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2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS: Heartland Cruiser

Topics:  Chevrolet Malibu
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS: Heartland Cruiser

Bill Crittenden
24 September 2017

The Malibu is either merely adequate or the best in its class, depending on where you live.

2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan 2017 Chevrolet Malibu LS sedan
The fifth modern generation of Malibu debuted for the 2016 model year. The fundamentals haven't changed since the nameplate was resurrected in the 1997: it's the medium family sedan between Chevrolet's inconsistently named compact and the full size Impala.

If you're interested in the technical details of the car, the engine changes going into this generation are a big deal. Downsizing from the traditional mid-2 liter four cylinder and three liter six that's standard for the class, the new Malibu is powered by a 1.5L turbocharged four and by an optional 2.0L turbo four. A hybrid is also available, but I didn't get a chance to drive one of those. The car I got to drive for a day was the 1.5L version.

The Modern Malibu: Getting Better

Most people look at two things when determining a car’s power: horsepower and engine displacement. Especially traditional American buyers. The 1.5 liter number coupled with the low-sounding horsepower of 163 doesn’t tell the whole story. Getting a car up to speed is all about torque, and in this regard the turbo four in the Malibu clearly outclasses the competition at 203 lb.-ft.

It’s a bit of a gamble on the part of General Motors, but I appreciate the effort. Some buyers might not even get their foot into the car door of a midsize with a 1.5-liter, but for those that do their sense of adventure or knowledge of torque ratings is rewarded with capable yet fuel efficient power.

Since nothing in life comes without some cost, the downside of a turbocharged engine is that you’re going to need premium gas to get the best performance and fuel efficiency.

While the gas might be premium, Chevrolet is not a premium brand, so the interior is a mixed bag of good bits and disappointment.

Using a stripe of padded cloth instead of fake wood across the dashboard is a creative way to inexpensively add texture to the surfaces the driver sees, but I bet it'll be a pain in the ass to clean if you're the kind of person who gets breakfast on the run on the way to work in the morning or has a young teenager in the front seat. I hope it pops out easily for cleaning.

The controls on the front of the steering wheel and the plastic around the touchscreen have the feel of something from the Walmart toy aisle, and the awkward way the screen sticks out from the dashboard makes it look like a tablet in a thick, kid-friendly case is attached by Velcro to the middle of an otherwise nicely textured surface. Color-wise, other than the cloth and the touchscreen the dashboard is just a sea of matte black plastic. Great if you’re into that Goth sort of thing, but some buyers (hi Heidi!) really want some color inside their cars.

I'm sure by now most car-conscious folks have seen the advertising showing "real people" mistaking it for a BMW. It was ridiculous before I sat in the Malibu, and now that I've driven one those commercials are laughably stupid. Fifty to sixty-five, even eighty thousand dollars the estimated price??? Every time I used the buttons on the front of the steering wheel or accidentally brushed my fingers against the plastic surround for the touchscreen I thought of the parody of the Malibu's "real people" commercial where "Mahk" says "not a dime over fifteen-five."

Based on seeing the car sitting in a showroom alone, the cheap bits make $15,500 feel about right, but the Malibu LS had an MSRP of $24,895 and while that seems ridiculous on its own, it is in line with comparable cars in its segment.

At least we know where GM’s profit margin comes from.

Another minor annoyance is that when you put the shifter all the way back to use the manual shift mode on the six-speed automatic the knob is too close to the armrest to get a comfortable grip on the shifter.

The stop-light-shut-off system makes the car lurch a bit when it restarts the engine in gear as you take your foot off the brake. It’s all for a good reason, it just takes some getting used to. My other car is a hybrid, and the first time the engine stopped just as I was about to pull out into traffic my heart stopped along with it. But you’ll get used to it.

The radio controls on the back of the steering wheel are well placed, though, even if it took me a while to find them. This should be an industry-standard placement, not only because I like them there but also if every car put them there it wouldn't be a question as to where the radio volume buttons on the steering wheel were.

