One might think that in an environment where SUVs are slaughtering traditional passenger cars like the 2018 Chevrolet Malibu left, right, and center, there would be a concerted effort on the part of parent General Motors to put its absolute best foot forward in courting mid-size sedan shoppers. This is part of what makes the Malibu a bit of a puzzle.
A bit of a puzzle.
On the one hand, the car is elegantly styled, comfortable to drive, can be had with an array of appealing features, and tackles the two-headed beast of value and fuel economy head-on, especially when considering the Hybrid edition of the car. Seen from another angle, however, Chevrolet’s insistence on sequestering engine choices and options packages so rigidly from one trim level to the next makes it hard for would-be owners to piece together their ultimate edition of the Malibu without leaving something on the table. I split my time over the course of a week between the Malibu LT Redline Edition and the Malibu Hybrid, two examples that well-illustrate Chevy’s philosophy when kitting out the car.
The Malibu is offered with a pair of gas-only drivetrains, but unless you pop for the Premier model that sits at the apex of the car’s pricing pyramid, you’re stuck with a 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder that puts out 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, matched with a six-speed automatic transmission. These figures fall short of the 194 horses available from the previous-generation Malibu’s base engine, despite offering similar real-world fuel efficiency; and while the engine is certainly adequate for daily driving, it’s not quite competitive in terms of performance when compared against what its rivals from Toyota (Camry), Honda (Accord), and Ford (Fusion) have to offer.
The weakness of the base motor might be a bit more acceptable were there an accessible upgrade path to the Malibu’s 250 hp, 2.0L turbo four and nine-speed autobox outside of the Premier model, but it’s an all-or-nothing exercise at ordering time. My LT tester was in fact a “Redline Edition” model, but even this special appellation meant nothing outside of red hash marks on its black 19-inch wheels, a black grille and badge, and red highlights for the sedan’s badging. No mighty motor is made available to seek the elusive upper rev range alluded to by the Malibu’s special moniker.
The 2018 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, on the other hand, goes all the way in the other direction by restricting itself to one well-equipped trim level. In addition to an electrically assisted four-cylinder setup producing 182 total system horsepower, the Hybrid also benefits from leather upholstery, generally more upscale and attractive interior materials and presentation, dual-zone automatic climate control, and keyless entry and ignition. If you want to invest in safety, as with the LT, you’ll need to hit the options list to garner a blind-spot monitoring system or forward collision warning with automatic braking (with the former being standard on a number of other mid-size sedans).
Aside from the entry-level engine straightjacket and single-trim Hybrid treatment, there’s a lot to like about the rest of what the Malibu has to offer. Rear-seat room is respectable, as is trunk space, although the Hybrid loses nearly a third of its cargo capacity to the vehicle’s battery.
Despite not being not nearly as engaging or sporty to drive as vehicles like the Mazda6 or the Ford Fusion (with the latter upping the ante further through its twin-turbo, 325 hp V6 Sport model), it remains compliant and pleasant even over rough pavement. The Hybrid edition’s extra grunt makes it a smoother performer in a straight line, despite the occasional distraction of the small-displacement gasoline engine under its hood kicking on in a burst of noise and vibration while sitting at a stop. This intermittent harshness is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Malibu Hybrid’s combined efficiency rating of 5.1 L/100 km outlasts both the Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid from fuel-up to fuel-up.
Would that all engines were available above the base Chevrolet Malibu, I would be more likely to recommend the sedan to families seeking to avoid the crossover cliché. As it stands, if you’ve got the scratch for the 250 hp Premier, it’s well worth taking a look at the cheaper Hybrid, too, which balances excellent commuting capability with significantly low fuel bills. Steering clear of the rental-fleet special Malibu L with its steel wheels and basic stereo system makes sense in a segment where you can easily do better for your money. As for LS and LT, even with the Redline stickers installed on the latter there’s simply so much choice out there right now for mid-size shoppers that Chevy denying budget-conscious browsers a more competitive under-hood package is difficult to understand.