year as a 2012 model year car  and it is fair to say that although it looked quite smart, it did not exactly wow the journalists who gave the car a rather luke-warm review, citing amongst many things they did not like with particular criticism of the fact that there was rather less space in the rear seats than there had been in its predecessor. That’s something that no amount of face-lifting can really fix, so perhaps it was not a surprise that, with sales getting nowhere near those of the Camry, Accord and Altima, which dominate this class in the US market, the next generation car was rushed forward, making its debut at the 2015 New York Show, and hitting the roads late in 2015 as a 2016 model year car. Once again, Chevrolet kept the old model in production, for fleet customers, now badged Malibu Limited, and indeed I received one of these earlier in the year, but the latest design is now starting to appear in the Hertz fleet, and when I found allocated to me an almost brand new LT model, showing just 996 miles on the clock, and painted in a rather appealing shade that Chevrolet call Cajun Red Tintcoat, I decided to take it and see how it compares not just with its predecessor, but also its rivals, almost all of which I have driven in the past couple of years.

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Whereas the previous Malibu bore quite a strong resemblance to its predecessor, mostly easily distinguished by rear lights that took their inspiration from the Camaro, this one appears very different. There is a close link to the styling of the larger Impala, though the need to produce a shorter car does mean that whilst the design cues are the same, the overall effect is different enough that you would be unlikely to confuse the two when you see them out on the street. From the rear, I detected influences of the Audi A7 from some angles, a comparison that Chevrolet would probably be quite pleased to hear, but I also have to say that from a distance, you could easily mistake the car for a Chrysler 200. Not that this is all bad, as that is quite an elegant, if not particularly memorable design. There are plenty of details that show that Chevrolet is trying to move the car away from its long-standing image as daily rental car fodder. There are chrome embellishers around the lower front valance, and neat Malibu badges on the front doors which whilst probably only costing a few dollars to add, do help. As does that rich red paintwork, which looks a lot better than the sea of white and silver Malibus (and rivals) that you usually find at the rental car facility.

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There’s been a fairly significant change under the bonnet, too. When I lifted it, to take the photo of the engine, my first thought was that the unit looked rather small. And indeed that’s because it is. Gone is the 2.4 litre unit that graced previous generations of the Malibu, and in its place is a 1.5 litre Turbo. It generates 160 bhp, which is a bit less than any of the Chevrolet’s rivals, but with other weight saving tricks employed in the design, Chevrolet clearly felt confident that this would not be an issue. And having driven the car – admittedly just one up – I can confirm that it is not. It’s not going to win prizes for excitement, or even for adrenaline-raising levels of performance, but it is quiet and smooth in operation and effective enough, with acceleration on a par with what you would expect from a car of this size and price. The six speed automatic gearbox operates without you really realising what it is doing, so the Malibu always seemed to be in the right gear, and there were bursts of speed when you needed them. More to the point, perhaps, this was a serene motorway cruiser, with all sources of noise – engine, tyres and wind – very well suppressed.

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After I had driven the Malibu only a few miles, the fuel gauge moved from showing “full” and thereafter made what seemed like a rapid descent through the gradations. I started to wonder if this was the consequence of that small engine and large car. Cycling through the menus on the dash, I found one which showed an average consumption 27.3 mpg (US), which seemed distinctly poor compared to figures I have achieved with rivals such as the Nissan Altima. Before leaving the Palm Springs area, I decided to fill the tank, as petrol is around 35c a gallon cheaper here than in Los Angeles, and having pre-paid for $15,00 worth, I squeezed this in (6.359 gallons), trickling the last $3 worth a long way past the first pump cut off. The gauge now showed well past Full, a reading it had not shown when I collected the car. As I drove the 100 miles back to LA, the needle barely moved, and I found another menu which showed the average for the last 50 miles. This number went up and up, and peaked at 54.1 mpg. Yes, that is US gallons. I began to wonder if I could return the car without buying any more fuel, but just as I came off the 105 freeway, the needle edged just below F, so I thought I should top the tank up. Just 1.6 gallons went in, which considering I had driven 100 miles makes a pretty impressive consumption, even if it is not quite 54.1 mpg US. So, it would seem that at least if you drive the Malibu at a steady speed, it is actually extremely frugal. It is also a very serene cruiser if you do drive this way. Noise levels are very low, with minimal interference from the road or tyres and not much noise from the engine, even when you work it quite hard. Sporting the Malibu may not be, but as a comfortable cruiser, it scores highly, with a nicely compliant ride that soaked up the imperfections of the State’s varied and often downright awful road surfaces. The test car rode on 225/55 R17 wheels. Larger wheels and tyres are fitted to the top of the range cars.

