The new Malibu fares better against the smaller sedans in its segment than the bigger, heavier hitters--the ones that dominate the top of the sales charts. It's been downsized, as it's a part of a global family of cars, and that betters its performance while it subtracts from its rear-seat utility.
The venerable nameplate now rides on a smaller car that's only a fraction of an inch shorter than the previous Malibu, but on a substantially shorter wheelbase. At first glance the new Malibu looks much leaner, though. The front end is lower and a little slimmer, with a more proud Chevy bowtie affixed to its grille, and more delicately shaped headlamps faired into its front fenders. It's sculpted more down its sides, and very cleanly shaped at the rear glass for aerodynamic smoothness. That's also where it loses some distinctiveness that even squared-off, Camaro-esque taillamps can't punch up. Inside, it's more assertive and distinctive: the wraparound theme drops the dash height and frames a low-slung set of gauges with a good mix of materials and well-placed controls.
Three four-cylinder powertrains make up the Malibu performance portfolio. Two are available now, with a 259-horsepower turbo four yet to come. The base four-cylinder makes 197 horsepower, and with a six-speed automatic, the front-drive Malibu has smooth acceleration that's competitive, if not overly quick. An Eco model adds mild-hybrid technology that trims consumption and boosts highway mileage from the base car's 34 mpg to 37 mpg--better, but not exceedingly high, compared to the new Nissan Altima's class-leading 38-mpg highway rating. With electric power steering, the Malibu points its way better than most sedans with similar systems, and the ride's much more taut than in the past, though it transmits some impact harshness on road surfaces where longer-wheelbase cars with more suspension travel simply would gloss over them.