The basic, non-smartphone-connected touchscreen graphics remind me of the user interface on my old Motorola phone with the slide-out keyboard, circa 2010. I have no idea why, but the song title from the radio station displays in abbreviated form in about an inch of screen even though there’s plenty of open space to the right of it. The Ford's Sync system in our 2013 C-Max is much better for adding color & looking brand new even in a four year old car. However, when connected to CarPlay or Android Auto this shouldn’t be an issue, and perhaps GM felt they could forgo some of the development cost because few would see these screens once their iPhone was connected.

Then again, the plain white-on-black displays in the instrument cluster, using a font vaguely reminiscent of a 1990’s Macintosh, says that they just skimped on graphic interfaces everywhere.

I'm 6'2", with a long torso and short arms, so I prefer wagons and crossovers with tall roofs (we have a Ford C-Max and a Kia Soul). The doors of the Malibu were big enough to make it fairly easy to get into & out of for a sedan, and I could lean the seat back for all the headroom I needed because the telescopic steering wheel put it right back into reach for me. Comfortable for a long cruise, but a bit tiring to climb in & out of repeatedly. Just fine for an hourlong commute, but I’d hate to make delivery stops in it.

The Malibu is okay, but not great. It's not the car you'd buy on a spreadsheet of pros & cons including warranty costs, that's the Hyundai. It's not the car you'd buy for top quality regardless of the cost, that's Honda or Toyota. It's not the car I'd buy on style, that's the Ford Fusion but you might feel differently.

But that’s if Hyundai and Toyota are even options where you live. In a lot of the United States, it’s only real competition is the Ford Fusion.

Chevrolet’s Advantage in the Heartland

Some of numbers available are a bit old, so I'm estimating there are about 2,900 Chevrolet dealerships here, compared to about 1,200 for Toyota, about 1,000 Honda, and about 800 for Hyundai.

The Chevrolet's advantage is it's dealership network. Buying & owning a foreign marque in many parts of the country just isn't practical. That narrows the competition down to just Ford now that Dodge has bowed out of the segment by discontinuing the Avenger a few years ago.

Take Nebraska for example. It was the first state to come to my mind when I thought of "where would be a bad place to try and buy a Hyundai?" Known as part of "flyover country" to the snobby hipsters in New York and Los Angeles, the state is notable to the rest of us as the home of Warren Buffett and 1.9 million more Americans. There are three Hyundai dealerships in the Omaha metropolitan area at the eastern edge of the state, and serving the east side of the state one more just across the northeastern border in Sioux City, Iowa. Serving the west end of there's one each maybe an hour or so into Colorado and South Dakota, and zero in the middle of a state 430 miles across.

Suddenly that Malibu looks pretty damn good compared to spending half a Saturday on the road just to get something minor done at the dealership. What's the cost of that when factored into the cost of ownership? I've had a Kia Soul for six weeks and I had to make my second trip back to the dealership yesterday, and there's nothing wrong with the car.

Once narrowed down to Fusion vs. Malibu, it’s a more subjective battle. Ford vs. Chevrolet. Horsepower vs. torque. Does the only Ford or Chevrolet dealership in your county have a bad reputation?

I’ve spent time in the middle of Indiana corn country where Walmart was fifty miles & forty minutes away, where the only foreign vehicle I saw in an entire week was a lonely old Toyota pickup. What would I do given that situation instead of the edge-of-the-suburbs situation I’m in now? As much as I like the Ford’s style, I’d probably end up pick the car from the local dealership I felt most comfortable with.

Given a hypothetical rural living situation, the Malibu’s fuel economy and lack of low-profile tires make it ideally suited to cruise the kind of forgotten back roads that haven’t been repaved for as long as anyone can remember. I did that in an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, which is basically a slightly nicer version of the Chevrolet Celebrity, the Celebrity being the 1980’s equivalent of the Malibu today. And despite lagging a bit behind the competition in build quality, the Chevrolet has gotten better every generation since its return.

So the Malibu wouldn’t be my first choice given a full field of options and all dealerships being equal, but given certain situations I’d be just fine with a Malibu and I’m betting you would be, too.

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