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Indeed, if you are looking for a family-sized car that is fun to drive, this probably is not the one for you, and you should head to Ford or Mazda. But nor is this some over-light, feel-less appliance as you would find at your friendly Toyota showroom. The steering is actually well-weighted, with no sensation of over assistance, though it does not feel all that precise, either. Handling in daily use was secure and confidence inspiring, but you are not that likely to be hurling this car around twisty roads for the sake of a bit of fun. You will find that it rolls a bit on tighter corners taken at speed, but there is nothing to worry about. I had one occasion to test out the brakes with a sudden freeway stop, and although there was a bit of squeeling from the tyres, they pulled the car up well, with only a moderate increase in pedal pressure. There is a foot operated parking brake. Visibility is generally good, though with the steeply raked rear screen, most will be grateful for the rear-view camera which helps you to see exactly where the back of the car is, as judging it otherwise is quite hard.

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The inside of the Malibu has undergone quite a transformation, too. Gone is the rather stylised feature which looked like a horizontal air-vent across the whole width of the car, gone are the turquoise glow of the instruments, and also banished are a lot of the buttons that made the dash and centre stack look quite complex. It’s now quite conventional and slightly forgettable, though, as rather than some form of fake wood or metal inlay, there is a cloth one, which matches the texture of the seat upholstery. Different, for sure, but not necessarily in a good way. Otherwise, what you get is a clean and simple looking cockpit made from nicely grained plastics that are decently soft touch, all fitted together very neatly, and a clarity of presentation of the instruments and controls that is as welcome as it has become unusual in many of the Chevrolet’s rivals. A curved binnacle covers the instrument pack. Two large, conventional analogue dials, for speedo on the right and rev counter on the left sit at either extremity, with a duo of smaller gauges, for fuel level and water temperature filling the top part of the space between them. Below this is a digital display area, with menus for “Trip”, “Service” and “Eco”, which you cycle between by pressing the touch pads on the right hand steering wheel spoke. The dials are clear and easy to read. Chunky column stalks, that feel nice and precise in operation, are for indicators on the left and wipers on the right of the wheel. Lights are operated from a rotary dial on the dash to the left. The steering wheel hub also contains touch pads for cruise control and some audio unit repeater functions. LT trim does mean a plastic-moulded steering wheel, but this one was not unpleasant to hold. The centre of the dash contains the touch sensitive 7″ colour display screen for the MyLink system, which is almost integrated. The top sits slightly proud of the dash, but at least it avoids the “stuck on iPad” look that some makers seem to think is “cool”. It is a fairly simple unit at the spec of the test car, with only Audio and some service functions as well as things like a picture gallery and other features that exploit the 4G LTE WiFi hotspot that is in the car. Below the screen are a very reduced set of buttons for the radio – just an on/off knob and buttons to scroll back and forth. Everything else is to be found in menus on the screen. Below this are a similarly simple set of buttons for the air conditioning system. The OnStar buttons are mounted on the roof, as is almost always the case in a GM car. And that is it. The centre console contains a gearlever and nothing else.

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In the LT trim of the test car, upholstery was cloth, but it was of pleasing enough appearance and texture. Seat adjustment, however, for the driver, was all electric, with 8-way movement available which combined with a telescoping steering column meant that it was easy to get the driving position I wanted and to feel comfortable. I took the Malibu out to the Palm Springs area, which is a decent trip from Los Angeles Airport, so there was plenty of time to test out the long term seat comfort and all seemed good, with support in the right places. Front passenger seat adjustment in the LT trim remains manual in operation.

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After the deserved criticisms for lack of space in the rear of the previous generation Malibu, Chevrolet have not made the same mistake again, and this is offers far more generous accommodation, with sufficient leg room even when the front seats are set well back, enough width for three, with minimal intrusion from a central transmission tunnel, and just enough headroom despite the slightly sloping rear roof line. I found that my head was clear of the roof, just. There is a drop down armrest with cupholders in the upper surface, as is more or less the norm for cars of this class. The centre console unit does protrude back a little, but it is shaped so that it slopes away forwards nearer its base and the up-side of this is that it has a pair of central air vents on it, mounted reasonably high where they would be more effective at directing an air supply to the passengers faces rather than their knees. I did find there was something – not quite sure what it was – under both front seats, which might be apparent for those with very long legs who put their feet well under the seat.

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The boot is a good size too, though there is quite a restriction in width between the rear wheel arches which will limit the size and shape of some items being fitted in. There is a space saver under the boot floor, though you would struggle to fit in much in the way of odds and ends around it. The rear seat backrests fold forward for added cargo length. Inside the cabin, there is a good-sized glovebox, there are bins on all four doors, and there is a deep cubby under the central armrest, as well as a stowage area in front of the gear lever.

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There are four Malibu trim levels to choose from: L, LS, LT, and Premier. And there are two engine options as well as the Hybrid, these being the turbocharged 1.5 litre with a six-speed automatic transmission as fitted to the test car and a turbocharged 2.0 litre engine with a nine-speed automatic transmission with a healthy 250 bhp. The main differences between the L, LS, and LT trims relate to the technology that’s included and the add-on packages that are available. The top-level Premier edition is the most luxurious in the line-up and is the only trim level to come with the 2.0 litre engine. The base Malibu L, an entry level model you will rarely see, comes with a six-speaker audio system, keyless entry, push-button start, cloth upholstery, and Chevy’s Rear Seat Reminder. MSRP starts at $21,680. Most will consider the premium of $1525 for an LS to be worth it, as this version, listed at $23,225, comes with a much more advanced infotainment setup. The Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system features a 7-inch touch screen, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth, a USB port, a Wi-Fi hot spot, and a rearview camera. Teen Driver – a system that lets parents set speed and stereo volume limits for younger drivers – also comes standard. Only a few extras are added to the $25,125 LT trim, including a satellite radio, heated side mirrors, and an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat. The key advantage with this trim over the LS is that Chevrolet offers more add-ons, such as the Convenience and Technology package (which includes an 8-inch touch screen and wireless charging for smartphones) and the Driver Confidence package (Chevrolet’s suite of advanced safety features). The previous distinction of 1LT and 2LT was abandoned for the 2017 model year, meaning that there is just one version of the LT these days, which seems somewhat simpler. Top of the range is the Malibu Premier. Without adding any extras, you’ll pay $30,975 for this. The Premier is the sole version powered by the turbo 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine and a nine-speed automatic transmission. It’s also the most opulent edition in the fleet, adding leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, and heated and ventilated front seats. Its technology upgrades include an 8-inch touch screen, navigation, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, a colour display for the driver information centre, two rear-seat USB charging ports, a 120-volt power outlet, and wireless smartphone charging as well as riding on 19″ alloy wheels.

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I had been advised by the Hertz staff when collecting this car that the Malibu is now one of the best in its class, and they were not wrong. With the accommodation deficit of the previous model now sorted, there are no significant weaknesses apparent in this generation of the car. It is not quite as good to drive as the Fusion or Mazda 6, but it scores highly on comfort and for being a relaxed cruiser, with particularly impressive fuel economy and beats them both for roominess. It does compete in a class where excellence is now the norm, though, so it is sure to have to fight for every sale against the sales leaders such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as talented rivals such as the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima as well as the ageing but not to be dismissed Nissan Altima and VW Passat as well as the slightly left-field Subaru Legacy. Which of all these you prefer could well come down to personal choice. So, whilst in purely objective terms, the Malibu may still be a mid-pack car, as it has been in US magazine comparison tests, it remains a good product and not one you should try to substitute out at the rental car counter.

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